History is filled with stories of people forced to leave their homes, communities, regions, and countries. This remarkable story cloth depicts the journey of Hmong refugees, native to Southeast Asia, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Hmong refugees from Laos, highlighted on the quilt, fled civil war. Thousands of Hmong sought asylum in the United States, mostly in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Gulf Coast.

Photograph by Tia Lee

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  • This is a Hmong story cloth. Hmong people are native to southeast Asia, and have a long tradition of embroidery and textile work.

    Story cloths, however, are not traditional Hmong textiles. Hmong story cloths were only invented in the 1970s, when thousands of Hmong were interred in refugee camps.

    Hmong had allied themselves with American forces during the Vietnam War. When Americans withdrew from Vietnam and Laos in the 1970s, the governments of those countries, which had opposed U.S. intervention, targeted the Hmong. In this story cloth, Hmong flee these armed soldiers.

    In refugee camps, Hmong were encouraged to manufacture textiles for sale abroad. Hmong women developed story cloths, which depicted pastoral Hmong life before the war, Hmong legends, or harrowing tales of forced migration.

    Hmong story cloths were made purely for the marketplace, and helped families establish a reliable source of income. Refugees sent the textiles to relatives and friends in the U.S., where most Hmong eventually settled.

    1. Areas with the largest Hmong populations, in both Asia and the United States, are depicted in white on this story cloth. What Asian nation did most Hmong flee in the 1970s? (Use this map to help you identify southeast Asian countries, as well as American states.)

      Most Hmong fled Laos. However, most Hmong trace their ancestry back to China. The Hmong endured a forced migration from southeast China in the 1700s.

    2. The story cloth depicts the Hmong fleeing west. Why did they not migrate north or east?

      China, to the north, and Vietnam, to the east, both had communist governments. The Hmong had fought against communists during the Vietnam War and feared persecution from the Chinese and Vietnamese governments.

    3. To what neighboring country did most Hmong flee?

      Most Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. The last refugee camps for Hmong in Thailand closed in the 1990s.

    4. To what U.S. states did the most Hmong relocate?

      California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have the largest Hmong populations. The largest Hmong community in the U.S. is in St. Paul, Minnesota.

    5. What jobs did Hmong refugees seek in the U.S.?

      The story cloth depicts agriculture (represented by the tractor and green crops) and poultry farming.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ally Noun

    person or group who supports and cooperates with another person or group.

    depict Verb

    to represent or draw.

    embroider Verb

    to decorate with elaborate sewing or needlework.

    encourage Verb

    to inspire or support a person or idea.

    forced migration Noun

    the movement of people away from their homes due to political conflict, natural disaster or environmental hazard.

    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    harrowing Adjective

    extremely disturbing or scary.

    income Noun

    wages, salary, or amount of money earned.

    manufacture Verb

    to make or produce a good, usually for sale.

    market Noun

    central place for the sale of goods.

    pastoral Adjective

    serene and rural.

    refugee Noun

    person who flees their home, usually due to natural disaster or political upheaval.

    refugee camp Noun

    temporary shelters built for immigrants who have fled their homes due to environmental or social conflict.

    soldier Noun

    person who serves in a military.

    textile Noun

    cloth or other woven fabric.

    tradition Noun

    beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.