Tibetan: Becoming Minnesotan

Tibetan claims, 2005.  Creator: Ran, Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Homeland

Tibetan Stories

Quick Facts

Note: What Tibetans recognize as the independent nation of Tibet consists of most of the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and parts of four other Chinese provinces.

Tibetan Population:
U.S.: 9,000 (2008)
Minnesota: 1,000 (2008)
Tibetan Autonomous Region:  2,427,168
Greater Tibet: 5,245,347 (2000 census)
Rest of the world: India: 125,000; Nepal: 60,000; Bhutan: 5,000 (Includes ethnic Tibetans native to the country and refugees from Tibet)

Major Religions of Tibet: Tibetan Buddhism, Bon

Ethnic groups:  Tibetan Autonomous Region: Tibetan 92.8%, Han Chinese 6.1%, others 1.2%; Greater Tibet: Tibetan 49.8%, Han Chinese 34.5%, others 15.7%  (2000).

Major Languages: Tibetan, which includes numerous regional oral dialects with a shared written language.  Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the Tibetan region.

Current Government of Tibet:  Communist state.  The Central Tibetan Administration considers Tibet to be under an illegitimate military occupation.

Geography of Tibet: High altitude plateau region north of the Himalayas and west of China proper.

Climate of Tibet:  Severely dry nine months of the year.  Low temperatures are prevalent throughout the western regions. The Indian monsoon exerts some influence on eastern Tibet. Northern Tibet is subject to high temperatures in the summer and intense cold in the winter.

Source: 2000 Census of China and the Office of Tibet, New York

Population Comparison






  • Introduction
  • Religion & Culture
  • History & Geography
  • Finding a New Home
  • Investigate Further


Tibet was an independent country until the 1950s.  The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950 and by 1959 had claimed it as part of China.  Now most of the land has been incorporated into Chinese provinces.  There is one region that is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) but Tibetan people argue that there is little freedom from the Chinese even in the TAR.  Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans now live in exile in the neighboring countries of India and Nepal, as well as in the U.S. and other countries around the world.  Tibetans continue to be led by their spiritual leader His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and an active Tibetan government-in-exile still operates from a Tibetan settlement in India.   

Religion & Culture

The Tibetan culture is based on the Buddhist religion, especially the values of peace and compassion.

Monasteries have been important centers of education and spiritual growth in Tibet for over a thousand years. The monasteries are the home for monks, but also are a central part of the community because they contain colleges for higher learning and protect ancient artifacts and texts. Monks are men who have devoted their life to religious practice and study.  Boys would go to live in a monastery as early as seven years old and then spend 18 years studying many different subjects including Buddhism, medicine, astronomy, and crafts. 

Monks are very highly respected in Tibetan culture, as spiritual leaders and as educators, and because they are the most highly educated members of society.  Becoming a monk was sometimes the only way to get access to education and improve the social status of one’s family.  At one point each Tibetan family was expected to send one son to the monastery, and about 20% of the men and boys in Tibet were monks. 

Monks perform many important rituals in the community.  For example, a phowa is a Tibetan ceremony that is performed when a person dies. This ceremony is meant to allow the dying person to transfer their consciousness and die more peacefully. Butter lamps are used at phowas, because they are thought to help with prayer at the time of death.  They get their name from the yak butter that they traditionally burned.
Tibet was a theocracy that had been led for centuries by a Dalai Lama.  The current Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama the 14th, continues to travel the world and provide support and guidance for Tibetan refugees, and encourage young people to get an education.

In Tibetan culture, children have great respect for their elders.  education is highly valued, since not everyone was traditionally given the opportunity to go on as far as they wanted in school.  One way of honoring one’s parents was to work hard and do well in school, because it is a way of recognizing how hard parents have had to work giver their child the opportunity to attend school. 

