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Cool Things - Hmong Story Cloth

Hmong story clothHmong women documented an important episode in their history on this elaborately embroidered panel known as a story cloth.

Storytelling is a way of life for the Hmong people, an Asian ethnic group that suffered severe reprisals as a result of alliances during the Vietnam War. Kansas has become home to a surprising number of Hmong. This story cloth depicts their journey from farming villages to refugee camps.

The Hmong people lived in the Yellow River region of China for centuries. Political repression by the Chinese government pushed them into Northern Vietnam between 1790 and 1860. Eventually, they migrated to the mountainous areas of Laos, Burma, and Thailand where they lived and farmed successfully for about a century.

Hmong  arriving at refugee camp

Pathet Lao  attacking Hmong village

During the Vietnam War (1963-1975) the United States' Central Intelligence Agency and the Hmong army formed a secret alliance to fight Laotian communists and the North Vietnamese. Shortly after the U.S. military abandoned Laos in 1974, the communist group Pathet Lao announced plans to wipe out the Hmong people. Villages were burned and bombed during this conflict, and many people were killed.

Fleeing Across the Mekong

Thousands of Hmong escaped Laos by crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. Their only belongings were what they could carry. Many parents gave babies opium to prevent their crying and alerting Pathet Lao soldiers to their presence. Both babies and adults died during the journey. This flight across the river is dramatically depicted at the center of the story cloth.

Hmong  people fleeing across 
Mekong River

Hmong  village life on story 
clothSeveral camps were established in Thailand to house the incoming refugees. Because the refugees were destitute (having left behind nearly all their possessions), missionaries at the camps encouraged Hmong women to produce items for sale to western markets. This story cloth, made in a refugee camp in Thailand, is one such example. Although fine needlework techniques and patterns are traditional to Hmong culture, story cloths are not. Missionaries urged women to embroider their experiences onto textile squares for an American audience. Although the Hmong people preferred bright and bold colors, missionaries chose hues they believed appealed to American tastes. The result is a unique amalgam.

Hmong refugees began leaving Thailand refugee camps for the United States in December and January of 1975-1976. Hmong people continue to immigrate to the U.S. today. They also have migrated to France, Australia, French Guyana, and Canada, but many Hmong still live in southeastern Asia.

Kansas City was among the first cities to take in Hmong refugees. The Kansas Historical Society documented the history of the immigrant community as part of its Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This story cloth was purchased from a refugee center in Kansas City in 1989. The Society's Kansas Museum of History has several other items from Kansas City's Hmong settlement in its collection.

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Entry: Cool Things - Hmong Story Cloth

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.