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Hunting deaths spur concern about backlash
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People in Northern Wisconsin are trying to deal with the tragedy of six people killed in an apparent hunting confrontation (MPR photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
People in northern Wisconsin are reacting with horror to the deaths of six hunters, after they apparently confronted a trespasser on their land. Some worry the fact that the accused killer is a Hmong man from St. Paul could encourage racist feelings in the area.

Duluth, Minn. — Hunting is so popular in northern Wisconsin, some of the schools close down for the first week of the season.

At Ed's Pit Stop in Birchwood, the gas pumps are busy with pickups loaded with dead deer and all-terrain vehicles.

Birchwood has a population of 518, and it's just a few miles from the hunting shack used by the families of the hunters who were shot dead Sunday.

This area is overwhelmingly white, but the accused shooter is Chai Vang, a Hmong man from St. Paul.

David Owens lives in Birchwood. He says he's worried that some of his neighbors might over-react.

"We're just getting used to having different cultures up in this small town," Owens says. "And then something like this has to happen. It's very disturbing for me, I spent ten years in the service so I'm used to the different cultures. But this town isn't used to it, and now we'll just give them all a bad name again."

Owens says he's heard some racist comments. And he's heard that some Hmong hunters have gotten into trouble - trespassing and hunting without a licence.

"We have had trouble with them before, not necessarily with him, but with that group," he says. "They've been thrown off the land, this is the third year that I know of that that same group has been thrown off the land."

It's a tense time. The people who were killed Sunday are from large families, so many people here know someone who's related to them.

Jerry Sondreal, editor of the the Amery Free Press, says he's heard some "racially-motivated comments."

Sondreal adopted his son from Korea, so his family is one of only a few racially mixed families in the area.

"The first thing I did was call him," Sondreal says. "He has a number of Asian friends, and I said, 'Get ahold them,' I don't know if they're deer hunting or not but they're pretty outdoorsy people, they like to camp and fish and stuff. And I said, 'Call your friends and just tell them to stay out of the woods for awhile, because I don't think it's going to be very safe.'"

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is also concerned about a possible backlash.

Mike Bartz supervises wardens from the Wisconsin DNR's Spooner office.

"In the aftermath of this tragedy, the greatest injustice could be for some type of blame to be shifted onto an entire community based on the act of one individual," Bartz says. "If the suspect wasn't of Asian descent, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Bartz says 20 years ago some Hmong people sometimes got into trouble because they were used to unregulated hunting and fishing. But 11 years ago the DNR hired a liaison to teach them about Wisconsin's regulations. Bartz says now, Hmong hunters are just as responsible as most hunters.

The liaison is Kou Xiong. He says he's reached many of the Hmong living in Eau Claire, Menominee, Wausau, and other Wisconsin towns.

But Chai Vang, the man accused in the shootings on Sunday, is from St. Paul.

"This particular individual, he's 32 yrs old, and he grew up in America," Xiong says. "And he pretty much adapted to society here. So his mind is not the Hmong mind, his mind is probably totally up to the society here."

Xiong says he's offered to organize joint education programs for Minnesota Hmong wanting to hunt in Wisconsin. But he says the Minnesota DNR hasn't taken him up on it.

Gassing up in Birchwood, Eppy Sundberg says she's heard some people making derogatory comments about Hmong people.

"Yeah, I've heard it mentioned, as a slur," she says. "But I think people are just upset and that's kind of a first reaction thing. I don't think it's normal for people in our area to be racial or that type of thing. I think we're pretty easy-going."

No matter the race of anyone involved in Sunday's shooting, many people here say they're more nervous than usual, heading out to the deer stand. In fact, some have gone home for the year. But many are still going out.

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