Dr. Jack LaRocca's account of his expedition to the original Hmong Homeland
The Hmong are a spiritual people,
located in the mountainous regions of Southern China, Laos,
Thailand, and Vietnam, They remain apart from major civilization,
keeping their roots close to nature. They believe strongly in
concepts of honor, commitment, loyalty, and freedom. Theirs is a
50,000 year old culture. As a people, their life is difficult and
one of unbelievable deprivation. They have been reduced to
illiteracy, not being permitted to have an alphabet or,
consequently, a written language of their own. Over the
centuries, the Chinese have tried to conquer and control them,
but the Hmong people have stubbornly resisted, even to the
The war in Vietnam and Laos was their most recent persecution, earning for them the title of an ENDANGERED HMONG CULTURE. Some have labeled them "primitive." Yet, those who know them, find their social structure and customs in many ways sophisticated, upholding values of truth, bravery, loyalty, and a deep sense of the sacred. It might be truly said of them that as a people they reflect the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. But there is no question that of them as a people the Hmong may be referred to as: "Wronged in War! Wronged in Peace!"
This brief summary of the Hmong is presented as an introduction to the following account of a recent expedition of discovery and exploration to bring to light the true homeland and authentic origin of the Hmong. In this, I, Father Jack LaRocca, was deeply involved. I am a Catholic priest, living in and ministering to the spiritual needs of the people in the Diocese of San Jose in California. I have, for many years, been a champion for the human rights of the Hmong (also known as Miaozu within Indo-China).
My personal interest in the Hmong, as an oppressed people, dates back to the years before studying for the priesthood, when I served for a year in Vietnam as a United States member of the Medical Corps. Following my discharge, I spent seven years as a civilian, without companion, in the jungles and mountains of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, struggling to save these people from extinction. My interest in them, and my desire to see their human rights restored has never wavered.
After years studying and preparing for the priesthood, I was ordained. I engaged in graduate studies, and earned a Doctorate of Ministry. So it was as Dr. Jack LaRocca, philanthropist and explorer, that I undertook to lead an expedition to discover the true homeland of the Hmong. What has impelled me most is the realization that the historical moment is on our threshold, and the time was never riper than now! In the summer of 1997, Hong Kong will receive its independence from Great Britain, and will become a part of the People's Republic of China. Global attention will be rivetted upon these two geographic spots. As a philanthropist, I came to the conclusion "To strike while the iron is hot," and bring the plight of this oppressed people into an international focus.
Previous to the actual expedition itself, I spent several years doing in depth-research, gathering materials and equipment, securing the technical assistance and government support of interested persons, giving of my own resources of time, finances, and energy both intellectual and spiritual. My goal was to actually discover and explore the geographic location of the Hmong's origin. I became acquainted with a young man, Chu Wu, a native Hmong, a historian, who had earned a Master's degree in Conflict Resolution from Antioch University, at Yellow Springs Ohio. He was vitally interested in his people's origin, and in restoring to them their basic human rights. We had both been to China several times, conducting separate studies in the Hmong culture and history. Six months before the expedition, took place, I invited him to team with me on the journey since we shared the common purpose to locate the actual, geographic place of this people's origin. The expedition spanned four weeks, from June 10, 1996 to July 9, 1996, being acclaimed on outstanding success by various Chinese scholars, historians, researchers, and anthropologists.
On June 10, 1996, Chu Wu and I set out on this eventful expedition, searching in the northwest part of the Yunnan Province of China, for the authentic, historical homeland of the Hmong people. What proved to be a harsh, difficult, hazardous journey, finally led us to the territory where we were able to trace the route to the exact location of the Hmong's beginnings. Today, the Hmong have only shaman stories to assist them to understand their 50,000 year old history. Shaman, incidentally, is a title for their spiritual guide. My previous research involved networking with the Hmong people through various universities, especially their anthropology departments, and museums. Equally important to the mission was winning the full cooperation of the local Chinese authorities, which allowed us full permission to enter this remote region, closed to foreigners.
Both of us flew into Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan, on separate flights, meeting each other for the first time. Awaiting my arrival, were the hired local team which consisted of: Yang, the driver, Guo, the interpreter and navigator, Han, a guide and a religious specialist, and Ma, a female explorer. The team was selected through Tan Le Shiu, president of the first private foundation in China called "Man and Nature." His support and arrangements facilitated making this journey a smooth and effective one. I was delighted to establish contact with Tan who provided the means for governmental support throughout our journey. The day of our arrival we were met with the worst storm, typical weather for the monsoon season.