History & Geography

For most of its history Tibet has been fairly isolated from the world. Tibet is located on a plateau surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, and this has helped shelter the country from invaders. This isolation has led to a very strong sense of cultural identity based on common language, religion, and daily rituals.  Traditionally, people lived a simple life based on their Buddhist faith and principles.  They valued education and respect for other people and the land. Most Tibetans were farmers.  The climate in the West is quite different from that in Tibet, Nepal or India.  Especially in the Midwest, it is much flatter than the mountainous Nepal, and much colder than the humid sub tropical climate in northern India.


In the mid-20th century transportation improved which allowed the Chinese more access into this very mountainous place.  The Chinese invaded northern and eastern Tibet in 1950 and throughout the 1950s moved farther across Tibet to gain more control over the land and the people. The Tibetan leaders understood that they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Chinese, so they tried to negotiate and make concessions to their demands.  However, by 1959 the Chinese had reached the capital of Lhasa, where they bombed the royal palace, several monasteries, and other important buildings.  They also destroyed priceless works of Tibetan art and literature. The Tibetan leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other members of the government were forced to flee to India. Many Tibetans waited anxiously throughout the 1950s, hoping that the international community would come to their aid and stop the Chinese invasion. Unfortunately, this aid never came. 

The Tibetans who stayed in Tibet faced increasingly hostile living conditions. At first there were public executions, beatings, the take-over of their public buildings, and destruction of their monasteries, sacred texts, and other symbols of Tibetan culture.  The Chinese would no longer let Tibetans live their lives according to their culture.   Schools began to teach in the Chinese language only and to use history books that left out anything about the existence of an independent Tibet.  Children were sometimes sent away to distant places in China to be “re-educated” as part of China’s Cultural Revolution.  Wealthy Tibetans were called ngadak, the Chinese term for “landlord”, because the Chinese Communists favored the peasantry and promoted the distribution of wealth. 

Currently, even in the TAR Tibetan people must speak Chinese and are forbidden from practicing Tibetan traditions.  There has never been a Tibetan leader of the TAR. 

Over the past 50 years many Tibetans have decided to move to someplace where they can still practice their Buddhist religion, speak the Tibetan language, and live according to Tibetan culture. This is why today there are Tibetan people living in India, Nepal, the United States, and many other countries throughout the world. 

Finding a New Home


Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans are now living throughout the world. These Tibetan refugees have spent fifty years trying to educate people about the plight of the Tibet and to advocate for more autonomy for the Tibetan people who are currently living under Chinese rule.

Although the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet along with thousands of other Tibetans, he continues to provide support and encouragement to Tibetans living all over the world. He is also a strong advocate for education and civic responsibility among young people, and he encourages them to work together on behalf of the refugee community and the Tibetan independence movement.

The Dalai Lama has proposed what is called the “Middle Path Approach” - a moderate proposal to try to bring about a more peaceful co-existence for the Chinese and Tibetans.  This Middle Path Approach argues for autonomy for the Tibetan people living within the three traditional provinces of Tibet, but does not go so far as to demand complete independence from China.  To date, even this moderate plan continues to be rejected by the Chinese.


Because Tibet is bordered by China to the north, east, and west, Tibetan refugees have fled to India and Nepal, the two countries just to the south.  The Nepalese felt torn about what to do with all of the refugees flooding into Nepal.  China was a very powerful country and some Nepalese officials felt they needed to cooperate with the Chinese and send the Tibetans back home.  However, the Nepalese and the Indian government have set up many refugee camps for Tibetan refugees.  Darjeeling is the site of a large refugee camp that has been in existence for 50 years!  Some Tibetan refugees have spread throughout India or immigrated to other countries farther away.

The Central Tibetan Authority continues to operate as the Tibetan government-in-exile. This government is headquartered in Dharamsala, India, and it supports schools, hospitals, religious centers, and social service centers for the Tibetans refugees. The CTA has only been able to provide these services by continuing volunteer tax system for Tibetans living outside of Tibet.

