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Hmong's Sacrifice of Puppy Reopens Cultural Wounds : Traditions: Immigrant shaman's act stirs outrage in Fresno, but he believes it was only way to cure his ill wife.

December 16, 1995|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — The Hmong shaman tried all the usual offerings. He burned paper money, sacrificed a chicken and a pig, even sought the remedies of American doctors. Yet nothing could appease the angry spirit that he believed was vexing his wife's health.

So Chia Thai Moua brought out his last best offer: a 3-month-old German shepherd. On the front porch of his run-down house, as he chanted the ancient, high-pitched chants of the Laotian highlands, a club-wielding relative beat the puppy over the head until it died.

Before Moua could bury the dog and seal the deal with the spirit world, a horrified neighbor called police. So began the most recent turn in an epic cultural clash that continues to play out here 20 years after the first Hmong migrated to the San Joaquin Valley.

Earlier this month, Moua pleaded no contest to felony animal cruelty, but only after promising the Hmong community that he would appeal a judge's decision that prevented him from using a 1st Amendment religious freedom defense.

News reports on the case provoked an outraged response in this conservative farm belt. Letters to the local newspaper and the district attorney advised that Hmong refugees should move back to Laos if they couldn't adhere to the American way.

Only in the most stubborn cases do Hmong shamans employ a dog, believing that the animal's night vision and keen smell can track down the elusive evil spirit and barter for the afflicted person's lost soul.

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As a measure of the culture clash at work here, many people believe that the shaman and his family planned to eat the dog as a final step in the ritual. The notion that Hmong eat dogs and cats is a cruel myth that has plagued the mountain tribal people since their arrival in the Central Valley in 1976.

Hmong community leaders have tried to defuse the backlash with public statements about their ancient folk practices and love for animals, especially dogs. But their explanations, lacking finesse in the English language, have only complicated the misunderstanding.

"We love dogs. They are a very dear pet to us, too," said Shur Vangyi, a Fresno deputy city manager for Southeast Asian affairs, trying to clear up any confusion. "But sometimes we have to kill dogs to cure our souls."

Authorities in Fresno, Merced and Stockton--communities where the majority of the 130,000 Hmong in the United States have concentrated--have begun enforcing city ordinances that prohibit the raising and slaughtering of chickens and pigs. The ordinances have been on the books for decades but the Hmong believe that renewed enforcement is targeted at their religious practice.

A few shamans have begun using stuffed animals in an effort to obey the law. Others are now killing livestock at licensed slaughterhouses and transporting the carcasses back home to perform the rituals.

But for many shamans, the killing of chickens, pigs and the occasional dog inside the home of the distressed party remains a vital tool in their repertoire. "If it is a serious case," Moua said, "I have no other choice."

For many Hmong, who come from isolated mountain villages in Laos, their first encounter with western ways came when the CIA recruited them in the 1960s to fight the Viet Cong. Scholars agree that the 18 clans that make up the Fresno-area Hmong are among the most ill-prepared people to ever immigrate here. Drawn by the fertile soil, their struggle to negotiate the finer points of modern life has made for some unforgettable scenes.

Some Hmong bought cans of Crisco believing that the label--a picture of golden-brown fried chicken--depicted the contents. One story recalls a new driver who understood what green, red and yellow lights meant but was mystified one day by a flashing red light. So he lurched and stopped, and lurched and stopped, across the intersection.

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But it is the tragedies, blamed in part on the Hmong reliance on herbal and spiritual remedies, that have proved most troublesome for officials here. In 1990, nine Hmong children died of measles after their parents consulted shamans and waited until the children were in cardiac arrest before bringing them to a hospital.

The same year, in a highly publicized case, the parents of a 6-year-old Hmong boy disregarded three court orders and refused to give permission to doctors wanting to surgically repair the boy's clubfeet. A shaman had told the family that the defect was to atone for an ancestor's sins and surgery would only visit these sins on the next generation.

Last year, one Hmong family violently confronted police after their 15-year-old daughter was forcibly removed from their home to undergo court-ordered chemotherapy. The girl, who suffered from ovarian cancer, disappeared from Fresno after an initial round of treatment, and the court order was eventually dropped.

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