Our team departed from Kunming on the second rainy day to Dali, the homebase of this expedition. Dali is a lovely ancient city often referred to by tourists as the Switzerland of China, since it has a snow mountain cap easily seen from the city. Along the way we witnessed many cars, buses, and trucks that had driven off the road, crashed into trees, or were involved in a collision.
Once out of Dali, we traveled further northwest, heading toward the Mekong River to a large village, named Yang Phan. The roads were extremely muddy, filled with potholes and rough stones, making the journey seem impossible. The ride was similar to riding a wild bronco! Many places along the roads were flooded with mud slides, a routine experience for this area.
In Yang Phan, the mayor provided our team with an official guide from one of the smaller villages on the itinerary. His services were requested to help the team climb the enormous mountains on foot. The climb to the villages required leaving our vehicle in a newly-established mining camp beside various construction materials. After lunch, the climb began with backpacks. I said, "This is extremely demanding. It is so steep and the weather very hot." Our guide knew how to lead us to the geothermal spring lake referred to as Li-hu-yen-chi-guen from the few Hmong shamans who knew of its existence. It is this specific area that needed to be inspected to establish if this lake met the criteria from our research of the Hmong's original homeland.
Using a top security government map of Lanping County, scaled at 1:100,000 km, we could pinpoint the lake that constitutes the Hmong's homeland, established approximately 50,000 years ago. It is in this homeland that their mythology began, creating a new minority group. The Hmong separated from the Tibetan stock from which they originated. They have remained, as they have always been, a highly shamanic- mountainous-river-lake-people. These people continue to travel by river and lake routes. Originally, the Hmong had migrated from the northern part of the Red River down to the south. They also traveled the tributaries of the Red River going into Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Our group climbed approximately 4,000 meters to the top of the mountains, behind one mountain, and around another mountain before arriving at the geothermal area! The climb took four hours which included crossing two villages and several rice paddies. Along the way up these various mountains, we met Bai and Lisu people. The guide kept the group moving further beyond these villages to stay the night in his home village. Throughout this area, there were thirty-six other possible lakes to explore. Each of these lakes is designated with a dragon name and are scattered northwest of this geothermal area. The lake we were searching for has no dragon name attached to it. The name used by the Hmong is known as "Red River, Red Wind, and Red Spirit."
According to my three years of research, and from Chu's research with several Hmong shaman spiritual guides, this area matched all the information we gathered from both within America and in Indo-China. My research provided the following clues of information about the homeland: the lake is from an underground spring which was formed by a crack opening in the earth's crust. It was to be on top of a mountain in a vicinity surrounded by dense forest. Nearby, about one hundred feet above the flat land, is a cave. The lake is isolated from the villages. The people of that designated area still consider this particular lake as sacred. However, it was not widely known that this lake is the actual original homeland of the Hmong. Everything conformed exactly to our expected research. There were, however, some modified changes due to the Chinese Cultural Revolution during 1966-1976. At that time, Mao Tse Tung sent all the young people out of the cities into the countryside to work with the peasants. These young people eventually destroyed all the forest area for miles around these mountains. While burning the dense forest, the lake was discovered and drastically changed.
Since then, this precious lake has been transformed into a dam and presently made into a reservoir, supplying all the villages below with a steady stream of water. Early attempts had been made to plug the spring opening with large tree trunks and boulder rocks. All these attempts failed to plug the hole. No matter what was thrown into the opening, it failed to reduce or to stop the geothermal spring from continuing its flow. All the local village leaders and local government officials from these villages confirmed that this is the only geothermal lake with a cave near by! It is also the only lake close to the designated research area previously planned to search. All of the other lakes do not compare to this lake in size and power.
Near this mountain-lake homeland there are still some smaller Hmong villages located to the south, west, and east. However, there are no roads to these villages. Hmong people live very high on top of the mountains, making it a difficult hike to reach their villages. Local government officials prevented the team from visiting the Hmong of these mountains. As of today Hmong no longer live in the original homeland located near the Tibetan border not far from the Mekong River. They migrated to other suitable regions. Since ancient times, all thirty-six other lakes have retained their dragon name, and were eliminated from the team's search.
After completing a successful research for the Hmong homeland, Chu and I decided to continue our travels along the full length of the Red River, beginning south of Dali. In order to retraced the Hmong's ancient migration route, our team hoped to discover, whether the Hmong could still be found near the river. We traveled the full length of the Red River along a dirt road which paralleled this river on the mountain side and peaks. Our team landed in Hekou town, a border town between China and North Vietnam. The people of Vietnam can now cross over the bridge of the Red River into Hekou to purchase many goods not yet available to them in Vietnam.
