|Hmong Studies Scholars Respond to
December 1, 2004 New York Times Article
On December 1, 2004, the New York Times printed an article that implied a connection
between the practice of Hmong Shamanism and the tragic hunting incident that occurred in
Wisconsin in November 2004. The headline of the article itself: “Hmong Hunter Charged
with 6 Murders is Said to be a Shaman” attempts to assert a connection between Hmong
religious practices and violence which is not supported by the actual facts presented by
the article's author.
Several scholars of Hmong Studies have written the New York Times expressing concern
about the misleading nature of this article and its potential to contribute to cultural
misunderstanding at a time of heightened race relations tensions in communities
throughout the Midwest. The New York Times has not printed even a portion of any of our
letters in its letter column or Public Editor column. Meanwhile, this very unfortunate and
appallingly inaccurate article will be used by students and others who search the Lexis-
Nexis and other databases for articles about Hmong for years to come. It is particularly
unfortunate that the article appeared in the New York Times, given the newspaper's
reputation as an authoritative source.
The text of Letters to the Editor of the New York Times by Mark Pfeifer, Nicholas Tapp and
Dia Cha about this article are available below.
December 3, 2004
Dear Editor of the New York Times:
As a Hmong Studies research bibliographer and multicultural educator employed by a
Hmong community organization that specializes in teaching the mainstream society about
Hmong culture, I must express my deep disappointment with the inaccuracies that
appeared in Stephen Kinzer’s article “Hmong Hunter Charged with 6 Murders is Said to be
a Shaman” published December 1, 2004 in the New York Times.
Perhaps 70% of Hmong-Americans continue to practice the traditional Hmong religion in
which Shamanistic healers are used. Many Hmong in the United States have integrated
the use of Shamans with modern Western medical practices. A few health care providers in
Minnesota actually partner with practicing Shamans to meet the needs of their Hmong-
American clients. There is simply no basis in the extensive cross-disciplinary research
documenting the rituals associated with Hmong Shamanism to suggest that being a Hmong
Shaman is in any way correlated with mental illness or a tendency toward violent behavior.
The article itself does not provide any evidence linking the deplorable acts that occurred in
Wisconsin to the fact that the accused individual is a Hmong Shaman. This misleading
article has, if anything, enhanced cross-cultural misunderstanding at a time when tensions
are high in our local communities due to this tragic and very unfortunate incident.
Mark E. Pfeifer, PhD
Hmong Resource Center, Hmong Cultural Center,
Saint Paul, MN
December 22, 2004.
Dear Daniel Okrent (Public Editor, New York Times)
Dr. Mark Pfeifer of the Hmong Resource Centre has kindly let me know of your
correspondence with him, and I am writing to express also my alarm at the 1 December
article on Chai Vang and the danger of implying that shamanism is in some way connected
with such violence. This creates a very misleading impression for a general readership at a
time when the public images of minority cultures are a particular concern, and I think it is
worth taking these concerns seriously.
I have known the Hmong in America since 1983, as also in Australia, Thailand, China,
Laos and Vietnam and France, and I have met many shamans and I can assure you that
the connections your article appear to draw are both groundless and misleading. What is
the point in announcing in the first paragraph on a crime that someone is a shaman, unless
it is to sensationalise and grab readership attention in a way I find unacceptable. Why not
say he is a father, or a worker? The article seems to suggest there is some connection
between mental instability and shamanism, which is also quite unjustified. I thiunk the
paper should make this clear.
Department of Anthropology
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies
The Australian National University
The New York Times
229 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036
As both a professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University and a
scholar of Hmong ethnicity specializing in Hmong shamanism, I feel I must express my
profound disappointment with the misinformation and outright inaccuracy of the article
titled, "Hmong Hunter Charged with 6 Murders is Said to be a Shaman" written by Stephen
Kinzer and published in the December 1, 2004, issue of The New York Times.
It is my opinion that the above mentioned article is both superficial and erroneous with
respect to the degree to which it educates your readers about Mr. Vang's background in
Hmong shamanism, as well as the degree to which it informs readers of the facts
surrounding the practices of Hmong shamans. It does, on the other hand, cast both the
Hmong and Hmong shamanism in an exotic and, frankly, in an ill-conceived and false light.
