Hmong Leadership: The traditional Model

BY Pao Saykao

The traditional model of the Hmong leadership remains as one area that very little information is available. In the next few pages, it is intended to give an overview of some the key issues in this area, based on my observation and from what I have learned from other Hmong leaders from different part of the world. It is not meant to be an exhaustive essay on this topic but rather a brief discussion on few important points that people seem to take for granted.

Point One: So what is a traditional Hmong leader?^

Many years ago, while visiting France, I spent one day with a distinguished Hmong veteran. While we were discussing on Hmong history, I asked him, “What are the qualities of a Hmong leader?”. He thought for a while then looked at me straight in the eye and said,

“I’ll tell you this story. You go down to the valley and cut down a fully grown pine tree. You got hold of the top of the tree and you pull that pine tree up the next mountain. When you manage to pull that tree to reach the top of the mountain, you have all the qualities of a Hmong leader!”.

This is the wisdom from the late Mr. Toulia Lyfoung. There is a strong message in his analogy.

I also heard another saying that leading the Hmong was the easiest thing to do, so “don’t die yet if you haven’t lead the Hmong.”

There is no stereotype of a typical Hmong leader. But the Hmong usually described their leaders having these qualities:

– “Noj tau, hais tau” – He does as he says and says as he does; be accountable; lead by example;
– “Siab loj, siab dav” – Kind and considerate;
– “Coj lus taug” – controlled and diplomatic in what he says;
– “Coj ncaj” – just and fair play in all dealings;
– “Nyiam kwv tij neej ntsa, nyiam phooj nyiam ywg” – sociable and mix well with all;
– “Paub kev cai” – know the rules/customs/norms; ect..

In the Hmong society, the leader is responsible for all the conducts of his members – for example, when a member is in trouble, the leader step in and accept responsibility and solve the problem. He also face any consequence – and this consequence become a life time record for that family.

Point Two: Understand the Hmong social structure.^

It is crucial for any upcoming Hmong leader or anyone who has any dealing with the Hmong, to understand the social structure. The Hmong society remain as one of the most structured social groupings in the world. Being Hmong, we just accept it as normal and we do not give much thought to its importance.

On close examination, there are at six identifiable levels in the Hmong social structure.

(i) The highest level of the social structure is the Hmong community – “haiv neeg Hmoob”.^

There are just under 10 million people and they have made their home in China, Laos, Thailand, USA, France, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, French Guyana and other countries. They are identified by their dress (Hmoob dawb, Hmoob ntsuab, Hmoob txaij etc…) or by their dialects and they consider themselves to be Hmong. They have an inborn feeling of belonging and bonding toward one another, no matter what country they live, as discussed by Gary Yia Lee in his article, Cultural Identity in Post-modern Society: Reflection on What is a Hmong .

(ii) The next level is the clan.^

The clan and subclan form the basis of the Hmong social structure (for more detail, click here). One can look at clan as the “mainstream organisation” of the Hmong whose life membership is only through birth, adoption or marriage. Being a member of a clan, you are accepted universally by the members of the same clan and you can expect to receive assistance in most cases. I remember a few years ago, when I was traveling through the USA and was lost in a small town, I just called someone with my clan name from the telephone directory. In a few minutes, many had come to meet me despite we had never met nor known each other before.

One of the most important function of the clan is in the area of marriage – a Hmong has to marry people outside his or her clan. Hence, almost all the Hmong in Laos, Thailand, USA, Canada, Australia, France and Argentina are related either through the clan system (kwvtij) or the inter- clan marriage (neej tsa). For example, while my mother was in New Zealand last Christmas holiday, she ran into three Hmong families that are related to my families, through the clan or intermarriage.

Loyalty along clan line is another important factor, especially in political or juridical issue. Generally, people are more likely to support members of the same clan than their in-laws or other non-related clan. But there is always exception.

(iii) Sub clan is a sub unit of the clan.^

Members of this group are made of many families who may or may not share the same ancestor. They subscribe to a particular religious practice or ritual – known by the Hmong as “ib tug dab tug qhua.” For example, I am a member of the Thao clan; and member of the sub clan “Hmoob Thoj Caiv Hluav Taws” – that all the new mothers cannot touch any fire or electricity for a period of 5 to 7 days after the birth of a new baby. Other Thao clan members may have other taboos.

