Foraging for Food Is a Way of Life for the Hmong

Imagine that you are from a place and a time where your life, your very existence, is inextricably linked to the land. Imagine that you know the environment around you so intimately that you can spot the swish of a lizard's tail in the undergrowth twenty feet off. That you can differentiate an edible plant from its poisonous cousin from touch alone. That by tasting the soil, you can divine what plants will and will not flourish. That you can disappear into the forest or jungle and emerge 60 minutes later with dinner for your family. That even though your family grows food on a farm, you often venture off with friends to gather what is offered in the wild. That some of your earliest memories are following your mother through the jungle as she bends and stoops to gather greens. That you remember hearing laughter as she and the other women banter back and forth between patches of wild edibles. Imagine that the rhythm of your day, of your year, follows the movements of the sun.

Now imagine that you and your family and your neighbors are driven by war and conflict from that land. Imagine that through a series of decisions made by politicians and leaders, you live first in a temporary refugee camp where the soil is so dry and packed that seeds must struggle to put down roots. Imagine that the camp has few trees, not like you were used to back home. Imagine that through another series of seemingly random decisions, you find yourself the tenant in a small St. Paul apartment where the two tiny windows overlook a gravely parking lot that is covered in snow half the year. Where you don't speak the language. Where the vegetables at the supermarket look unnaturally shiny and unfamiliar. You long for your language. You long for your flavors. You long for your land.

Now imagine that one day you and your family visit a lake. Near the lake, a small green plant catches your eye. Could it be? Could that be the same plant that your mother cooked for you back home? Could you too pluck that plant from the ground and boil it and serve it to your family? And in that single moment, a rush of memories from back home floods your mind. Perhaps that one sliver of green is all it will take to bring you home.

Marla Emery, Research Geographer, Michele Schermann, research fellow with the University of Minnesota's Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, and David Bengston, with the USDA Forest Service, the speakers at the recent Bell Museum's Café Scientifique, at Bryant Lake Bowl asked the audience to imagine a similar scenario before the trio launched into their talk about Hmong foraging on pubic and private lands in the upper Midwest. Imagination, placing yourself in another's shoes, is the first step in cross cultural understanding.

Gathering wild edible plants, they explained, is an important role and activity for Hmong women, who often gather what they refer to as "wild vegetables" while the men fish. They gather a variety of species but the five most common are Solomon's seal, fiddleheads, watercress, garlic mustard, and the new leaves of box elder and ash trees, which they refer to as "tree vegetables." The subjects of the speakers' research indicated that they gathered wild vegetables because the "Hmong people are vegetable eaters," that's it's good exercise, that they "enjoy the sunshine and fresh air," and that gathering is, simply, fun.

But it is a cultural pastime that is being lost both because fewer young Hmong people are interested in foraging, and because of cultural clashes that the Hmong have experienced while they have been foraging. Schermann and Bengston noted in one of their papers: "These long-standing tensions have become more intense recently as a result of a tragic hunting incident in Wisconsin on November 21, 2004. Chai Soua Vang was found sitting in a deer stand on private land and was confronted by a group of white hunters. The chain of events that caused this confrontation to become violent are under dispute, but the result was the fatal shooting of six of the white hunters and wounding of two others by Chai Soua Vang." This incident was an extreme example of what the Hmong face when they try to use the land for hunting, fishing, and foraging.

It is clear that part of the problem stems from the fact that the Hmong don't always know the land use rules and regulations. They are sometimes ticketed but don't necessarily know whether they are being ticketed for gathering protected plants or for trespassing on private land. It is often unclear where the line between public and private land is on the side of the road.

The Hmong face intimidation by land owners who will use tactics such as sending out their dogs to scare the foragers away. "Gathering was a way of life back home. But here it's like stealing," commented one of their subjects. One end result, according to Bengstrom, is that some Hmong now refer to "wild vegetables" as "timid vegetables" or "embarrassed vegetables." In order to avoid confrontations, many Hmong will forage only on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings, when they are less likely to be caught. They will also forage from a moving car, jumping in and out to gather as the car cruises down the road.

The researchers worked with the Hmong to come up with solutions to the cross-cultural conflicts including using some sort of permit system for foraging, planting wild vegetables, informing the Hmong about rules and regulations, clarifying ownership of the land, and having signs both in Hmong and with universal pictures.

During the Café Scientifique, the speakers welcomed discussion from audience members, many of whom were foragers themselves. The topics of concern for audience members included how to forage sustainably, how to work across cultures with the Hmong without giving away the foragers' ever-precious information about "secret spots," and how to determine if an area had been sprayed by pesticides or other harmful chemicals. And while few solid decisions or action plans were made by the end of the discussion, Schermann shared one clear request from one of her Hmong subjects, "Tell the people not to arrest us from April to May."

Rhena Tantisunthorn, a native of Washington, DC, grew up knocking back Shirley Temples and cultivating a love of food at the bar rail of her parents' restaurant. She's eaten her way through much of Southeast Asia when she lived in Thailand for three years. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in South Minneapolis where she writes, edits and creates. Her last post for Simple Good and Tasty was The Evolution of Minnesota's Own Gardens of Eagan.