2 Chai Vang by Erik Wennermark

After donning a bulletproof vest to walk from the Sawyer County jail to the courthouse across the street, Chai Vang, the man charged with killing six Wisconsin deer hunters and wounding two others last month, quietly pleaded not guilty at his first public court appearance Wednesday morning.

—Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 30, 2004

 

 

Chai Vang

 

“Chai Vang is a shaman,” says Mai Vang, his sister, in a brief interview with the New York Times. “But I don’t know how long he has been one.”

 

“Chai Vang is a shaman,” says Cher Xee Vang, no relation, in a longer interview with the New York Times. “When we need him to cure the ill with traditional ways of healing he will do so happily.”

 

When Chai Vang first comes to America, missionaries in the Hmong Community Center try to convert him to Christianity. They read the Bible aloud and give him and the other children candy. When the missionary speaks of the need for salvation, Chai Vang replies, “But I have never sinned.”

 

“Chai Vang is a special person,” says Ber Xiong, speaking briefly before the assembled guests at the beauty pageant. (The beauty pageant had ended and it was considered appropriate to now change the subject following the crowning of the victor, a lovely young woman by the name of Gao Hmo.) “He is my friend and occasional hunting companion and I can attest to his sincere commitment to both hunting and friendship.” Ber Xiong’s words are met by warm applause from the assembled guests, who can also attest, many being hunters too, to the sincerity required of the act. Some though, whose applause is more muted, are fearful of Chai Vang’s magical powers, as is prudent, though even they can attest to Chai Vang’s important role among the Hmong of St. Paul’s immigrant community, of which there are 25,000.

 

While hunting in Wisconsin, it is customary for the hunter to unload his or her gun before passing through a fence. It is also considered “good luck” to place the first fresh deer dung spotted on the hunt in the hunter’s left front pocket.

 

When Chai Vang’s uncle passes from this world, Chai Vang blows through the wing of a chicken onto his uncle’s body. The dead must travel on the wind; if they do not, the soul may return to haunt the living. For good measure, Chai Vang places a bottle of Scotch on his uncle’s grave.

 

In high school, as a member of the military cadet corps, Chai Vang earns a National Rifle Association award for “unusual marksmanship.” The plaque, which hangs over his mantle, is one of his most prized possessions. An admirer’s stray fingerprint is never long left upon its glassy surface.

 

Before coming to Minnesota, Chai Vang lives in San Jose for several years, where he is a decorated member of the California National Guard. Making good use of his time, he also courts and wins the runner-up to Miss Hmong Fresno 1986, his first wife. She is a beautiful girl of 19 named Ka Chue Yang. Following their move to Minnesota, her beauty is numbed by the relentless ice and snow.

 

Hunting is one of the few traditions that remain for Hmong in America. It is a connection between the generations separated by the wide gulf of war. Grandfathers hunt with their grandsons. Uncles and brothers and cousins as well. This attitude, however, seems culturally unbound: the Ojibwe, Sioux, and Scandinavian, of Wisconsin and Minnesota, share similar sentiments.

 

My grandmother, Dorothy Hallet, is born in Houlka, Mississippi in 1928. She marries a military man from Chicago and travels the world. Her favorite country is Thailand. She finds the climate very pleasant in its similarity to the American South. In 2003, she dies of lung cancer.

 

Many of the Hmong who first emigrate to the United States are part of the esteemed General Vang Pao’s Secret Army, a covert force that assists the Central Intelligence Agency in the Vietnam War. Over 40,000 Hmong men are killed in the conflict.

 

When Wally Cieslak sees the man walk out from the thicket into the road, the man’s reversible hunting vest switched from orange to camouflage, he is surprised. “Watch it buddy, somebody’s gonna mistake you for a deer!” he says. The man apologizes and replies that he has been separated from his friends. “That’s alright buddy, I can give you a ride,” says Wally Cieslak. “Which way you headed?”

 

The night before the incident, Chai Vang dreams of Vietnam. In his dream he is chased by Vietnamese soldiers, several of whom he kills. Eventually, however, he is overwhelmed and his body is torn apart, as if by a pack of starved animals fighting over scraps of spoiled meat.

