Lue Vang is one of many Hmong Shamans in Sacramento who follow a religious tradition more than 5,000 years old. But the healing they produce is eternal, a bridge between ancient ways and modern techniques.
Today, Vang, 52, and his colleagues are working to blend their traditional expertise with Western medical practices to promote heath and longevity among the Hmong community.
Vang’s journey to Shaman status began when he was 28. Living in a Thailand refugee camp after escaping from Laos following the Vietnam War, Vang became sick. He complained of headaches and pains for almost a year.
Finally, his family decided it was time to perform a spiritual ceremony to determine the cause of the sickness. They invited a Txiv Neeb (thib neng) or Shaman Master, to perform the ceremony.
“During this time, my family believed that the only way to know what was causing my sickness was to do a spiritual ceremony,” Vang says.
After the spiritual ceremony, Vang was told his sickness was a sign that he had been chosen to be a Shaman.
“Even though I couldn’t believe it, I already accepted my new life as a Shaman Master,” Vang says.
In 2005, Vang and his family migrated to America, and found their way to Sacramento where there are about 40,000 Hmong. In California, Vang quickly learned he could not practice exactly as a Shaman would in Thailand or Laos. He decided to adapt in part to Western ways while maintaining strong ties and deep respect to his culture’s traditions.
One way to help his Hmong community as a Shaman Master, Vang believed, was to join The Shaman Project organized by Hmong Health Collaborative in 2006.
Hmong Health Collaborative is a non-profit organization located in Fresno, Merced, Stockton and Sacramento. The goal is to empower Hmong individual and families to connect with modern healthcare and to live healthy life styles. Sutter Medical Center and UC Davis Medical Center partner with the organization.
“They took me to hospitals around Sacramento where I learned about the different ways a doctor can heal. They also taught me the reasons for medication and surgery. In return, I taught the doctors about how I can heal human souls by doing spiritual ceremonies,” Vang says.
In earlier years, the Hmong culture did not have doctors and Western-style interventions. They relied on herbal plants and a Shaman Master to heal sickness. It was not until late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, that Western medication was introduced.
Even as today, four decades later, many elderly Hmong still don’t believe in Western medications and practices. They rely on tradition and a Shaman Master to provide healing.
Many times, Hmong patients in the U.S. will resist surgery and other Western practices at hospitals. They have left hospitals before surgery and sought a Shaman Master to perform a spiritual ceremony at home.
The Hmong Health Collaborative Project helps bridge this gap between the Shaman world and Western medical practices.
The project teaches both Shamans and Western-trained doctors the differences between their practices and how to respect those differences. After working within the project, Shaman Masters can decide if their patient is spiritually or physically sick.
Spiritual sickness would call for the performing a spiritual ceremony. If the patient is physically sick, the Shaman Master is comfortable referring a patient to a hospital.
“I’m glad doctors understand our culture and allow us to perform spiritual a ceremony at the hospital. Importantly, I am glad that I can still practice my tradition here in America. But if anybody ever asks, yes, I can heal anybody of all cultures and ethnicity,” Vang says with a laugh.
The Hmong culture believes that a Shaman Master is the doctor of spirits and souls. They heal sicknesses that cause problems to human souls. They can transport into the spiritual world and communicate with spirits and souls. The only way to become a Shaman is to be born with a Shaman spirit. The Shaman spirit can reveal itself at any age.
In Thailand, once Vang accepted his destiny as a Shaman, his sickness disappeared. A Shaman Master taught and trained Vang for several months.
After learning the ways of a Shaman Master, Vang was on his way to serving his community. So far, Vang has performed around 800 spiritual ceremonies for his Hmong community in Sacramento.
“When I first performed a spiritual ceremony, I knew in my heart that my Shaman spirits chose me to better the lives of my Hmong people,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”