Along the length of the Red River, we met Dai, Hani, Yi, and Yao minority groups. All of them maintain wearing their traditional garb, and keep to their customs with great pride. The Dai live at the foot of the mountains beside the Red River. The Yi live in the middle level of the mountains, while the Hani and Yao live on the top.
These people survive mainly through agriculture. The land on the sides of these mountains are used for planting. The scenery is beautiful. There was no apparent evidence of Hmong along the Red River until our team reached the southern part of the river within the Pingbien County. All the minority groups relate to each other with mutual respect and cooperation. In Pingbien, the team hiked to a remote village to observe the appearance of the village, and to meet the Hmong living there. The remote village enjoyed electricity only for lights, with no other electrical appliances or electronics. They appear to live with only basic essentials. Our team composed chiefly of foreigners was the first to make contact with these people. There are many Hmong along the southern tip of the Red River. They still live nearby, but always at the highest level of mountain peaks in the most remote locations which require hiking for several hours before reaching their village. Very few of them live within the Pingbien city. Many Hmong were seen selling their crops in the Pingbien street market. After a long day, they always returned to their villages in the late evening. The Hmong use their horses and their own backs to bring their produce to the roadside. Then they jointly rent a vehicle to transport the produce into the city.
We completed our mission of retracing 50,000 years of the Hmong's migration. Their ancestors had traveled from nearby Tibet, slightly south of Dali, along the Red River, and have even crossed the border of China into Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. We have proven that they still live along the southern end of the Red River within the Pingbien County just before Hekou. The Red River is presently the dividing border between China and North Vietnam.
Once again, this research was conducted at this critical time-period, prior to the economic explosion within the People's Republic of China, so that the natural ways of the Hmong could still be observed. The Hmong have suffered untold losses during the scourge of the last Indo-China war. The cycle of violence is broken, and border conflicts now see days of tranquility for the first time. These people, scattered among the People's Republic of China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam borders, need freedom from fear and want. While these other countries are making progress, the Hmong lack the political resources to meet their needs. Therefore, they need the support of Great Powers for their protection.
The research is done. The expedition is concluded, and the origin of the Hmong has been indisputably authenticated. I, as the Christian, Catholic priest, and an American by birth, ask the stirring questions: What now? Where and how to proceed? How to attract global attention to this people, wronged, deprived, and persecuted? When will it end?
One answer was to create what I call the Hmong (Miaozu) Charter. It exists to establish a mandated quadrilateral citizenship to unite them as a people. It will give the Hmong their rights, as citizens, to live and move freely in and out of the borders of the People's Republic of China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Hmong Charter reminds those who hear about it:
NO ONE IS FREE WHEN OTHERS ARE OPPRESSED.
The Hmong is their chosen name which means "free people." They need the support of the Great Powers for their protection. Every voice raised in protest will swell the chorus reaching the ears of the Great Powers. If you feel that you are only a "voice crying in the wilderness," keep shouting for peace and justice, and have the promise of Jesus: "Fear not! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
Lest it be thought that we refer only to a people connected by deprivation and oppression, existing in the Asian part of the world, nothing is farther from the truth. There are large populations of Hmong located in the United States, specifically in Michigan, Denver, Sacramento, and Fresno to name a few. They are the most recent immigrants and are the poorest! In view of all of this The Hmong Charter, has a threefold purpose for its existence:
1. To establish an International Conference to strategize a consistent policy for them.
2. To establish the right to self-development protecting their environment.
3. To improve the literacy rate and education of their people.
At the end of this article, there will be found a copy in full of The Hmong Charter. As I conclude this account of my journey made on behalf of a wronged people, deprived for centuries of their basic human rights, there comes to mind the words of our own Declaration of Independence on which our Founding Fathers, so long ago, based our Democracy:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
ISN'T WHAT IS GOOD FOR US NOT GOOD FOR ALL PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET?
I call upon all of my readers, who have persevered with me this far, to support The Hmong Charter, written on their behalf. Please consider earnestly these words from that Charter:
While reaffirming faith in the fundamental dignity and worth of every human person, we seek to promote the social progress, and a more adequate standard of life, within a collective freedom for our people."
Let us, with God's help, work together to prevent any further discrimination towards the Hmong people, and remove the label they now bear as being the "Jews of China." May our American motto ring true among us: "In God is our trust."