 

Jessica Willers is an attractive blonde woman one might describe as “vivacious” or “full of life.” In 2002, after years of diligent study, she receives her Dental Hygenist license from St. Croix Community College. She enjoys making jokes and laughing with the patients under her supervision and, as a result of her good nature, wins the Hygienist-of-the-Month Award five months running. This record will never be matched.

 

For many thousands of years, until they were forced away by the barbaric Manchu dynasty, the Hmong people lived as nomads in the mountainous regions of China.

 

Chai Vang’s third wife, while checking the computer’s “Internet History” function in order to insure her two young sons are not looking at material inappropriate for their age group, finds listings for the biographies of both Dai Li and Heinrich Himmler. Investigating further, she discovers that Dai Li, who is sometimes known by the nickname, “the Himmler of China,” was integral in starting China’s Bureau of Investigation and Statistics, a misleadingly benign designation for what is truly to be considered the country’s secret police. According to the webpage, Dai Li was also known for his “wild drinking parties.” Chai Vang’s third wife also discovers that the Nazi Himmler, who may or may not have been nicknamed “the Dai Li of Germany,” was a heavy drinker as well.

 

A 1987 pamphlet issued by the Asian Sudden Death Information Center in Minnesota describes the abnormally high occurrence of Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS) among Hmong refugees as impossible to account for. The pamphlet states, “In spite of past and ongoing studies of SUNDS, health specialists have not found a cause for it.” James Essling, chief medical examiner of St. Paul, concurs with the pamphlet. “We drew a complete blank,” he says. “In each case we asked ourselves what they had died from and the answer was ‘Nothing.’”

 

Va Pao Xing, a college student of Hmong origin in Wisconsin, reports having been called a “chink” several times. “It makes you wonder whether they even understand who the Hmong people are, where we come from or what we’ve been through,” he says.

 

My grandfather, Jack Hallett, is a Green Beret and a decorated veteran of three wars. In 1945, he is part of the American force that liberates the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Many surrendering Nazi troops—estimates range from 30-500—are executed by the Americans in what is known as the “Dachau Massacre.” During the Vietnam War, he serves in Laos with Air America, a passenger and cargo airline covertly operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, providing support to the Secret Army of the esteemed Hmong General Vang Pao, among other duties. Many years later, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he is finally undone by Alzheimer’s disease.

 

The indigenous peoples of Wisconsin believe that on the rare occasion that a great bear is successfully stalked and shot, the hunter must immediately scoop out the bear’s eyes and eat them as if they were oysters. If the hunter does not, grave misfortune will follow him forever. When Chai Vang first hears of this tradition, he bends his head in a manner akin to worship.

 

Tswb Tchoj, Hmong hero and vanquisher of countless Chinese, is the product of the union between a great wild boar and a human woman.

 

When asked his favorite soft drink, Chai Vang invariably replies, “Mountain Dew.”

 

Chai Vang’s second wife finds him a difficult man, argumentative, obsessed by the everyday injustice he perceives in his life. “He is a brilliant shaman,” she says, “but this means nothing in America. Perhaps it would be better had he never experienced any visions at all. I think it would.”

 

In order to discover the direction that a soul has traveled, a Hmong shaman tosses a horn into the air. The direction of the tip of the horn points to the departed soul. In order to heal the ailing patient, the soul must be recovered.

 

Bob Crotteau, father of Joey, Carter, and Vanessa, works pouring concrete in the summer and plowing snow in the winter; his sunburned and wind cracked skin a testament to his vocation. “I guess I had to die someday,” he says, recalling the moment the bullet entered his back. “And for what it’s worth, I’m glad I died outside. I just wish I coulda seen my little girl, you know, one last time.”

 

“It’s difficult to be a Hmong-American right now,” says Mee Moua, the lone Hmong in the Minnesota State Senate, during a short recess in between sessions of the state assembly. “It’s just tough,” she reiterates.

 

Not far away from Chai Vang’s jail cell, in the Our Lady of Lourdes Church, people gather and think of Chai Vang, though they do not think of his social responsibility, good friendships, or hunting prowess. They think of their loved ones and they think of vengeance.

 

The Superintendent of the Madison, Wisconsin School Board announces that a new elementary school will bear the name of the esteemed Hmong General Vang Pao, commander of the Secret Army. After the protests of many local residents who believe the General to be a drug smuggler and war criminal, the Superintendent believes the decision to have been a poor one.

