The work of a shaman.: Becoming Minnesotan

Male silhouette.
  • Name - Nhia Yer Yang
  • Age at interview - 60
  • Gender - Male
  • Generation - First Generation American / Refugee
  • Date of Interview - 11.15.1991
  • Hmong shaman altar, 2005.  Minnesota Historical Society.
    Qeej (Hmong wind instrument) made by Shong Ger Thao, St. Paul, c.1999.

    Essential Question

    Life in the Old Country: What makes a country a person’s homeland?

    Traditions & Values: What makes up “culture”?

    Words to look for


    Background Information

    Traditional Hmong religious practices involve worship of ancestors and natural spirits.  These spirits affect everyone’s daily life, for good and bad, and they can be contacted with the help of a spiritual leader called a shaman.  The shaman is also a healer, and people go to him for treatment of the same kinds of illnesses that would cause a person to go the doctor’s office here in the U.S. 

    According to Hmong tradition, a person has several souls, and sickness is caused by upsetting one of the souls.  There are specific rituals, chanting, and ceremonies that must be performed by the Shaman in order to discover the problem and then please the upset soul and make the person healthy again.  Sometimes these rituals include special herbs or sacrificing an animal.  In the U.S., the Hmong have had to adapt to American laws, so animal sacrifice is less common than it was in Asia. Many Hmong have also converted to Christianity, or blended together practice of Christianity with traditional Hmong beliefs.

    To learn more about Hmong history and culture, visit our Hmong Community page.

    • Chapter 1
    • Chapter 2
    • Chapter 3
    • Chapter 4

    Download Nhia Yer Yang 1
    1:48 Minutes | 1.73Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by Lu Hang.

    Narrator: Nhia Yer Yang (NY)

    NY:  In 1955 I became a shaman. I help the people with their spirits. Because there was no hospital and they sick they come to me and everything. I am basically the healing doctor in the village. The difference when I was still back in Laos is we have our own homes and we can do whatever we want.

    We can make the noises, we can do whatever we want, but in the United States it is not our own home, so we cannot do what we want. That is the difference. Whatever the people have problem with I will help them in any way I can. It deals with the holy spirit.

    If a person is really sick now and he came for help I will perform a song and the spirit will tell me that this person's spirit is not living with him or her anymore. I will ask the spirit, "If that's the case then what can I do to get his spirit back?" It's like an angel will tell me, "In order for you to get better you will have to butcher a chicken, a pig, or a cow, to exchange your spirit." Usually I butcher a chicken or cow and I exchange it and then the person gets better. It's not so much different, like finding a live chicken or a pig because there's a lot of farms. I go and buy it and bring it home.

    Before I do that I talk to my nearest neighbors and tell them, "Today I'm going to do this, and there's going to be a lot of noise and please be patient with me for today." The tradition does continue except for the neighbors. There's a lot of people coming in and out when you do something like that. It's like a party, so you have to tell the neighbors before you do this. For the past two years I've been doing it a lot, like on Saturday and Sunday three times. Now I'm really busy so I just do it once a week.

    Continues in Chapter 2

    Download Nhia Yer Yang 2
    1:27 Minutes | 1.4Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by Lu Hang.

    Narrator: Nhia Yer Yang (NY)

    NY:  I'm not working at all now. I'm on Social Security. I mostly go and visit relatives so I'm very busy. Sometimes at school, or the community center, they call me to go and play an instrument for the children and teach them. I also tell the Hmong culture to American students so they understand about our children better. At the funeral sometimes people come and ask me to play. The reason that we play it is not simple. There is a song you have to play for the person that died, for his soul. We believe like Christianity, that the person's soul goes to heaven or hell. I will play a song to direct that person to go and look for his ancestors and the people that have died before him. You go to this gate, and you get a paper, in order to go and see your ancestors. The songs involved are like a direction so the soul can go back to the ancestors. You play the same song to everyone.

    I would like to explain how I became a shaman. When I was young I was kind of sick. I did not grow, so they go and ask a fortune teller and the fortune teller said, "You have some spirit, a shaman spirit." People came and they set up a table. I will sit like this in front of the table and then I will start to dance and shake and dance. You have to do that a couple of times, maybe three or four times.

    Continues in Chapter 3

    Download Nhia Yer Yang 3
    1:35 Minutes | 1.52Mb


    Note: Original interview was conducted in Hmong.  Excerpt is read in English by Lu Hang.

    Narrator: Nhia Yer Yang (NY)

    NY:  There is a different language in order for you to talk to the spirit. The spirit will come into your head and you know how to talk to them. It will be the same as talking in tongues.

    One thing that's involved as a shaman is I help people that are infertile, and cannot have any children. They even go to see the doctor and they cannot have any children because of the infertility. They will come to me and ask for help. I will perform the dance and ask the spirit to give them children. They have children after they came to me. I've seen a few people like that. If you don't have a son, you only have daughters, you can come and ask me to give you a son. I will perform and they will have a son after that. As a shaman, it involves healing people and helping people to have children. Since I've been to the States for 10 years I've helped more than twenty couples have children or to have daughter or son.

    It's not a matter of getting a fee. When they come to me for help I don't tell them that for me to help, you have to give me this much money. If I only do healing, some people give me money. Whatever they have they give to me and I'll take whatever they have, like twenty or thirty dollars. If I help them to have a child they usually call me and I go to their house and give the baby a name. They give me a gift of $200.00 or $300.00. It's not like a contract where, if you become pregnant then you have to give me this much. When they have a child they so happy they give me a gift and I take whatever.

    See Chapter 4 for original Hmong interview.

    Download Nhia Yer Yang 1-4 (Hmong)
    21:33 Minutes | 20.68Mb


    Excerpt of original interview conducted in Hmong language.

    Related Glossary Terms


    Noun:  Ones from whom a person is descended, whether on the father's or mother's side, at any distance of time; progenitors; fore fathers.


    Noun:  A group of people who share a common understanding of the same language, manners, tradition and law.


    Noun:  An agreement between two or more parties, to perform a specific job or work order, often temporary or of fixed duration and usually governed by a written agreement.


    Noun:  The arts, customs, and habits that characterize a particular society or nation.


    Noun:  The inability to conceive children.


    Adjective:  Complicated.


    Noun:  A member of certain tribal societies who acts as a religious medium between the concrete and spirit worlds.

    Social Security

    Noun:  The federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program in the United States funded through dedicated payroll taxes.

    talking in tongues

    Noun:  The fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables, often as part of religious practice. Though some consider these utterances to be meaningless, those that use them consider them to be part of a holy language.


    Noun:  A custom that is practiced within a group.


    Minnesota Historical Society. Becoming Minnesotan: Stories of Recent Immigrants and Refugees. September 2010. Institute of Museum and Library Services. [Date of access].
    nid: 464