We often understand our ancestors to be a part of our historical past. Following this logic, Hmong women are forced to let go of their ancestors. Those who came before us are usually cast off as nonexistent. Knowledge systems are continuously forming. There are many ways to exist in the world, and our relations to our ancestors are core to our existence. Our literacies are our lived experiences through cultural practices and our oral transmission of knowledge. In other words, our literacies are our ancestral memories. We have no written language. 

In particular, Hmong knowledge is transmitted through oral cultural practices, such as wedding ceremonies. Our histories and origin stories date us back thousands of years ago. By no means should we describe Hmong oral tradition with an “anthropological” lens. I make this shift because I am tired of being “othered” by academia. I write this reflection to privilege my ancestors. I tell stories about my ancestors. We have no written language.    

Hmong ways of being can be put into conversation with Black Feminist scholars such as Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard’s “Endarkened Feminist Epistemology” by centering spirituality within thought and discourse. This is important for me to trace since Hmong living archives reveal gender-based violence through various ceremonies. Dillard’s approach helps me think about the meaning-making processes for Hmong women embodying literacies of gendered violence. In what ways can we trace embodied literacies to eradicate such violence? In her book “Memory Serves: Oratories,” indigenous scholar Lee Maracle tells us that our kindred spirits will recognize us through our spiritual journey.  

This idea helps me imagine literacies from a “Caub Fab” feminist lens. “Caub Fab” was revealed during my oral history project, and it translates to “spirits of skies and spirits of lands.” It is through our kinship with “Caub Fab” that our literacies emerge. I do not discuss spirituality in a way that aligns with Western discourse, such as worship, religion, or faith. Like my father reminds me, “It is not like religion; it is our way of life.” A way of existing in the world is to regenerate our kinship with spirits of skies, spirits of lands, and our ancestors. Our social relations are through our clan relations. More importantly, storytelling shares how clan relations emerge. This brings me full circle to recognize our embodied literacies. We have no written language. 

Our literacies are embedded in our oral tradition. Hmong knowledge is transmitted through stories, vocal genres, and cultural practices. Until recently, Hmong people did not have a written language. These newly created Romanized letters of Hmong language were introduced to Hmong people in the early 1950s, and most Hmong people have embraced this new way of writing. However, there are Hmong people resisting this new form of literacy because through our stories, it is believed that our language consists of glyphs that women have embroidered into our traditional clothing. Thus, Hmong women are knowledge keepers in Hmong histories. We have no written language. 

It is also necessary to provide a background of Hmong wedding ceremonies. Since Hmong relations are organized through our fathers’ clans and their relations, a married woman is expected to move and live with her husband and his family. It is told that two brothers who survived the great flood — which cleansed humanity — created our chants and rituals for our weddings. It is important for both clans to resolve any previous disputes before proceeding with a wedding ceremony. If not, ancestral lineages can be disrupted. It is understood that between our 18 clans, wedding ceremonies are clan specific. One male representative from the husband’s family and one from the wife’s family will (re)trace previous disputes between both clans and attempt to resolve during wedding negotiations. These are typically huge efforts to save face if fault is agreed upon. Both clans will seek to recuperate faces through practices that can include kneeling and asking for forgiveness while offering an animal such as a cow or a pig.   

Throughout Hmong histories, ideologies of gender expectations have remained complex. Patriarchy functions as a primary principle of family, community, and social relations. Migrating from China to Southeast Asia has nearly wiped out Hmong women ancestry in all aspects — spiritually, culturally, socially, and politically. This can be seen through Hmong daughters belonging to her husband’s ancestral lineage after marriage. This can have detrimental spiritual and material effects on a Hmong woman’s soul. She can no longer honor her ancestors, nor will she ever be accepted into her own ancestral lineage. If a daughter were to experience any spiritual disruptions, it is only through her husband that she can seek permission for rituals and soul callings. I am currently living through this spiritual disruption because of my own experience of my forced displacement through an arranged marriage, severing my ties with my ancestors.  

The inability to honor my ancestors has led me to believe that they cannot hear or see me. In a sense, it disrupted my spirit. More importantly, when my time comes to travel the other world, I will be a lost soul. Whereas, I will become an ancestor one day and my goal is to share with our youth that patriarchy was never our way of life. This can be interpreted through stories and languages. There is a saying in each family: “puj ua tseg, yawm ua ca,” which translates to “Grandmother’s knowledge, Grandfather’s guardianship.” The importance of this phrase is that Hmong families should follow the ways of their ancestors. There are so many ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world, and to understand Hmong-led and Hmong-centered experiences, we need to start with Hmong women.  

Additional reading:

Denzin, Norman K., et al. “Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies.” Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, SAGE Publications, Inc, 2008, handbook-of-critical-and-indigenous-methodologies C.Dillard.pdf.

Maracle, Lee, and Smaro Kamboureli. “Memory Serves : Oratories.” Edited by Smaro Kamboureli, NeWest Press, 2015. 

Vang, Karen. Forthcoming dissertation project. “Tracing a Caub Fab Worldview.”

Illustration credit: Lisa Wakiyama


  • Karen Bao Vang is a Hmong woman navigating as a Cultural Studies Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Davis with her parents and children. She understands and is grateful for her three children and her parents’ supporting her through her education. She is interested in regenerating different ways of knowing, being, and doing within Hmong families. Her research areas include spirits and ancestral memories as knowledge and literacy.

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