 

“We are just like baby birds who stay in their nests, opening their mouths, waiting only for the mother bird to bring the worms,” says respected Hmong elder Nao Chai Her. “When the government doesn’t send cash on time, we even fear we’ll starve. I used to be a real man like any other man, but not any longer. The work I used to do, I can’t do here. I feel like a thing which drops in the fire but won’t burn and drops in the river but won’t float.”

 

Mark Roidt’s favorite T-shirt reads, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” He is pronounced dead at the scene.

 

Chai Vang remembers his neighbor’s daughter, who had been crowned Miss Hmong Minnesota, and the day her father knocked on Chai Vang’s door. The man was clearly agitated and when he tried to speak to Chai Vang about the matter of concern, he could not form the words he had hoped to express. Chai Vang invited the man inside for a cup of tea—though one steeped quickly granting the man’s condition—and sat him down at the kitchen table. When the man was adequately calmed down and able to speak, he related that his daughter had been crying upon her return from school. Eventually, her father discovered that on the school bus home a young white boy had spit on her and made unkind remarks including calling her a “chink.” He communicated this story to Chai Vang, as well as his wish to deliver retribution against the boy for the slight, which Chai Vang counseled against. “I will talk to the spirits,” said Chai Vang. “The spirits will direct your hand, my friend. But I can assure you they will direct it towards peace.”

 

In 1991, overwhelming evidence of a Hmong genocide is presented to the United States Congress, including substantiated reports of the use of chemical weapons against the Hmong people by the Laotian government.

 

“It was different in Laos,” says Der Vang, a Minnesota Hmong of no relation to Chai Vang. “You could hunt all year round and it was all public land.”

 

In America, it does not take Chai Vang long to find a wife. In fact, he finds three. Though when he finds them, all three are barren as the desert sand.

 

The unfortunate biology of each successive wife causes Chai Vang constant consternation. As a result, Chai Vang begins to experiment with a variety of herbs and bark procured on his long walks through the Minnesota and Wisconsin woods. Using his skills as a Shaman, he develops, with much effort, an essence that he burns in the bedroom during the act of lovemaking with each successive wife. After many trials he finds success: despite their advancing years, Chai Vang leaves each wife more fecund then the last.

 

Not long after divorcing his second wife, Chai Vang’s eldest daughter elopes and converts to Christianity.

 

“Christians just say prayers,” says Chai Vang. “But no one guides you. We want flutes and drums. Our children have not made our funeral coats. I have 13 children, it would not be so hard to make the coat.” He then collapses on the sofa with a heavy sigh.

 

Jill Johnson, my mother, serves as a tour guide for the esteemed Hmong General Vang Pao, commander of the Secret Army. This is in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1969. She remembers the General’s pleasant nature, but also his indignation. “He looked at the actors bustling around in their costumes and I could just tell something was wrong,” she says. “I was worried it was something I had done; he had such a strange look on his face. ‘These people lived better in the1700’s than my people do today,’ he said, and then politely asked to return to the car.”

 

Chai Vang raises chicken and has done so since he was a child. He enjoys eating the chicken he raises, and playing with them as well. After Chai Vang sees a chicken playing checkers on a television show Chai Vang cannot remember, he attempts to teach the same to one of his chickens, a beautiful white hen named Adrienne. Chai Vang and Adrienne are ultimately unsuccessful in engaging in a competitive match of checkers, but both enjoy the process immensely. When Chai Vang’s second wife prepares a curry with Adrienne, Chai Vang, upon taking his first bite, stands up from the table and announces in a loud voice to all assembled, “Adrienne’s flesh is as tender and succulent as she or I could have ever reasonably hoped. Although, despite this delicious curry, it is a shame that she was such a poor player of checkers.”

 

Two years after Chai Vang is incarcerated, Cha Vang, no relation, is murdered in the woods of Wisconsin. He is shot in the chest and stabbed six times in the face and neck. His murderer, 29-year-old James Nichols, then hides his body. James Nichols is convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in ten years.

 

In Chai Vang’s home there are three rifles. Chai Vang, who is without children, cares for these rifles as if they are children.

 

When Chai Vang’s daughter begins to experience irregular menstruation, he spends many hours crafting a clouded leopard from clay he has first blessed by calling the spirits forth with a flute of bamboo. The clay is supple in his hands and seems to form into the leopard of its own accord. Chai Vang then places it at his daughter’s bedside, taunting the moon.

