Historic book captures A Portrait of Brown County’s first Hmong Immigrants

UW-Green Bay’s Teaching Press launches rare collection of oral storytelling and photographs on December 13

Green Bay, WI — Thirty years ago, a woman in a freezing apartment implored Sandra Shackelford to “please give me the words to speak my grief.”

Now, her story is featured in Shackelford’s new book, “A Portrait of Grief and Courage: Hmong Oral Histories and Folktales,” a historic collection of interviews, stories, drawings, and photographs of Brown County’s earliest Hmong Immigrants. A book launch event will be held at 4:30 p.m. CST on December 13, both via Zoom and in-person at UW-Green Bay’s Cofrin Library 7th floor Archives. The event is free and open to the public. Guests should RSVP with this link.

Shackelford, an esteemed Green Bay documentary artist and writer, was volunteering with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s High Risk Family Support Program in the 1980s and 1990s when she encountered Pa Lee, a 57-year-old Hmong immigrant shivering in an unheated Green Bay apartment. Lee was among thousands of Hmong people who, in the 1970s, were forced to flee from their homes in Laos to refugee camps in Thailand. After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, communist forces persecuted the Hmong, whose soldiers covertly supported the U.S. forces in an operation known as “the Secret War.”

Wisconsin was a leading destination for resettled Hmong refugees. According to recent census data, Wisconsin now has the third largest Hmong population in the U.S., after California and Minnesota—with significant communities in Green Bay, Oshkosh, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and Appleton.

Shackelford joined with collaborators May Lee Lor and Ma Lee Lor to document the testimonies from Hmong immigrants, who shared harrowing stories of escape and loss as well as Hmong traditions, including Shamanic practices, stitchwork and oral storytelling.

“Oral storytelling is a pantheon of the Hmong experience,” says Dr. Pao Lor, Associate Dean of Education at UW-La Crosse and author of “Modern Jungles: A Hmong Refugee’s Childhood Story of Survival.” Lor welcomes the publication of Shackelford’s book as part of a rebirth of Hmong oral storytelling in the age of YouTube and Facebook.

Unique among Hmong oral history books—and other histories of Green Bay—the collection features photography and pencil drawings by Shackelford, who has taught art at St. Norbert College and UW-Green Bay. Her large-scale drawing, “The New Immigrant,” zooms in on the deeply-lined face of Mai Xiong, who tells Shackelford in an interview, “I am 120 years old.” Photos capture Hmong elders as they cut story cloths, perform ceremonies, and sit in shadow beside a bright window—an image that, to Shackelford, reveals “a loneliness you can see.”

Shackelford hopes the book will move readers from all backgrounds to deeper understanding. “There is so much prejudice in the world. If we can share stories and the lives of other people, we will become more sensitive.”

“What I want most is for readers that know nothing, to gain some compassion. And for Hmong people to know their stories are being heard.”

“A Portrait of Grief and Courage: Hmong Oral Histories and Folktales,” documented by Sandra Shackelford, translated by Mai Lee Lor, transcribed by Ma Lee Lor. Published by Mimi & Rupert Books, an imprint of The Teaching Press at UW-Green Bay, a student-managed publisher and printing house.


About UW-Green Bay
The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is a school of resilient problem solvers who dare to reach higher with the power of education that ignites growth and answers the biggest challenges. Serving 10,300 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students as well as 67,500 continuing education learners annually, UW-Green Bay offers 200 academic degrees, programs, and certificates. With four campus locations in Northeast Wisconsin, the University’s access mission welcomes all students who want to learn, from every corner of the world. Championing bold thinking since opening its doors in 1965, it is a university on the rise – Wisconsin’s fastest growing UW. For more information, visit www.uwgb.edu.

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