National Geographic : 1974 Jan
THE HMONG OF LA08 No Place to Run ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY W. E. GARRETT SENIOR ASSISTANTEDITOR THE HMONG used to say the world reached only as far as a man could walk. The old chief in the jungled mountains of northern Laos knew I had come from beyond his world. But he could see I enjoyed his stories-and he liked telling them. He had come from China as a boy. "Why," I asked, "and how?" It was dark in the windowless house at Nam Phet, but I caught a twinkle and the flicker of a grin-the same mischievous ex pression that betrayed my own grandfather when he was about to tell a whopper. "We were slaves. To escape we made a big cloth-3,800 Hmong stood on it. A good spirit made a big wind and blew us out of China into Laos." In truth, he admitted, they had fled on foot. China was their ancestral home. For cen turies the Hmong farmed its river valleys, but, bullied by Han invaders from the north, they began a southward wandering that con tinued for four thousand years. The Chinese contemptuously called them Miao-"bar barians." In Laos, they are Meo-with the same connotation. "We accept neither label," said government official Yang Dao, the first of his people to earn a Ph.D. "We have always called our selves Hmong, which means 'free men.' When you write about us, use our real name." I promised Yang Dao I would. It's a small enough courtesy to pay this proud and in dependent people hounded by a devastating war they never understood, a war that deci mated them, a war that once again made flight their way of life. They are pawns in the power struggle that has wracked South east Asia, and their ceaseless battle for sur vival has reached a crucial phase. Farmer Turns to Nurturing People "Runnin' and dyin', runnin' and dyin'," intoned my old friend, Edgar (Pop) Buell, as he welcomed me back to Laos this past year. "That's all the Hmong have known. And now there's no place to run." The Indiana farmer came to the Hmong 14 years ago to teach modern methods of agri culture, but a Pathet Lao attack drove him from his experimental farm into a new job feeding, housing, and nursing refugees. To the Hmong he became Tan Pop-"mister sent from above" (Continued on page 83) With little to cling to except each other, Hmong girls reflect the uncertainty of a people driven from their homes in the protracted war for Laos. The Hmong were forced to flee their mountain villages and to take sides in the conflict. Crack Hmong guerrillas became the undeclared muscle behind U. S. foreign policy in this Southeast Asian nation. Now a precarious peace has come with the 1973 cease-fire, and the Hmong, driven out of their hilltop isolation, find themselves thrust into the mainstream of Laotian life.