On the Hunt
Minnesota’s hunting tradition has been waning for decades. Could an influx of Hmong immigrants give the dying sport a much-needed boost?
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Billy Yang shouldered his backpack, chambered a round in his semiautomatic rifle, and disappeared into a pre-dawn woods. Meanwhile, Kurt Vang went over the rules—rules I knew from years of hunting.
“You can shoot up in the air or down in the ground,” he said. “But no shots at people height, unless you make sure you hit wood or something. Otherwise, you cannot shoot!” He had already asked the night before if I “had my orange.”
Vang then turned and stalked through the downed leaves along the edge of a ravine. I followed a contour partway down the hillside. The rising sun lit a pointillist canvas of yellow and green. Leaves swirled from the crowns of maples, oaks, and walnuts. Nuts dropped like occasional hailstones. Crows abused us from the canopy. Cradling .22 rifles, we looked to the treetops, the branches, the trunks of fallen hardwoods—we were hunting squirrel.
I love shooting ruffed grouse, pheasant, and deer. But I hadn’t hunted squirrels for more than 40 years. In fact, the only hunters I know who do are young boys with their first rifles, honing the skills necessary to graduate to bigger game.
But the Hmong are crazy for squirrels, which they, or their older relatives, hunted in the mountains of Laos. I met Vang, a stocky business owner and mechanic, at my inner-city gym in St. Paul. The sauna there is like an international club: at any moment, English, Spanish, Amharic, and Hmong conversation fills the air. And every fall, the Hmong men and women talk of hunting—hunting for squirrels and deer.
Participation in hunting, both in Minnesota and the United States, is declining. Nationally, according to the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, the number of hunters fell 11 percent from 1991 to 2006—a rate that seems much more precipitous if you consider the population grew nearly 20 percent in that time. In Minnesota, numbers have remained steady, but not relative to population. It seemed to me that the Hmong might be the key to reinvigorating the dying sport. I wondered how their practices differed from ours, and how they might eventually contribute to the conservation role historically played by sportsmen, even as many anglers and hunters worry about their waning influence. So one afternoon early last fall, as Vang repaired a short circuit in my Honda and a gaggle of Hmong men stood around telling stories in anticipation of the squirrel season, I asked if he would take me hunting.
The three of us set out in Vang’s battered Toyota pick-up truck before dawn and drove across the state line into Wisconsin, toward Ellsworth.
Vang grew up in Long Tieng, a secret base established by the CIA in the mountains of northern Laos. (He refers to the woods as “jungle” and a ridge as “the mountain.”) At the time, he was too young to hunt. But his father did, along with the older men in the community. They were also fighting with the Americans against Vietnamese and Laotian communists. One day, when he was about 9, Vang says his father was taken away by Vietnamese soldiers and never seen again. He fled with his family across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand—not to come to the United States, but simply to stay alive. “We left because we were afraid we were going to be killed,” he says.
It is a story shared by nearly all the Hmong who have come to the United States in the last 30 years, including the tens of thousands who settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The subsequent appearance of Hmong hunters and anglers, however, rubbed some outdoorsmen the wrong way. Property lines and regulations didn’t exist in Laos, and the older immigrants didn’t pay much heed to them here. They hunted, fished, and camped in big groups, increasing their visibility. And, to some extent, the Hmong stirred resentment just because they were newcomers. “Rural areas have been owned by white folks ever since they took it by force from Native Americans,” says one sympathetic white sportsman. “The Hmong people, coming directly from their home with a tradition of hunting and fishing, are doing what nobody else has done in American history, which is break the color barrier of American conservation.”
Driving down the dark highway, Vang told me that on a recent hunting trip he returned to the truck to find five pieces of corn stalk lined up along the windshield wiper—a most unusual sight of no practical purpose. He called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to make sure the land shown on his map was indeed open to public hunting. It was. “We don’t know what it means,” said Vang. “We were a little scared.”
It’s impossible to talk about the Hmong and hunting without referencing two recent events in the Wisconsin woods. In 2004, near Hayward, deer hunter Chai Soua Vang was upbraided by several hunters for trespassing. He began to leave, then opened fire on the group, shooting eight and killing six. The jury convicted him of murder. Three years later, James Nichols was convicted of murdering Cha Vang as both hunted squirrels near Peshtigo. Nichols shot Vang with a shotgun, stabbed him several times, shoved a stick in his mouth, and hid the body beneath a log.
I asked Kurt Vang about Chai Soua Vang. He said he suspected both sides said some hateful words. “Hunting is just a game,” he said. “You should never get so angry."