When Pa Lor pulls the red veil over her face, she travels to the spirit world searching for lost spirits or ways to help people living in the real world. But physically, her body is still here.
She chants, shakes and moves her legs up and down in age old ways used to help heal Hmong people. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I said, “Hey you know what, my gift has never harmed or hurt anyone. All it has is helped people emotionally and it’s helped them (when they are sick) physically too” says Lor, 31.
Lor is a shaman. It’s a calling that she struggled for years to understand, but eventually became a gift that she embraced.
Much of her life was shaped by the Christian religion, a path that her brother chose to follow after the church helped to resettle her family in the United States in 1979. She grew up in Stockton learning about God and the Bible by attending church services with her older brother, with her sister and with missionaries when she was older.
But her faith and all she had learned about religion was put to the test when she was chosen by a higher power to become a shaman at age 21.
“I had suffered three years trying to understand is this God’s work or is this the Devil’s work,” says Lor, an eighth grade teacher in Stockton.
Lor was first introduced to Hmong shaman ceremonies at age 10 or 11. “At that age, you always want to sneak a peek under the shaman’s veil to see what evil was really behind it,” she jokes.
She remembers thinking that shaman ceremonies or Hmong kev ua neeg is too long. It requires early morning preparation and a long day of waiting around. She and her niece told each other that they would not have any shaman ceremonies when they got older.
After graduating from Franklin High School at age 16 and enrolling at Delta College, Lor got sick. For the next five years, she lived with constant aches, pains and fatigue. The doctors didn’t know what it was and all the chiropractors could do was massage her. They told her to take Tylenol for the pain. During the fifth year of her illness, Lor woke up one night and told her mother she was dying.
“I felt every single little cell on my body just slowly lift away,” Lor says. “It was so hard for me to breathe and I couldn’t feel my body anymore.”
Her mother called a shaman the next day to perform a ceremony or ua neeg. As soon as Lor was placed on the bench in front of the ta neeg or altar, she began to shake and move her legs up and down in the motion of a shaman.
Her eyes were closed as if someone forced her eyelids shut. Then she had her first vision. It was dark, pitch black, but she could clearly see a dark road in front of her as if this was the road to be taken.
The people around her, moved her from the bench to the couch and she continued to shake and move her legs. The shaman restarted the ceremony and Lor mimicked the shaman’s every move from the couch without ever opening her eyes.
They said that Lor’s illness was mob neeg or the reason behind her sickness was the calling to become a shaman.
Since then, no one has asked her if she wanted to ua neeg or be a shaman. She just became one.
“On that day, I think I cried the hardest,” Lor says about the experience. “I wasn’t scared. I just cried and couldn’t stop… I think the old me died that day and someone new reborn because that day I think I just matured more than I ever did.”
Lor’s transition into a shaman happened quickly. She started practicing almost immediately under the guidance of another more seasoned shaman. Shaman customs and rituals are not taught and cannot be learned. “It just happens,” Lor says. “There are no instruction manuals or classes to take.”
The first night Lor performed, she saw a vision of a man wearing a white pantsuit with a red sash. She later asked her mom to sew her a similar outfit to wear when she performs ceremonies.
The second night, Lor says she heard the sound of the drum used during the ceremony turn into a calming Chinese flute. On the third night, the sound of the flute turned into words coming from a monk. Then she started repeating everything she heard.
Shamans are mediators between the living and the spirit world. They journey to the spirit world while hidden behind the dark veils worn during shaman ceremonies.
She has spirit helpers who help her navigate the spirit world and its rules. Her main spirit helper has a strong influence on Lor who speaks Chinese when performing shaman ceremonies as well as some Thai, Laotian and Cambodian.
Lor gets her information from her spirit helpers and together solve problems, ask permission to enter and leave homes and for help to find lost spirits. If that doesn’t work, they will go to a higher power for help. Everything that she does on the other side has to happen according to a certain set of rules.
“Every shaman, no matter what kind of shaman you are, you have to go through the steps,” Lor says. “We may see that the spirit world is not structured, but everything is structured just like here. They have their laws we have to go by.”
“Spirits are only seen when they want to be,” Lor says. “Those that don’t want to be seen, won’t appear anywhere.”
In the spirit world, Lor sees vivid, color images of people or situations. She hears names and can see what people are wearing down to the color. And sometimes there’s nothing.
“You can ua neeg straight through and not see anything,” says Lor who started performing shaman ceremonies for people outside her family in about a month. She jokes that for a period of her life she hated Hmong clothing because that’s all she saw people wearing on the other side.
During her first journey into the spirit world, when looking into the situation of a man with foot pain, Lor remembers seeing the image of a child sitting on a log. She learned that the child, an orphan, used to live with the man and his wife before getting sick and dying. She was told the child was taken by evil spirits or dab. That was Lor’s first confrontation with an evil entity, one she wasn’t prepared for. And it followed for a while because she didn’t know how to block it out. That image stands out for Lor who says her journey in the spirit world sometimes plays out like a story or movie scenes with details. Sometimes there are no images at all.
In another case, she was asked to look into the situation of a girl who was sick and couldn’t eat or take care of herself. Lor went into the spirit world and saw the girl’s mother who had died years before. The mother said her daughter was not being loved or cared for so she came to take the girl. Lor said she told the mother to go away. “One of the rules in the spirit world is the dead have to go away,” she said. “They can’t stay around.”
Future of Shamanism
Lor doesn’t know how many ceremonies she has performed since becoming a shaman nearly 10 years ago. When she first started, she performed between two and four ceremonies on both Saturdays and Sundays and some in between on the weekdays at her home after returning home from school or work. Once Lor was able to understand her gift, she was able to return to school to study liberal studies at California State University, Sacramento. She graduated in 2005 and received her teaching credentials a year later. She speaks quickly about her experience as a young shaman and admits that she is physically tired and mentally exhausted of helping people all the time. But she looks at her gift as something to be proud of and a way to help people. Lor believes shamans are God’s helpers.
“There’s so much evil out there as well as good and he can’t keep track of it,” Lor says. “It’s a hard job for him and so that’s why he created shamans and whatever you call it to be the mediators…because there isn’t anyone who can go into the spirit world and back. What the role of the shaman is just to be that medium to resolve it.”
“For as long as the Hmong people have existed, so has shamanism and it’s not going away,” Lor says. “Culture is changing and shamanism will change to accommodate it.”
It seems to be happening already. In the last few years alone, there have been more instances of a higher power choosing young adults like Lor to practice shamanism. Even those who know little Hmong language are being picked to carry on the tradition. This occurrence should relieve those who think shamanism may disappear as the elders pass on and the younger generation becomes more Americanized. “As long as shamans exist, we will never lose that,” Lor says.
The mainstream acceptance of shamanism as a form of spiritual care and a tool for healing is catching the attention of local and national news as well. Through the work of the Hmong Health Collaborative (www.hmonghc.org), shamanism is gaining mainstream recognition and now are able to work alongside doctors in at least one California hospital so far. The collaborative is a partnership of nine community organizations advocating for culturally and linguistically competent care in the California health system to help Hmong people. The Fresno Bee and The New York Times recently featured stories on the initiative and its start at Mercy Medical Center in Merced.
It’s a positive change and a helpful one for those like Lor. “People always think shaman is a religion, but I don’t think it is,” she says. “I think it’s our way of life. When you take shaman away from the Hmong culture, you’re not going to have much.”