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Minnesota Hmong fear backlash after Wisconsin shooting

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - The arrest of a Hmong-American in the shootings of eight hunters in northwest Wisconsin left some Hmong citizens in his hometown fearful of a backlash.

"This is a very tragic event," Michael Yang, a Hmong activist, said. "This hurts all of us."

In St. Paul, home to more Hmong than any other American city, Sunday's shootings hit hard.

Ying Vang, executive director of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota in St. Paul, said he fielded 35 to 40 calls Monday from Hmong residents who are worried about reaction to the shooting.

"They told me, 'We are here to stay, and when such a tragedy happens, the American citizens look at us differently than they did before," Vang said.

Yang said various Hmong groups held an emergency meeting Monday to talk about how to respond. Several Hmong hunters were invited to the meeting, he said, and some told stories about friction with white hunters.

Investigators in Wisconsin said Chai Vang, 36, opened fire on hunters after they told him to leave a deer stand that was on private property. Pressed for a reason for the violence, investigators said they simply didn't know.

"The action makes no sense," Sawyer County (Wis.) Sheriff James Meier said.

Ilean Her, director of the St. Paul-based Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, said conflicts between white hunters and Hmong hunters aren't new. She recalled an incident about five years ago near Rochester, Minn., when Hmong hunters were involved in a fistfight after crossing onto private land to hunt.

"This doesn't come as that much of a surprise," Her said. "What surprised me was the level of violence involved."

Her said "lots of people" in the Hmong community are empathizing with Vang.

"So many people in the community were like, 'Well, let's try to listen to the story the way that this man is being treated," she said. "Why did he feel like he had to shoot them? ... If it's just one against so many, what did they do to him that made him a threat?"

State Sen. Mee Moua, one of two Hmong legislators in Minnesota, rejected the idea that cultural differences or racism played any role in the shooting.

"He's probably crazy," she said.

She acknowledged that Hmong-Americans feel racism on a daily basis, but "that doesn't mean you kill people."

"We're all just speculating that may have been a trigger for him," Moua said. "We're all searching for answers. But as we're doing that search, speculation is just speculation."

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said he hadn't heard of widespread conflict between Hmong hunters and others.

"In this case, you have a private land issue," he said. "I haven't walked in his shoes. My understanding of what he as a Hmong has gone through is nil. I can try to understand, but I don't."

Johnson said the private land issue, in particular, has been a growing source of conflict as land available for public hunting is lost to development.

He said he's had a couple of meetings with the Hmong community to try to increase understanding on both sides, especially because the Hmong community is probably the biggest minority hunting group in Minnesota.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have large concentrations of Hmong, immigrants from southeast Asia with a long tradition of hunting. Both states have hired conservation officers and others with southeast Asian backgrounds to help educate newcomers on dealing with regulations.

But Vang didn't appear to be a neophyte. He's held hunting licenses in Minnesota since 2000, and had a valid firearms license this year in Wisconsin too. In Minnesota, he also had a deer archery license and small game license, used for hunting pheasant, grouse and squirrel, for instance.

In Minnesota, he was cited once, in 2001, for a fishing violation when he took 93 crappies more than the legal limit.

St. Paul police say they were called to Vang's house twice in the past year on domestic violence calls, but both were resolved without incident and no police reports were filed. He doesn't have a record of criminal history with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, either.

When Yang, the Hmong activist, was reached Monday, his cell phone was nearly dead. He said it had been ringing nonstop since Sunday afternoon, with callers concerned about shooting. The groups at the emergency meeting planned to present a unified message at a news conference Tuesday, he said.

"I am fearful of misunderstanding," Yang said. "That's why the group came together. It's how we can help this community, we can reassure the community - the community as a whole. We are part of a single community."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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