 

Chai Vang is eleven-years old when he escapes Laos. He believes the journey was more perilous than most similar journeys, though his sister, who was nine-years old at the time, disagrees. “The animals were worrisome,” she says. “But that was about it.”

 

If a shaman falls to the ground while he is in a trance, he will surely die.

 

Some wonder—many of the same who fear Chai Vang’s magical prowess—how it is that a shaman of Chai Vang’s ability could find himself directly involved in such an occurrence. Little do they know that Chai Vang asks this same question while squatting beside a grove of pine trees. Chai Vang even finds himself angry—a feeling that surprises him—that the trees and animals did not protect him from the seven men and one woman, but, after quiet reflection, understands that the trees and animals had other matters to attend to.

 

Chai Vang often lets his tea steep for longer than most would think necessary or appropriate. This allows the tea to take an almost pitch like color as well as a pungent aroma and taste. He takes a thermos of his tea into the blind in the early mornings, where he can sit comfortably for hours without firing a single shot. These are two examples of Chai Vang’s patience.

 

The government of Guyana, in a characteristic display of altruism, allows many Hmong refugees to reinhabit the People’s Temple, site of the Jonestown Massacre. The grateful Hmong have since moved on.

 

With over 100 years of experience in ammunition excellence, Barnaul Ammunition, Russia’s premier manufacturer, is known for its superior quality and reliability. Match grade bullet design, including boat tailed bullets for all rifle cartridges, results in superior ballistics and provides unsurpassed performance and accuracy. Experts agree: Barnaul Ammunition is a must have for any hunter.

 

The Nightmare, a familiar creature across many cultures, is an evil spirit that preys on the sleeping. When in the presence of the Nightmare, the victim feels a profound sense of terror that is only heightened when the victim discovers he or she is awake, yet completely paralyzed. The Nightmare then crawls upon the victim’s chest, and presses out the life.

 

Chai Vang’s sons are too interested in watching television to study the ways of a Hmong shaman. The disappoints Chai Vang greatly. After much thought, he decides to have more sons.

 

In his blind, Chai Vang sits. Chai Vang enjoys the time here. It is quiet and the spirit of the deer stalks nearby. So near he can see its breath in the otherwise empty air. Chai Vang tips his hat to the phantom animal and smiles whimsically. “I will kill your brothers,” he says, “but there will be no malice in my heart.”

 

Reports among Hmong indicate that racial slurs are “nothing new” while hunting in Wisconsin.

 

“I don’t remember any racial slurs,” says survivor Lauren Hesebeck. “What if there were? Does that give you the right to shoot people?”

 

A Ford Windstar pulls up in front of Chai Vang’s house and three men leap out with looks of derision and purpose. The men are Hmong from Fresno whom Chai Vang does not know. When Chai Vang’s youngest daughter is kidnapped by the men from Fresno, Chai Vang’s youngest son hits one of the men with a shoe. The boy is slapped to the ground.

 

The shaman divides the self into five parts: the self of the chicken, of the bamboo, of the bull, of the reindeer, and of the shadow. It is the shaman’s duty to find and replace any part of the self that goes missing.

 

A porcupine should never be killed unless the hunter is lost.

 

Chai Vang places the seeds on the taut skin of the leather drum; each seed signifies a member of his family’s soul. Previous to this, he has made a hole in the drum’s center with an awl. Deep in a trance, he bangs the drum with precision, watching the seeds leap towards their destiny. His wife’s seed drops quickly, his many sons and daughters follow suit. It is not until Chai Vang has been banging the drum for over one hour that his seed too returns home. Raising the shroud from his eyes, Chai Vang speaks, “Despite my sons’ cowardice, I will fight the God of Death.”

 

Al Laski keeps a helmet of the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League on the mantle at his home, which he shares with his wife and three children. He rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Chai Vang shoots him twice in the back and once in the buttocks.

 

On June 4, 2007, as a result of Operation Flawed Eagle, the esteemed Hmong General Vang Pao is charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with violation of the Federal Neutrality Acts. The warrant states he is instrumental in planning an attempt to illegally overthrow the government of Laos by arranging the purchase of Kalashnikov assault rifles and Stinger missiles. The weapons are to be smuggled through Thailand into Laos to arm insurgent forces.

