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Spooner, Wisc. — Like many of the Hmong in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Koo Xiong is a refugee. Home was the mountainous country of Laos. In his teens, Xiong was a soldier, fighting communists. Now Xiong is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sole liaison to the state's Hmong hunters.
Xiong says the Hmong came from a hunting culture, but with few legal restrictions.
"We do not have the private land," Xiong says. "(It)is all government land. And there is no season out there. People can go hunting anytime. And any species ... they want to eat, can certainly shoot it and take it home."
In Wisconsin, that Hmong hunting tradition translated into lots of problems when large numbers began to hunt there. Elders, in particular, could neither speak nor read english, nor could they understand property lines or maps. Inevitably, there were problems with trespass; taking wrong species; and just getting lost in the woods.
Now there are some 10,000 Hmong hunters in Wisconsin, and State officials report far fewer problems.
Koo Xiong says Hmong hunters are safe hunters. Many with military experience, they're well trained to handle firearms. But some still have trouble with the invisible lines between public and private property.
"The only thing that may have doing wrong is because the trespass because they don't read the sign or they cannot read the map," Xiong says. "That's the thing they may have problem with that."
Xiong teaches a hunter safety course in Hmong. He explains property lines and no hunting signs, how to legally tag and register deer, and how to act around other hunters or property owners.
Mike Bartz is the DNR's Chief Warden in Spooner, Wisconsin. He say it's been necessary to find new ways to teach hunter safety.
"The Hmong have a very strong oral tradition," Bartz says. "And, because the written language is actually fairly new, a lot of the elders benefit more from folks like Koo (Xiong), and folks in the Minnesota DNR, going to meetings and orally, verbally, explaining ... map reading, trespass law, that sort of thing."
Koo Xiong conducts hunting workshops. He also teaches the Wisconsin DNR's hunter education classes. Hmong participation has more than doubled this year with about 120 students. In addition, there are 27 Hmong now certified or getting certified to teach the classes.
The DNR is also trying to recruit a Hmong speaker who can work the DNR's hunting violation hotline.
"One of the things we've discovered recently is that some of members of the Asian community, the Hmong community, have tried to call that line in the past," Bartz says. "And when they get into this language barrier, they've just ended up hanging up because it gets too frustrating."
And the DNR is looking for new game wardens from under-represented groups including the Hmong. But Bartz says it's been a tough thing to do. Potential officers, he says, want to be posted near their homes.
"These people are very close to their community and close to their family," says Bartz. "So, say we might have someone from the Eau Claire Hmong community who would like to become a warden, but they don't want to be working in some northern county or someplace else. They'd like to stay in the that community."
And that's not something the DNR has been able to promise. But it's an important idea, according to Tzianeng Vang, with Concordia College's Center for Hmong Studies in St. Paul.
"Any education, I'm all for it," Vang says. "But the action really needs to be represented more in the community and in the woods where the hunters are hunting every year, versus at the office answering phone."
Liaison Koo Xiong says he's encouraging Hmong hunters to return to the field this year, but he wouldn't predict how many Hmong will actually turn out.
Wisconsin's firearm deer hunt begins the weekend before Thanksgiving.