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The Reluctant Shaman

Sitha Thor’s aunt Ma Xiong Thao is a shaman, a healer, who lives in Appleton, Wis., with her husband, Chong Ge Thao, and their children and grandchildren. In this interview, Ma Xiong shares the long arduous journey she took to become a spiritual healer in the Hmong community.

as told to Sonia Zimmerman

Back in Laos, my father was a shaman; he was a person who oversaw the village. My mom became a shaman when I was 5. I saw my parents fix or heal the people who were very ill and about to die. They recovered just like they were treated by a doctor. It is a good thing that my parents were shamans because where we lived, we didn’t have any doctors, and the shamans are the ones to fix, heal people spiritually.

Ma Xiong Thao portrait 
Ma Xiong Thao, Sitha Thor's aunt.

I did not want to be a shaman because I knew it would be difficult and hard in this country, in America. For one, you can’t make a living, and two, the people living around you may not like it. But the shaman spirit touched me and I felt as if I was bitten all over by an insect. I was sick for 20 years until I accepted that I am a shaman. Two or three years ago, I accepted that I had been chosen to be a shaman, and I was no longer sick.

I need to wait until a master shaman comes to me to perform a spirit washing ceremony. The spirits bring this shaman to me. I cannot ask for it myself. The spirit washing is to pull spirits to me and support me throughout my shaman practices.

My husband will be doing some magic to see which master shaman is capable of coming to do the spirit washing ritual. I am waiting for that person to come perform his ritual before I can continue further.
Back in our country, it is different from here. There is a lot of farmland and a lot of area. We play the leaf whistle to each other to get an idea of where we are at when we are on the farm. We learn this from watching the older adults.

We lived in Laos and it was a country that had war. We did not know fun or know what to do. Ever since I grew up, I just remember that we were in the war and we kept going from place to place. I lost a couple brothers and some even died right in front of me. We were soldiers with General Vang Pao (who was a Lt. General in the Royal Lao Army and leader of the Hmong fighters against North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War). After the war we could no longer live in Laos.

I am worried the Hmong culture is being lost and I cannot teach my children how to carry on the Hmong culture because making a living is different in this country. Even if they want to learn they might not be able. This might just disappear and be gone. I have no hope about going back to the old country because the enemy took over that country and it is no longer ours.


(Editor's note: Ma Xiong Thao became a full-fledged shaman in April 2012 after a master shaman performed the required ritual.)