University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Hmong Across Borders Conference 2013 Biographies

Hmong Across Borders Conference
Thursday-Saturday, October 3-5
Cowles Auditorium, Humphrey School of Public Affairs


Bruce Downing is professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Minnesota. He received the Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas. Before joining the U. of M. faculty as Chair of the Department of Linguistics in 1974, he taught at Robert College (Istanbul, Turkey) and the University of Southern California. In 1980 Dr. Downing became director of the Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Project (SARS), conducting research in Hmong refugee communities. In this role he helped organize the first Hmong Research Conference, held at the University of Minnesota in 1981 (published as The Hmong in the West, 1982), and the second Hmong Research Conference in 1983 (The Hmong in Transition, 1986). He served as associate director of the Refugee Mental Health Technical Assistance Center, 1985-89. From 1990 until his retirement, he was director of the University’s Program in Translation and Interpreting. Dr. Downing has numerous publications in the areas of linguistics, refugee resettlement, translation, and interpreting. He is a recipient of the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Community Service Award and of the Distinguished Teaching Award of the College of Continuing Education.

Prasit Leepreecha (Tsav Txhiaj Lis) is a Thai Hmong who earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 2001. Presently, he is a lecturer in the Department of Social Science and Development in the Faculty of Social Science at Chiang Mai University. He is one of the editors of Challenging the Limits: Indigenous Peoples of the Mekong Region (2008) and Living in a Globalized World: Ethnic Minorities in the Greater Mekong Subregion (2008). His main interests include studying ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand and in mainland Southeast Asia. He examines identity, cultural change, tourism, and the impact of nationalism and globalization on these ethnic minorities. His current research project focuses on the transnational movement of Hmong Christians in Southeast Asia.

Gayle L. Morrison has worked with the Hmong community in education, refugee services, private enterprise, and as an oral historian for 35 years. Her first book, Sky Is Falling, uses oral history to document the air evacuation of the Hmong from Long Cheng, Laos, in May 1975. Her current book, Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA, uses oral history to explore Daniels’ mysterious death in Thailand and to document the events of his traditional Hmong funeral ceremony. Jerry Daniels was General Vang Pao’s CIA advisor in Laos. Ms. Morrison’s work with eye-witness oral history is a creative approach to documenting Hmong history and culture. She has a BA in Sociology and a MA in Psychology.

Yang Thai Vang, or Xib Fwb “Yaj Ceeb,” is currently a Hmong Language & Cultural Instructor in the Department of Critical Studies, Race, and Ethnicity at St. Catherine University, St. Paul. He earned his bachelor degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 2010. A child prodigy, he mastered the Hmong rituals, including the qeej bamboo instrument and the marriage and funeral ritual songs while living at Wat Thamkrabok in Saraburi, Thailand. Also, Mr. Vang has been an initiated shaman from the early age and has been featured in An Introduction to Shamanism by Thomas DuBois (Cambridge University Press 2009). Although only twenty-six years old, he has earned the respect of the Hmong’s top cultural experts such as Soob Ntxawg Thoj and others in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mr. Vang first began studying the qeej instrument and other ritual rites under his father and his elder brother and has since also studied with Soob Ntxawg Thoj and other Hmong masters in the US as well as those in Thailand. In December 2012, Mr. Vang was conferred with the equivalent of a doctorate degree by Soob Ntxawg Thoj and by representatives of the Hmong 18-Clan Council and the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul. He is now considered one of the foremost Hmong cultural and ritual experts in the world. [Mr. Vang’s biography is composed by Mai Na M. Lee].


THE QEEJ (BAMBOO INSTRUMENT) “The Hmong qeej generally is described by musicologists as a free-reed multiple pipe musical instrument. It is a solo instrument, played without the accompaniment either of other musical instruments or singing, although it is intermittently accompanied by drums a Hmong funeral. For the Hmong, the indisputable difference between their instrument and those of other ethnic groups is that the Hmong qeej ‘speaks’. Therefore, the Hmong qeej is not an instrument designed to produce music; it is a bamboo voice that intones a highly stylized and ritualistic language. Thus ‘music’ and ‘speech’ are inseparable. Today, qeej is an instrument that mainly used to communicates with the spirit world at a funeral. However, a long time ago qeej is only used for weddings, the Hmong New Year’s celebration, entertainment purposes, and special occasions.” —Gayle Morrison, “The Hmong Qeej: Speaking to the Spirit World,” Hmong Studies Journal v2n2 Spring 1998.

