Shellie Branco

Life on the corner of oddball and chic.

Shamans of the Hmong community

One of my most recent stories for “Quality of Life” on KVPR-FM was about ancient health practices in the Hmong community, which are still honored today. When the Hmong immigrated to the Central Valley, their traditional ways often clashed with Western medicine, but education has given both sides a greater respect for and understanding of each other’s methods.

The show’s theme was folk medicine, and it included a fascinating discussion with a Native American healer and an anthropologist.

Listen to the show here (Windows Media Player): You can hear my segment from 3:18 to 10:00.

Hmong shaman Ma Vue drags a ceremonial dagger to create an invisible border around Joua Chang, who is pregnant and has requested a traditional Hmong ceremony to protect the health of her unborn baby. According to Hmong beliefs, the border created by the dagger keeps harmful spirits away from the patient.


It’s late on a Sunday morning, and the small apartment of the Chang family in Merced is crowded with relatives preparing food for a special Hmong ceremony.

They’ve invited a traditional Hmong healer to perform a ritual that will protect the health of Joua Chang. The 22-year-old is pregnant with her third child.

The shaman is 75-year-old Ma Vue. She prepares for the ceremony by placing a black cloth over her own face and hitting a gong. Her sing-song chants ask harmful spirits to stay away from the baby and the family. Later, Vue chants as she wraps a small brown cord around Chang, her husband and their two young daughters. It will bind and protect the family.

Thousands of Hmong fled the remote mountains of Laos after the communist takeover of the government in the 1970s. The refugees settled in California and other parts of the United States. The shaman plays an important role in their culture.

Traditionally, the Hmong believe diseases occur when a person loses his or her soul. A shaman negotiates with spirits to restore the patient’s soul and health.

“If someone (has) been chronically ill for a long time, that means the soul has been lost, whether a long time ago or somewhere, maybe back in Laos, so the shaman performs ceremonies,” Vue explains through an interpreter. “We retrieve the soul, we plead the soul back, and make sure the patient is well.”

Animal sacrifices are sometimes part of these ceremonies. Before Chang’s ceremony, the shaman presided over the sacrifice of two pigs, which were slaughtered at another location in accordance with health codes.

Most Hmong had not experienced Western medicine until they came to the United States. Surgery and medical technologies were foreign to them. Many feared and distrusted American doctors. Instead, they relied on traditional medicine, which sometimes frustrated the mainstream medical community. American physicians were concerned about some of the shamans’ methods, such as mixing water and saliva to use on patients. Dr. John Paik-Tesch of Mercy Medical Center in Merced has worked with the Hmong community for two decades.

“Generally, with the Western point of view, we’re somewhat skeptical of shamanism, how it affects medical illnesses, per se, but at the same time there’s a recognition of the fact that it’s part of their cultural belief systems,” he says. “And I think shamans support them from more of a spiritual, emotional point of view, which can be very beneficial for the well-being of the patient.”

The 1997 book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman documents the clash between Western and Hmong medicine. It tells the story of an epileptic Hmong girl in Merced and conflicting beliefs about her treatment. Over the years, education has increased trust between U.S. doctors and Hmong shamans. The nonprofit Healthy House Within A Match Coalition was formed in the late 1990s to improve wellness by building partnerships between ethnic communities.

The organization’s Partners in Healing program brings shamans to hospitals to learn about Western medical practices. In turn, American doctors learn about traditional Hmong beliefs. Last year, Mercy Medical Center created a formal policy, making it easier for shamans to perform ceremonies inside the hospital. It’s the first of its kind in the nation, says Healthy House clinical director Marilyn Mochel.

Shamans once viewed medical technologies as magical, she adds. But doctors tell them Western medicine has its limitations. Mochel recalls the story of one pathologist who worked with a female shaman in her 80s. Looking into a microscope for the first time and viewing heart cells, the shaman grew curious and had questions for the doctor.

“All of a sudden, (she) looked up and said to him, ‘Can you show me a happy heart?’ And the pathologist looked at her and said ‘No, I can’t,’” Mochel says. “And she said, ‘I am so disappointed.’”

Joua Chang’s family says both Western and Eastern care have their benefits. Her father-in-law, Faipha Chang, spoke on behalf of the family.

“We the Hmong people have been using shamans for many generations without Western medicine,” he says through an interpreter. “But in this country, when we are fortunate to have Western medicine, we also like to follow up with the doctor, just in case something is physically wrong with the mother or baby, and then we definitely want to have treatment from both sides.”

Many younger Hmong-Americans who were educated in the United States prefer Western medicine. But shaman Vue says she is training the next generation of healers, in the hope that the old traditions will be valued, too.


October 5, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment