Pella Chronicle

October 16, 2013

Hmong needlework, costumes presented at library


The Pella Chronicle

---- — Pella Hmong residents will exhibit and discuss their culture’s arts and crafts at Pella Public Library on November 2 at 10: 30 a.m. Plans for the event include exhibits of costumes, needlework, musical instruments and handmade toys. Pella Hmong residents who are presenting will be joined by Wangmeng Lee from Prairie City, Iowa, a respected Central Iowa Hmong leader who was a battalion commander in the Vietnam War.

Also featured at the event will be “City of Refuge,” a 20-minute film created in 1981 by the University of Iowa, documenting the lives of the Hmong refugees and the Pella residents who helped them. “When people think of Pella’s history, they think of the Dutch immigrant story, but every people group who have emigrated have had similar experiences,” said Phil Webber, who is coordinating the November 2 presentation for the Central Iowa Network of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), which is sponsoring the event.

Hmong needle crafters plan to wear traditional embroidered costumes and explain their embroidered story cloths, which tell the recent history of their people. Hmong people, who lived in the mountains of Laos, assisted the CIA in the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1975. Hmong soldiers fought for the U.S., attacking Communist troop supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail, gathering information about troop movements, and rescuing downed U.S. pilots. The casualty rate in the Hmong army was five times the casualty rate in the U.S. military forces.

After the 1975 treaty, the Hmong who had assisted the United States fled to Thailand refugee camps to escape execution by the Communist regime. Retained in those camps for years, the men drew picture stories of their recent history, and the women transformed those pictures into needle art made with 20 tiny stitches per inch of embroidery. With the help of international aid workers, they sold these clothes to earn money—and their superb craftsmanship has won admiration and awards. They continued with their needle work after immigration.

In the years after 1975, Hmong refugees slowly left the Thai camps to settle in other countries, including the United States. In 1976 Pella welcomed its first Hmong family. They were soon joined by other Hmong, and by 1981 there were twelve Hmong families living in the Pella. Today, five Hmong families still call Pella home.

With a strong farming tradition, several of them raise garden produce which they sell at Pella and Des Moines farmers’ markets.

The November 2 presentation begins at 10:30 a.m. and ends at noon. Before and after the presentation, however, the artifacts will be on display and visitors can view them and ask questions of the crafters who created them.

The Central Iowa Network of CPJ, which is sponsoring the event, is a group of good-government advocates who promote public discussions and dialog on political events and issues. CPJ is a national nonpartisan organization of Christians devoted to civic education and policy research on public justice.

“The local Hmong people are not strangers to our City of Refuge, yet they and their story are not well known to all of us. Celebrating and learning more about them is part of what a welcoming community should be about ,” said Chad Ray, chair of the Central Iowa Network which is sponsoring the event.