The Tibetan government-in-exile has worked very hard to develop industries that will provide employment for people living outside of Tibet.   Jobs are often limited in areas with large Tibetan refugee settlements.  Even the most well-educated refugees must work very hard to support themselves.  Refugees sometimes have had to resort to begging on the streets.  In addition, many refugees support themselves by selling traditional handicrafts to tourists.

There is also an extensive system of schools throughout the communities in India where the Tibetan refugees are living, with about 17,000 Tibetan students in schools throughout India.  There are three different kinds of schools in India: schools run by the Tibetan government-in-exile, Indian public schools, and schools runs by private or non-profit organizations.  Tibetan Children’s Villages is one such organization that works closely with the Indian government to provide education for Tibetan children living in exile. They especially work to serve recently arrived refugees and orphaned children. 


The experience of Tibetans in the United States is shaped by the realities of their lives as refugees who cannot go back to their homeland, but are trying to maintain separate Tibetan cultural identity as they settle in a new home.

The United States recognizes that Tibetans have faced great injustice at the hands of the Chinese.  However, the U.S., like many other countries in the world, continues to honor China’s official claim to the land that was once known as Tibet.  Therefore Tibetan refugees are not considered “refugees” but are officially called “stateless persons” and receive much less support as they enter the U.S. than refugees do.  Compared to those considered stateless persons, refugees receive certain additional benefits including a more rapid immigration process, monetary benefits for the first three years in the U.S., and federal funds to help with resettlement.  In addition, extra visas are granted to each year because the U.S. recognizes that they face persecution in their homeland and difficult living conditions in refugee camps.

Tibetans today, although they face the same challenges as other refugees, have to abide by the strict immigration laws of the United States.  This means that they must prove that they are fulfilling a highly-skilled job that cannot be filled by Americans or that they have been accepted to a university for study. Although there is a thriving school system in operation in the refugee camps and settlements, most Tibetans from the camps are unable to meet these requirements.  In addition, it is very difficult to get visas from India and Nepal, where most of the 120,000 Tibetans in exile reside.  The Tibetans do not have a home, so there is no country that will issue them a passport -one of the requirements of applying for an immigrant visa.  These countries are already at capacity for U.S. immigrant visas, so it may take many years for a Tibetan to get to the top of the list. 

There have been efforts made by the U.S. government to help the Tibetans.  Most importantly the Tibetan Resettlement Project of 1990 allowed 1,000 refugees to come to America on immigrant visas.  Only Tibetans who had paid their taxes to the government-in-exile were eligible to apply, and the 1,000 visas were given out in a lottery. There were very few Tibetans who were living in the United States prior to the Tibetan Resettlement Project.

Under this project each Tibetan needed to have a job arranged before coming to the U.S., as well as a sponsor in the U.S. There were about 25 resettlement centers around the U.S. and Minneapolis was one of the original ten sites.  The Twin Cities is one of the largest cluster sites because there were a few people who were very active in finding sponsors for Tibetan refugees in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul metro area, especially Thupten Dadak and Namgyel Wangdu. 

Tibetans began arriving in the United States as part of Resettlement Project in 1992; they arrived in twelve batches over the course of two years.  Because there were so few immigrant visas available under the Resettlement Project, only one family member could apply for a visa.  A single person would settle in the United States first, and then could later petition the U.S. government for immigrant visas for the rest of his or her family.

Although there were approximately 160 Tibetans originally placed in Minnesota it was often difficult for them to connect with one another.  Today the Tibetan population in the United States has now grown to more than 9,000 people.  Minnesota soon earned a reputation for its vibrant new Tibetan community, and many Tibetans have moved to Minnesota from other parts of the U.S.  Today Minnesota has the second largest Tibetan population in the U.S.

Tibetans continue to work to educate others about the situation in Tibet and advocate for more freedom from the Chinese occupiers.  They believe strongly in taking advantage of the educational opportunities and becoming U.S. citizens so they can be active participants in life here in the U.S.

