There is a group of people, the Hmong, originally from southeast Asia and China, that found themselves somewhat like the Syrian refugees of today, spread all over the world. Persecution, cultural traditions, shifting agricultural practices, and political strife drove them to migrate to America, China, French Guiana, Laos, Australia, Vietnam, France, Thailand, Argentina, and Canada, in what is called the Hmong Diaspora. Those few Hmong that stayed in China were classified for years as “miao,” a vague census category used to classify all strange and backward looking non-Han people in southern China.” Today, Hmong in countries other than their own “see double,” as American-born Hmong Mai Der Vang said in a 2011 Washington Post editorial: “Somewhere in my American identity, in my fluent
English and Western clothing, in my reliance on technology and my college degree, the exile lives in me, too. Writer Andre Aciman says, ‘Exiles see double, feel double, are double. When exiles see one place, they’re also seeing – or looking for – another behind it.’” Brigham Young University Anthropology student Telisha Pantelakis presented anthropological research she had completed about the Hmong population in France, and the ways in which they “saw double” medically speaking, at our recent Fulton Conference. Her poster won first place at the conference in the Anthropology category.
Medicine and the Hmong
“Current U.S. literature has attributed Hmong difficulties adapting to Western culture, specifically health care from shamanic practices,” said Pantelakis and her co-author Madison Harmer. “[That literature] claims that traditional and western healing practices are incompatible. While living in a small town in central France, we conducted an ethnographic study observing Hmong refugees and their interactions and beliefs between traditional healing practices and Western medicine to explore this claim.” Why did Pantelakis and Harmer choose this topic? She says: “…It was interesting to me how a South East Asian migration group ended up in France. I did some research, and was captivated by Hmong history. They are a people without a country, yet have been able to keep their culture thriving wherever they go. I wanted to learn more, especially about their traditional healing methods and shamanism.”
Telisha got her wish. Through her research she discovered that there was no disparity between the traditional and modern medicines. Hmong healer and shaman VanMeej Thoj said: “You must take medicine first. You must be somewhat well, then you can go see a shaman and he can see why you’re sick.” This attitude is in direct contrast to previous reports on the Asian clan’s culture. Before beginning her study, she had to read a plethora of research on the Hmong people and their relationship with contemporary medical practices. She says, “I went to France and saw that not only were Hmong ‘model minorities’, but that they utilized the medical system without issues.”
Her poster was titled “Collision or Cohesion? Hmong Shamanism and Ontological Holism in France.” Mentored by Professor Jacob Hickman, she, along with her co-author Madison Harmer studied how the Hmong culture meshed their traditional medicinal practices with modern ones.
When asked what she hoped would happen as a result of her research, Telisha replied: “I really think it is a unique opportunity to add to the literature pool on a [lesser]-known population. Dr. Hickman is hoping eventually to compile all his research into a website of sorts in order to make information available to Hmong individuals as well. To Hmong individuals whom I lived with last summer, it would be exciting for them to see that their history is being recorded through academic articles as well. They were so willing to share their stories with us, because in their French community they had never had people come to study their culture before. They want to share their culture with everyone.”
What’s next for Telisha and her research? She and Harmer presented their research at a national conference in New Mexico in March of 2017, and are preparing to present again at the American Anthropological Association national conference in Washington D.C. this Fall. Currently, she and professor Jacob Hickman are writing a paper based on her findings which they hope to have in the process of publication by the year’s end.
The Fulton Conference
The Fulton Conference was an invaluable experience for the Anthropology student. She described her experience in the following words: “I loved it! I’m so glad our professors let us know of the opportunity. It gave us a chance to gain some experience with poster presentations, as I have only ever given oral presentations at conferences previously. I am grateful to the Fultons for providing this opportunity for students to share their research while getting to network with students from other majors and enjoying a delicious meal. I will definitely do it again next year.”