Indeed, it even goes so far as to suggest – with no basis in fact – that Hmong shamanism
is characterized by violent behavior and even, to some degree, by some form of mental
illness. Such suggestions are, quite simply, incorrect and irresponsible, and such reporting
is sensationalistic and unworthy of the august reputation earned over the course of many
decades by The New York Times.
I should like to point out that there is no literature of any sort which purports to document
any relationship between Hmong shamanism and either mental illness or violent behavior.
In writing that, "It is unclear whether Mr. Vang's role as a shaman is in any way connected
to the shooting…" it is clearly Mr. Kinzer's intention to suggest that Vang's role as a
shaman may have played some part, however peripheral, in the murders of which he is
accused. Yet Mr. Kinzer provides no evidence whatsoever to link Mr. Vang's shamanism to
the violence in Wisconsin. Thus, for Mr. Kinzer to suggest that the aforementioned
shamanism may have played a part is disingenuous at best.
Furthermore, Mr. Kinzer makes no attempt either to define Hmong shamanism or to
describe the nature of the practices by which it is characterized, and it would thus appear
that he knows little or nothing about the subject. It is unprofessional for the reporter of a
newspaper which claims to be "the paper of record" to fail to research his topic, and it is
unacceptable for such a newspaper to print such a story. More, it is astonishing, indeed,
that the article cites no scholarly publications to support Mr. Kinzer's various statements,
despite the fact that many such sources are available. Rather than turn to these sources,
however, Mr. Kinzer elects to cite an obscure Hmong graduate student, a Mr. Her, who –
although he is unmistakably a neophyte in such matters - nevertheless absolves
shamanism of any sort of violence. Astonishingly, Mr. Kinzer nonetheless goes on to write,
"...he did not believe that shamans could go into a trance so deep that they would lose
touch with the physical world, even in a situation of extreme stress."
This statement, suggesting, as it does, even the remote possibility that Mr. Vang may have
entered a trance in the woods before shooting others is both confusing and deliberately
misleading. Hmong shamans do not go into trance spontaneously, but, rather, enter
diagnostic or healing trance only in a very deliberate manner under very controlled
circumstances; such a trance is, moreover, not at all easy to induce. Certainly, to suggest it
would be possible to enter such a trance without considerable effort, in such a setting and
under such circumstances as have been described in the copious reporting of the incident
in Wisconsin, would be utterly impossible. Indeed, to anyone even remotely conversant
with the realities of Hmong shamanism, such a suggestion is fatuous. To misrepresent the
facts in this manner with respect to a subject which is both under litigation and is racially
and ethnically sensitive in the extreme is both dangerous and very harmful. It would be an
act of merest sensationalism in any other newspaper; in the pages of The New York Times
it is inexcusable.
Furthermore, it is both curious and instructive that while Mr. Kinzer writes at length about
Mr. Vang's general background and his shamanism, neither of which are linked to the
shootings, he spends fewer column inches discussing the issue of racial insults which are
acknowledged even by one of the victims, Mr. Hesebeck. One may be forgiven, I feel, for
suggesting that such insults were more germane to the etiology of the incident than Mr.
In conclusion, then, it is my opinion that, to the extent the focus of this article is a
sensationalistic pseudo-examination of the rather exotic – and wholly irrelevant – subject of
Hmong shamanism rather than an investigation of the racial epithets which are
acknowledged to have been spoken even by a one of the victims, the article does a great
disservice to your readers and to the truth at a time when it is commonly known that the
reputation for veracity of The New York Times is under review as never before.
In addition, to attempt to cast aspersions upon the Hmong way of life in this manner, as this
piece does, rather than point up the far more likely, if less exotic, cause of the incident
under review – simple racism and the anger which such racism engenders in its victims – is
damaging to Hmong Americans, who are, for the most part, proud and responsible citizens
of their adopted homeland, and additionally harmful in its potentially damaging effect upon
an increasingly multicultural social fabric.
I should therefore like call upon The New York Times to issue some variety of statement
correcting the misinformation presented in this article; specifically the suggestion that
Hmong shamanism may bear some causal relationship to violence and/or have some
foundation in or causal relationship to mental illness, and that such "facts" as these may
have had some bearing on the unfortunate recent incident in the woods of Wisconsin..
Dia Cha, Ph.D.
Ethnic Studies Department
St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud, Minnesota