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.”
The Wisconsin murders put everyone on edge. With as many as 17,000 Hmong hunting in Minnesota and a similar number in Wisconsin, the natural-resource departments in both states took the events as a wake-up call. “The hunting community realized that that was not in the best interest of the future of hunting, or the image of hunting,” Randy Stark, the chief warden in Wisconsin, told me. “People wanted to move forward and improve the situation.”
In Minnesota, Tong Vang, a liaison to Southeast Asian hunters for the DNR, had been talking to his hunting friends in St. Paul about forming a Hmong sportsmen’s club to “recognize that we are part of the hunting society.” The Wisconsin events gave the idea urgency.
Soon, St. Paul Hmong hunters formed the Capitol Sportsmen Chapter, an affiliate of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Membership, mostly Hmong, now numbers more than 200. John Ny Vang, the chapter’s state director, said affiliation with the statewide organization makes it easier for Hmong hunters to associate and share their concerns with other hunters.
What are those concerns? “I think the important issue is to get easy access,” John Ny Vang said. Unlike other Minnesotans who, like me, grew up hunting on the “family” farm or a cabin up north, the Hmong left their connections behind in Laos. Instead, they depend overwhelmingly on public hunting land. Because many Hmong love to hunt squirrels, they head to southeastern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin, where hills of oak and other nut trees guarantee an abundance of gray squirrels as well as the yellow-tinged fox squirrel, twice the size of the gray. It follows that they hunt deer there as well. Unfortunately, most of Minnesota’s public hunting land lies in the north. In the south, only small patches of county and state land exist, standing alongside farms and private wood lots. The same is true of southern Wisconsin. “Public land—they do have it, but it’s not quite enough for the people to hunt,” said John Ny Vang.
The search for land, as well as cultural habits, has continued to create friction. In 2009, landowners in southeastern Minnesota called the DNR with complaints about parking, trespassing, and littering on adjacent public land. John Ny Vang, Tong Vang, and Victor Yang, president of the Capitol Sportsmen, drove down to meet with landowners.
“I promised them that as president of the chapter I will do anything to help landowners keep people from trespassing,” Yang said. “We will make sure that people are not littering anymore and follow proper parking rules. The mission I take down there is not from the DNR. It is from the chapter and something I feel that we should do—we should help them, too.”
The men made a video of the meeting so they could show hunters back in the Twin Cities how upset people were. This year, Yang drove back down on the opening of squirrel season to make an assessment. He talked to landowners, who seemed happy he had followed up, and visited campsites, where littering was at a minimum.
“Over there, we can do whatever,” said Yang, referring to Laos. “Here, some of our people still think in the same way, still do the same thing. That’s wrong—the United States is different from Laos. Regulations are different. Over there, there’s no control. Over here, there is.
“Since I joined the organization, I’ve seen a lot of improvement between landowners, the DNR, and our community. People understand, people listen, and people learn. Every year gets better.”
The challenge of finding hunting land became apparent as I hunted with Vang and Yang. When we convened at the truck at midday, Vang had three voluptuous fox squirrels. Yang had shot six squirrels, including three fox and three gray. My single, scrawny gray squirrel suddenly seemed an insignificant lump in my game vest.
We consulted Vang’s tattered book of public hunting lands. But most parcels in the immediate area were set aside for the public with pheasants in mind, not squirrels. At this time of year, they were grasslands or harvested grain fields. “Nothing there,” Vang said.
So we set about finding new land. We knocked on a couple of doors and soon got a lead on the owner of a private sugar bush who didn’t care for squirrels because they tore up the plastic hoses that collected sap.
We pulled up to the farm. I found the owner out back.
“And who are you?” she asked. I explained two friends and I were hunting squirrels. “Well, are you going to buy some syrup?” she asked.
I counted out $9 and took a pint. “I’ll tell you where to go—but in a good way,” she said.
For the next couple of hours, we stalked a long ridge until we filled our limits. We hiked back down to the truck and sampled the syrup. “That’s sweet!” exclaimed Vang. Neither he nor Yang had tasted maple syrup before. They urged me to ask the owner if we could hunt there again. So, on the way out, we stopped at the house. I thanked the owner and then asked if we could come back sometime. She said yes, then hurried back to watch the Packers’ game.
Climbing into the truck, I asked Vang why he hadn’t come with me to ask. “It’s easier for you,” he said. “I can just hunt as your friend.”
Vang’s reluctance to step out of the truck said something to me about Hmong participation in the broader hunting community. I asked Stark whether Hmong were considered a part of the group by other hunters.
“I think that’s where we’re trying to get to,” he said. “There are phases you have to go through.” A new group, Hmong American Sportsmen, has started in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Like the Capitol Sportsmen, its members are mostly Hmong; few Hmong have joined mainstream conservation organizations. Stark said he was heartened that a Hmong man recently ran for a position in a statewide conservation congress. (He lost to a prominent longtime activist.) But, Stark said, “it was inspiring that things have come that far.”
The real test will come as the new generation—kids growing up as full-fledged Americans—learns to hunt. Several hundred Hmong boys and girls take hunter-education courses in Minnesota each year. But will they join the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Ducks Unlimited, Izaak Walton League, Audubon, or other grassroots conservation organizations that protect wildlife?
Victor Yang is optimistic. “We are targeting habitat and education,” he said. “We have a great future. We have a great opportunity in the generation to come. Our kids are going to learn how to hunt. We’ll teach them the way to hunt in this country.”
Greg Breining, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, wrote about great Minnesota hikes in the August issue of Minnesota Monthly.