 

Lisa Wennermark, my sister, is born in Thailand in 1970. She dies 36 years later in Lynchburg, Virginia.

 

Having been awakened by his terrified wife, Minnesota resident Ge Xiong recalls the tall black dog perched on his chest. “You want to speak, you are dumb; you want to call out, you cannot,” he says.

 

On November 8, 2005, Chai Vang is sentenced to 6 consecutive life sentences plus 70 years by a jury of 8 women and 4 men. On the wall of his jail cell, he sketches a grove of pine trees.

 

Chai Vang holds his palms up; they are filled with eggs and dollar bills. Each one of his children must tie a piece of twine around his wrist—he is confident this will prove his children’s love.

 

Chai Vang recalls a hunting trip: “I was asleep in the forest when an old man wearing a cloak approached me and asked me if I was strong. I replied, ‘Yes, I am very strong.’ He then asked me to show him proof. I quickly did 20 push ups and returned to my sleeping bag, feeling he should be satisfied with my display and carry on about his business. The man, however, did not seem satisfied. He placed his hand on my neck and squeezed very hard. I tried to tell the man to stop but found I could not speak or move. It was only when an elk ran across the campsite that I was awakened from my terrible dream and able to move again. I cut my hunting trip short that weekend: I did not wish to kill the spirit that had saved my life.”

 

The Penguin brand of dry ice is declared by all parties involved as the optimal brand for use in hunting, fishing, and camping trips, preventing spoilage when portioned correctly in coolers of Styrofoam or otherwise.

 

In 1968, my parents, Jill Hallett and Charles Wennermark, are married. The esteemed Hmong General Vang Pao attends their wedding, a lavish affair in a Bangkok hotel. As a gift, he presents them with a 14th century Laotian Rain Drum. It is in my father’s living room in Colorado.

 

“I’ve been hunting since I was a little girl,” says Jessica Willers, one of the dead. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

 

After the incident, Rollie Thompson, who was roughly a mile away, admits, “I just thought it was a bunch of boys having fun. You know, raising hell.”

 

The bumper sticker “Save a deer, shoot a Mung [sic]” is a popular item in many markets of Minnesota and Wisconsin, most notably VFW taverns, gun shops, and high school football concession stands.

 

“I haven’t heard of any anger towards the Hmong,” says Patty Rice, a community leader. “You talk about racism, I just don’t see it.”

 

“When we were outside, everyone was happy,” recalls Chai Vang’s younger brother, Sang Vang. “We’d sit around the campfire, family and friends. Sometimes we would play games. It was like Laos but without the soldiers chasing us. I do not remember our escape through the jungle—I was in my mother’s womb—but my brothers and sisters have told me the stories.”

 

Ntxwj Nyug judges the souls of the dead from his seat atop a mighty mountain, where he keeps watch over his herd of cattle. From a nearby desk, Nvuj Vaj Tuam Teem issues the licenses for rebirth. Once one’s license for life has expired, only a shaman may intervene.

 

Mike Katterhagen, when asked if he has a negative representation of people of Asian descent replies, “Personally, I don’t.” After a moment of quiet reflection, he adds, “Some people, I think, may.”

 

“I mostly ignore what people say,” adds Va Pao Xing, after a moment of quiet reflection. “But it does hurt.”

 

Chai Vang believes his rifle a superior rifle. It is Russian-made, a semi-automatic Saiga. “It is easy to shoot,” he says, “and quicker to shoot if you miss the first time.”

 

Joey Crotteau, 20, remembers running back toward the cabin when he felt the series of stinging concussions burrow into his back. “It hurt so bad,” he says, before again lying face down in the dirt.

 

Chai Vang’s aunt, also a shaman, sacrifices a bull in an attempt to recover his spirit.

 

Chai Vang is visited by his two sons from his second wife. He cowers in the corner, hurling insults in a language neither of the two understand, though they are certain it is indeed insults that Chai Vang is hurling. As the two boys begin to walk away, prematurely concluding their visit, Chai Vang collapses to the ground and begins to shake violently, a film of saliva upon his lips. They do not come to his assistance. They know better than to interfere in matters that do not concern them.

 

Chai Vang casts a spell towards a nearby tree, calling upon the birds, animals, and insects that travel the leaves and branches to aid him. In the spell he asks for deliverance, as he would ask the bee to pollinate the flower.

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