The young mountain generation in the United States uses art and social media to bring their culture to life
After immigrating to the United States at the age of 9, Hthu Nie spent years denying who she was. Nie, who is Montagnard, an ethnic minority indigenous to Vietnam’s central highlands, told her classmates that she was Vietnamese, not believing they would grasp the nuances between the two. “I was like, ‘I’m in America now,'” she said. “I didn’t think it was that serious.” It wasn’t until she started college that she began to wonder why she was “erasing [her] own culture”.
Nie, who graduated in 2021 and will start nursing school in the fall, has become a strong supporter of preserving mountain customs and traditions. Like many Montagnards her age, she feels a deep sense of urgency as the heir to a “dying culture”, the survival of which she believes rests on the shoulders of her generation.
These young leaders have made it their mission to carry on their legacy, steeped in persecution due to their alliance with the United States during the Vietnam War.
On social media, their efforts are evident.
In a TikTok video, three friends dance in hand-woven embroidered clothes for the #cultureoutfitchallenge. Tune in to the viral chords of Jawsh 685’s “Laxed”“, they each take a turn swinging theatrically for the camera.
On Facebook, the nearly 1,500 members of the private Montagnard Food group share cooking videos and post images of classic dishes, such as Trong Phi (bitter eggplant) and beef salad. “We love our food,” wrote a poster above a traditional kitchen photo gallery.
Artists, like Sachi Dely, create works that combine history with their experience of living in the United States. Others, like Nie, are pursuing careers that will allow them to directly serve the community.
Since the arrival of the first refugees in 1986, North Carolina has become home to the largest number of Montagnards outside Southeast Asia, with a population that has grown to more than 12,000, most living in the Piedmont Triad region.
Despite this growth, the preservation of mountain culture has become more difficult over the years, in part due to assimilation. And the peculiarities of the Montagnards’ history mean that their culture is not necessarily safeguarded in Vietnam either, putting their identity at risk.
Montagnard, meaning “mountain people” in French, is an umbrella term for more than 30 tribes that originally inhabited what is now Vietnam. Ethnically distinct from the country’s predominantly Christian Kinh majority, they have faced discrimination for more than two centuries. However, it was their fighting alongside US special forces during the Vietnam War – in hopes of gaining self-reliance – that led to their continued large-scale victimization at the hands of the central government.
After the United States withdrew from the war, the Montagnards were targeted as “traitors” and placed in re-education camps as the Communist Party sought revenge. Large numbers of people have fled to the United States and Cambodia and, as human rights organizations have documented, the one million people who remain in Vietnam continue to face abuse, including religious persecution, land seizures, imprisonment and forced assimilation.
In 2015, the Montagnard Dega Association (MDA), the Greensboro-based service provider at the center of American mountain life, formed a youth branch, focusing on education and cultural heritage. Offering lessons in traditional music, dance, and weaving, the Montagnard American Organization (MAO) strives to instill the value of Montagnard cultural practices in young people of all ages and engage them in civic life.
Liana Adrong, Director General of the MDA, notes that young adult mountain people are increasingly interested in their culture. This is likely due in part to the organization’s years of influence as well as the current ability to share and learn through social media. “The age group in their early and late twenties now wants to know more about their culture, about their language,” she said.
According to her, language is an integral part of any cultural preservation effort. “Without a language, without being able to speak, it’s hard to know who we are and then learn about ourselves.”
Dely agrees. It was not until the end of the 19th century that French missionaries created an alphabet for the dialects corresponding to each tribe, and the Montagnards have a strong oral tradition. “[In the past], things were not written, but told through stories,” she said. “I would like the stories to be passed on because they say a lot about who we are as a people and what our tribes have done.”
However, keeping mountain languages and stories alive, at least in their current form, can be a challenge for the younger generation. Parents are often hesitant to speak their native language to their American-born children, and although the MDA tries to offer lessons, there are few people qualified to teach the languages and a shortage of materials to use for the language. ‘education. Even in Vietnam, where all schools are taught in Vietnamese, the only material used to teach mountain languages is the Bible.
The key to cultural preservation for the Montagnards can be summed up in the recognition of ancient traditions giving way to modern forms.
Social media is a big part of it, but so is language. In 2019, MOA members collectively translated a Vietnamese folk tale, “Why Ducks Sleep on One Leg,” into Rhade and Koho dialects for young children, with English printed alongside.
B&K 2K19, a clothing brand owned by two mountain sisters, offers both traditional pieces and modern versions of them.
Last year, the MDA funded ‘The Past Is Present: New Mountain Artists’, a gallery exhibition and two-day event in which practitioners of traditional crafts, such as webbing weaving and basketry , were paired with young artists to create works in new mediums. . The show aimed not only to promote mountain artists and culture, but, as Dely, who participated, explained that as a refugee community, “things that have happened to [the Montagnards] long ago still affect our generation.
Although the struggles of the Montagnards and their relationship to the United States are unique, Adrong sees a similarity between the Montagnards and other immigrant and diasporic populations. “I wonder if other Asian American communities are going through the same thing in terms of the generation gap and trying to preserve their culture,” she said, adding: [cultural preservation] “start at home”.