Investigate Further


Official Site of the Dalai Lama: www.dalailama.com
The official website of the Office of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the temporal and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

The Government of Tibet in Exile: www.tibet.com
The offical website of the Central Tibetan Administration, the government of Tibet in exile, based in Dharamshala, India.

Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, St. Paul: www.tafm.org
Website of the organization which supports the local Tibetan community and promotes Tibetan culture.

International Campaign for Tibet: www.savetibet.org
This international organization works to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet.

Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts: www.tibetanarts.org
This institute, based in Dharamsala, India, works to preserve and promote Tibetan performing arts and culture.

Tibetan Children’s Village: www.tcv.org.in
TVC in an educational institution with schools throughout India that provides schooling and care for Tibetan refugee children.

Students for a Free Tibet: www.studentsforafreetibet.org
Homepage of a chapter-based network of student activists, campaigning for Tibet's freedom from China.

Phayul.com – News and Views on Tibet: www.phayul.com
Web-based news and social networking for the international Tibetan community.

Tibet Post: www.thetibetpost.com
The online version of a Tibetan news press based in Dharamsala, India. The site is trilingual, in English, Tibetan and Chinese.


Chicoine, Stephen.  A Tibetan Family.  Minneapolis, Lerner Publishing Co., 1998.
This book presents an overview of Tibetan history before relating the story of a refugee family who fled their homeland in 1959 and eventually moved to Columbus, Ohio. Good for grades 3-6.

The Dalai Lama.  My Land and My People: The Original Autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Grand Central Publishing, 1997.
First published in 1962, the Dalai Lama recounts his life up to that point, including the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Dolphin, Laurie.  Our Journey from Tibet: Based on a True Story.  New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1997.
A photo essay tells the story of a 9 year old girl who flees Tibet with her siblings to pursue a Tibetan education in India. Good for grades 3-6.

Kizilos, Peter.  Tibet: Disputed Land.  Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 2000.
This book explains for young adult readers the current situation and key events in the conflict between Tibet and China, the roots of the conflict, and attempts that have been made to solve the problem. Good for grades 7-9.

Stewart, Whitney. The 14th Dalai Lama. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 2000.
A biography of the Dalai Lama. Good for grades 3-6.

Laird, Thomas.  The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama.  New York: Grove Press, 2006.
The author uses historical research and interviews with the Dalai Lama to tell the story of Tibet from its mythic origins to the Chinese invasion.


Kundun.  Burbank, CA: Touchstone Home Video, 1998.
A dramatization of the life and work of the current (14th) Dalai Lama and his ongoing struggle to regain independence for Tibet.

Seven Years in Tibet. Culver City, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video, c.1998.
The story of Heinrich Harrar, an Austrian who comes to Tibet in the 1930s and forms a friendship with the Dalai Lama.


Tibetan Community Center
1096 Raymond Ave, St. Paul, MN 55108

Tibetan New Year Celebration
Minnesota National Guard Armory, St.Paul
Late February or March

Community Celebration of the Dalai Lama's Birthday
July 6

Gyuto Wheel of Dharma Monastery
2601 Taylor St. NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418
The first Gyuto Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet and India.

Gangchen Bar & Restaurant
1833 S. Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403

Citation Sources

Central Tibetan Administration website, http://www.tibet.net/en/index.php. 26 May 2010.

Gyuto Tantric Monastic University website, http://www.gyutomonastery.com/history.html. 25 May 2010.

Tibetan Children’s Villages website, http://www.tcv.org.in/index.shtml.  26 May 2010.

“Tibetans in Minnesota: Preserving Their Culture.” Minnesota Public Radio, May 7, 2001. Minnesota Public Radio website, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200105/07_newsroom_dalai/culture.shtml. 27 May 2010.

Ritzekura, Wangyal, Community Focus Group Representative. Meetings and email correspondence with Kate Stower, May-September, 2010.

Wikipedia website, www.wikipedia.org. 27 May 2010.

Woodstock School website, http://www.woodstock.ac.in. 25 May 2010.

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