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Cher Lor owns a small shop in the International Marketplace in St. Paul. He says he would be fearful of hunters wanting to "get even" for the deaths. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
The shooting deaths of six hunters in northwestern Wisconsin this week has prompted a complex set of reactions - perhaps nowhere more than in the Twin Cities Hmong community. The alleged shooter - Chai Vang - is a Hmong immigrant who lives in St. Paul. When the first reports of the incident came out, local Hmong leaders cautioned against making Vang's ethnicity an issue. But officials have since released Vang's statement in which he claims he fired on the other hunters after they taunted him with racial slurs and shot at him first. That version of events has diminished hopes of dismissing racial aspects of the case and its impact.

St. Paul, Minn. — The crime in and of itself is horrific enough to prompt questions about why anyone would shoot eight people, killing six of them.

Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, says the community wants Vang to be seen as a man who committed a violent act who happens to be a Hmong immigrant. She says the community dislikes the spotlight on Vang's ethnicity by the wider Minnesota community.

"Like, how could this have happened? Maybe some of this cultural background may be influencing how he behaved. And I think that's the mainstream community trying to understand this," Her said. "At the at the same time Hmong community trying to understand it with their own personal experience, background. And so the the Hmong community does not want to bring his culture into it at all."

But looking to Vang's ethnicity for answers is unavoidable, especially since the suspect admitted in a police statement that he shot the hunters after they taunted him with racial slurs.

His story conflicts with a surviving hunter's statement which makes no mention of racial taunting. Still, Her says Vang's account confirms Hmong community suspicions that Vang was provoked.

She says Hmong hunters widely report harassment from non-Hmong hunters. She knows hunters who have been confronted by white hunters at gunpoint, with baseball bats, or white hunters who have run over Hmong camps with their cars.

Her says though the community does not condone the shootings in any way, the Hmong community can identify to a certain extent to Vang's version of events.

"You know, when have you had enough? Most of the time when a camp has been run over by other hunters, they just pick up and they may decide to come home, or they pick up and make camp somewhere else," Her said. "So the question is when is enough enough?"

A Hmong group in Eau Claire, Wisc., is advising Hmong to not hunt the rest of the season, for fear of revenge attacks against Hmong hunters.

But Her doesn't agree with that recommendation. She calls the shooting "a one-time event," an aberration. And she encourages Hmong hunters to enjoy the season, which ends this weekend.

Some Hmong residents interviewed in a St. Paul mini-mall aren't so sure hunting is safe right now.

Cher Lor sells blankets and other knick knacks from a small vendors cubby hole. He says he would be fearful for any Hmong hunter. He says he worries some non-Hmong might want to "get even" for the deaths.

"I would say I think it's going to be very dangerous for us to go out and hunt. Even fishing," Lor said. "You know it's going to be a negative feeling when other people see this is a Hmong person, it's going to be a negative impact on all of us."

Lor says from what he's heard of Vang's account, he believes Vang was scared and defended himself.

But Sally Yang, 13, who works in the mall with her father, has another perspective on Vang.

Yang and her family lived in an apartment next to Vang a few years ago when he lived in Minneapolis with his wife and children. During that time, in 2001, Vang was arrested and later released for waving a loaded gun at his wife and threatening to kill her.

Yang says from what she knows of Vang, he's hot-tempered and stubborn. She says from what she saw, Vang's family members were afraid of him.

"He would threaten them," she said. "They would just get scared. They never felt safe. They don't feel safe around him."

Hmong leader Ilean Her is cautioning everyone to not convict Vang before he's had his day in court. She says she's been puzzled by e-mails that accuse community leaders of defending Vang.

"The response is that we're not defending him," she said. "We just want to know the truth. We just want to know from point A to Z. We sort of know what happened at point Z, the killings. And that's terrible. But we want to know and understand from the beginning to the end and then we want to be able to allow the justice system does its job."

Vang has not yet been charged. He's being held in Sawyer County, Wisc.

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