Clans and Lineages
Clan is a very important part of Hmong culture and social life. A clan is a group of families all of whom share the same family name and all of whom are linked to a common set of ancestors. The concept of the clan emerged from the days when life was neither safe nor comfortable, especially when the Hmong were living in the highlands during war times in Southeast Asia. There were few people or external forces who could or were willing to offer assistance but one another. This meant that a big family, or a clan, was very valuable, for all the clan members were always ready to help each other.
The Hmong people have always found it an advantage to live banded together in clans. Although the Hmong word “xeem” (pronounced “seng”) is different from the word clan, both the idea and the reality are the same. Originally, there were twelve clans. These clans (based on their surnames) are Yang, Vang, Xiong, Thao, Vue, Moua, Lee, Her, Hang, Lor, Cha/Chang, and Kue. In time, a few more names were added and now there are about twenty-one clans.
In the state of Minnesota, for example, there are eighteen clans, and there is an organization called Hmong 18 Council of Minnesota. The clan members all consider themselves to be related in a way, in that they all maintain the same traditions and all believe in the same spirits.
Besides clan, lineage is another major social and cultural concept in Hmong culture. While people who share the same clan name are members of one clan, those large clans are also divided into smaller groups. One of these groups is called a “lineage,” and one clan has many lineages. A lineage is a group of people with the same clan name who can trace their roots through historical records to a common ancestor who lived within several generations of the recent past.
Yet because of the different lineages, new forms of clan rituals and ceremonies have arisen over times, with the result that different Hmong clans or lineages currently practice slightly different versions of rituals than formerly, and may recite modified texts in those rituals. Some Hmong today assume that, since the rituals of their clans or lineages are different from each other, the clans must be unrelated. This creates feelings of division among clans and lineages, and so another consequence of these changes in tradition is that the Hmong began to emphasize the importance of clan differences and of differing versions of rituals and their texts, rather than clan similarities and close relationships. Therefore, the focus of many individuals and clans has shifted to an emphasis on their own clan identity in later years, with clans accenting their differences from one another.
Still, clan membership is highly valued, and this is true both in modern America and in more traditional Laos. For example, in Minnesota, there are currently many Hmong clan organizations with extensive membership. All can be categorized into one of two types: informal groups, and those which are more formally associated. Most of the Hmong clan organizations are of the informal type, but there are several of the other kinds, as well.
In all cases, each clan elects a male representative for a term of one to three years as a sort of Clan President.The duties of this clan representative include calling the other clan members to meetings to discuss clan problems; attending meetings with the representatives of other clans; handling issues of concern to the entire Hmong community; and organizing the annual Hmong New Year Festival. These clan representatives also serve as members of the board of directors for formal Hmong organizations. Meanwhile, the smaller organizations are exemplified by the nonprofit mutual assistance association or the church group, and all Hmong belong either to one of the more loosely-knit groups or one of the more formal associations, or both.
Affairs in the Hmong community will be handled through clan leaders and Hmong social structures. This is a great help in dealing with individual, family, and community problems. Health care information is one of many areas in which the clan system makes it possible for news and information to reach many people quickly. This emphasis has benefits, and most Hmong are linked to some form of clan memberships. When a family member is sick, for example, everyone may expect that someone will always be available to care for that person. It is expected that not only family members, but others in the clan, as well as friends, will visit. If they do not, both the patient and his or her family members will feel offended, hurt, and saddened. Since it is customary in America that hospital usually allows a few people to visit a patient at one time, a large group of visitors will be observed in the waiting room, ready to take their turn to visit the patient when the hospital staff allows them to do so. Should the patient be seriously ill, all of his or her important family members and relatives will gather in the waiting room, not only to visit as a matter of obligation, but, in addition, to prepare themselves for any major decisions they may be forced to make as a result of any and all necessities created by the doctor’s recommendations.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.