ZAJ QEEG “HMOOB TUS NPE NTAUB NPE NTAWV” (Song about the Loss of the Hmong’s Writing System)—[Told orally by Yang Thai (Cheng) Vang and written by Mai Na M. Lee]

Yang Thai (Cheng) Vang’s qeej song tells the story of the loss of the Hmong Kingdom and their writing system. It is believed that a long time ago when the Hmong were still in China, they had a Kingdom and a writing system comparable to the great civilizations of the world. To defeat the Hmong, the Chinese Emperor sealed a marriage alliance with the Hmong King by sending a Chinese Princess to be married to the Hmong Prince. Unbeknownst to the Hmong, she came with ill intentions as a spy to uncover all the knowledge of Hmong civilization, including the weaknesses of Hmong society. She reported every discovery to her father, the Chinese Emperor. Once the Emperor knew the weaknesses of Hmong society he sent his son, Xwm Kav (Fourth Guardian), to destroy the Hmong Kingdom. Writing was among the elements that made Hmong society strong, so it became a main target of destruction. Every book was decimated and the knowledge of writing prohibited. [The Hmong admire Xwm Kav’s martial skills so much that they still hope to harness it by worshiping him as the Xwm Kab in their homes today.]

Following the destruction of the Hmong Kingdom, a Hmong scholar was able to save just one book that contained the most important knowledge of Hmong civilization. He tucked it into his belt and carried it everywhere, including to the fields to grow crop. When he napped the cow chewed off a chunk of the book. When he put the book by the door, a pig ate off another chunk. Finally, he put what was left of the book in a wooden trunk in the bedroom. When he went to look at it later, mice had chewed it to pieces. Saddened by these events, the scholar gathered what he could of the torn pieces of the book and told his wife to sew the letters into her padau or embroideries, hence, preserving some letters in the needlework—particularly in the embroideries of Hmong funeral clothes. Since only the literate are allowed to pass through the Gate of Ntxwg Nyoog (God of the Underworld) to be reborn into the next life, when a Hmong dies she or he has to be dressed in these special funeral clothes that contain some of the Hmong alphabet. Furthermore, every deceased Hmong must call the pig and the cow to testify in front of Ntxwg Nyoog that they did, indeed, eat the Hmong’s book and their writing system, thus depriving them of literacy in the present era. For this reason, at least one cow and one pig must be sacrificed to accompany every deceased Hmong individual to the Gate of Ntxwg Nyoog. Without the testimony of these two animals, the deceased would not be allowed to pass through the Gate to reincarnate in human form again.

A translation of a portion the zaj qeej song:

“Mice ate it all, mice ate it all, what is the Hmong grandpa afraid off? The Hmong grandpa is afraid of the Chinese officials who burned his writing system… One day the Hmong grandpa went do farming with a cow, he put the book around his waist and went to take a nap, the cow took a bite of a portion of the book, the Hmong grandpa came home he left the book by the side of the door, the pig plow dirt into it, so there’s go another portion of the book…” –Zaj Qeeg verses are translated by Yang Thai Vang

This qeej song was passed down from a master to eighty-year-old Ntsum Txiab Yaj who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Ntsum Txiab passed the song on to Yang Thai Vang in 2010. Ntsum Txiab and Yang Thai are probably the only two Hmong men in the present era who know and can still play this song.


“The Immigration History Research Center and Archives (IHRC&A) share a mission to promote interdisciplinary research on migration, race, and ethnicity in the U.S. and the world; develop archives documenting immigrant and refugee experiences, especially in the U.S.; and support public programming and outreach efforts that connect U.S. immigration history research to contemporary issues and communities. Since the early 1960s, the IHRC&A have gathered vast holdings of archival and published sources (personal papers, along with the organizational records of immigrants and refugees and the agencies created to serve them, oral histories, newspapers, serials and books). The collections are particularly rich on the labor migrants who came to the U.S. between 1880 and the 1930s, on the displaced persons who arrived in the U.S. after World War II, and on the refugees resettled in the United States after 1975. The IHRC&A aim to document and study a broad range of immigrant and refugee experiences, and to make the preserved documentation accessible to researchers.

Several collections hold valuable documentation for refugees from Southeast Asia, particularly the Records of the Refugee Studies Center (established in 1980 at the University of Minnesota), the Records of the International Institute of Minnesota, and also the Records of the United States Committee for Refugees, among others. For more information about these and additional collections, please visit the website at:

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