Hmong Use Tech to Keep Old Traditions Alive

By Anika Rice, NG Explorer Programs

Imagine yourself in a village in the uplands of Northern Vietnam. Terraced rice fields are etched into the landscape, hugged by crisp mountain air from the high-elevation climate. Buffalo or goats from a neighboring household chew on vegetation. Hemp and indigo, for making cloth, grow nearby.

Small communities such as this one are where many Hmong people in Northern Vietnam live. Having migrated here from China beginning in the 18th century, the Hmong face new challenges to their traditions in the 21st. Support from the Genographic Project Legacy Fund is helping them keep their culture alive.

For generations, Hmong elders in Sa Pa district have passed down traditional knowledge and skills orally, because the Hmong language is not historically a written one. On the national level this lack of indigenous written or recorded archives has made it difficult for Hmong to be respected. To help remedy this, a Hmong-run social enterprise called Sapa O’Chau worked with Professor Sarah Turner and her team from McGill University to create the Hmong Voices Project, funded by the Genographic Project Legacy Fund in 2013. The project aims to document oral histories and traditional knowledge in Hmong communities while bringing youth and elders together around cultural preservation.

McGill University research assistant Sarah Delisle helping a Hmong trekking guide conduct an oral history with his grandmother. (Photo by Sarah Turner)
McGill University research assistant Sarah Delisle helps a Hmong trekking guide conduct an oral history with his grandmother. (Photo by Sarah Turner)

Preserving Words and Actions

The enterprise recruited a number of local Hmong youth trekking guides to be the main agents of the project. After being trained in research methods and ethics by the project team, the guides conducted oral history interviews with elders. In the interviews, the elders reflected on and retold their personal experiences during changing political landscapes, their strategies for creating sustainable upland livelihoods, and the challenges of globalization and shifting family structures. These oral histories are now housed on publicly accessible computers in the local Sapa O’Chau café and center, as well as online, for all to listen to and learn from. The youth interviewers also translated and transcribed the oral histories into English, with the goal of reaching members of the international Hmong community who speak different dialects.

A second arm of the project was to record and archive traditional Hmong craft and musical techniques for younger generations to access. The project team filmed community members weaving hemp fabric, dyeing cloth with batik methods, designing Hmong jewelry and playing the qeej, a traditional Hmong woodwind instrument. These videos too are available at the Sapa O’Chau center and online to teach youth the importance of this traditional knowledge.

Qeej playing and traditional singing with Hmong elder, Mr Ky. (Photo by Sarah Delisle)
Qeej playing and traditional singing with Hmong elder, Mr Ky. (Photo by Sarah Delisle)

Using the Past to Prepare for the Future

The community’s widespread involvement, spanning all ages, yielded positive reactions and strong local interest. One elder participant said they were happy to share their stories because people outside the community could learn about their culture and perhaps be interested in visiting. Furthermore, the impact of the Hmong Voices project was felt far and wide. The project has already been viewed online from Australia, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, as well as from Vietnam.

Locally led, interactive projects like this one remind us that despite challenges to traditional cultures, successful cultural preservation efforts are being carried out around the world. This Hmong community has made strides in actively advocating for their unique culture, protecting and drawing strength from traditions. As one Hmong youth participant said, “now I can imagine the picture of the past,” and that has added to her cultural pride and will prepare her to face whatever the future brings.

Learn more about the Hmong Voices Project and Sapa O’Chau.

Genographic Legacy Fund grant applications are accepted biannually on April 15 and September 15.


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Meet the Author
Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.