The subclan has other vital roles. Firstly, all members of the same subclan can die in each other house and carry on all religious ceremonies in each other’s house. Hence their affinity to each other is greater at this level and their leaders play a vital role in the Hmong community (see later). Secondly, it can be used to identify the its member. For example, a few years ago, my subclan has made contact with the Thao “caiv hluav taws” – my subclan members – in China after almost 200 years of separation, simply by inquiring about certain rituals that are specific to our subclan..

(iv) The sub clan is subdivided into smaller groups of families who share the same ancestor –^

“ib tsev neeg” or “ib tus pog tus yawg” or refers to simply as the “Family” . This forms the basic unit of the Hmong society. This is the group that its members are bound by blood line and share mutual interest and carry the responsibility and the “name” for the “family.” Members of this group call themselves as “peb tsev neeg” (our family) or are addressed by other Hmong as “nej tsev neeg” (your family). In my opinion, the leader at this level is probably the most powerful and influential in the Hmong society (as discussed below).

The commitment to each other is almost total as illustrated in this factitious story:

“There are two Hmong brothers who are orphan. The older brother is a very poor man but the young one is rich and influential. The young one dissociates himself from his poor brother and mixes only with his affluent friends from other clan. The older brother is cast out of the family. As time passes, the young brother become more disillusion with his life. He is not sure of himself, who he is and where he belongs. Who is loyal to him?. One day, while hunting, he shot a deer and her baby. He came home in distress and told his best friend (from other clan) that he had shot dead a Lao woman and her child – what can his friend help him? His friend turned to him and said, “That’s very serious!….I am not sure if I can help you… you might have to face a court case… sure I can help you with that…”. He went to his older brother and told him the same story. His brother, without taken a breath, stood up, grasped hold of his arm and whispered to his ear, “Don’t talk…common, let’s go..I have two spades in the front there… we just go and bury them before anyone see them!”.

(v) The “family” is further divided into individual extended family unit.^

For example, my extended family unit consists of my own family (wife and four children), my mother, one sister and three younger brothers, living under the same house.

(vi) When my younger brother got married, he brought his wife to live with us.^

After they had one child, they moved into their own house to form a new family – what we call a nuclear family unit.

Point Three: Understand the Traditional Leadership structure.^

There are a few well-defined level of leadership from the nuclear family unit up to the subclan level. Beyond the subclan level, it becomes more blurry. At the lower level, there is at least one identifiable leader for each level. In some families, there may be a leader for each specialised field.

In a simple term, one can say that each level is ruled by a leader, just like in an army leadership structure. As in the army, if the sergeant has problem within his rank, he cannot bypass his superior and go directly to the general. His responsibility is to report to the person in the next officer above him. It is similar in the Hmong structure. When there is a challenge in a nuclear family setting, it is best to be resolved within that unit. If it fails, the next level of the hierarchy will take over. This process continues, if required, until the conflict is satisfactory solved.

This process is also applied to any one who deals with the Hmong. The trick here is to identify the proper level and to deal directly with the leader at that level.

From a superficial observation, there are at least six leadership levels.

First level: Leadership at the nuclear family level:^

In the Hmong society, the male appears to be the dominant figure – at least in most public gathering but this does not automatically mean that the husband is the leader of the house. In many cases, the wife may be the leader. I encounter this phenomenon in my own family and in the Hmong community in Australia.

The leader at this level usually handle most issues within the unit as long as it is within the acceptable philosophy of his family. But in a case that it is not handling properly or not to the satisfaction of the clan, subclan or family, any of these leaders have the right to move in and take over the case any time.

Second level: the “family” level^

The family level (ib tsev neeg) are a group that shares the same ancestor. This is probably the true social unit in the Hmong society. The leader of this level is almost always a male member except in case where there is no suitable male member. He is responsible for the conduct of his members as well as taking responsibility for the actions of his entire group. He is usually known as “tus coj noj coj haus” or “tus coj ntug.”. There is no set guideline for succession as these people are not elected.

In my experience, this is the most powerful and most influential position in the Hmong leadership hierarchy. This leader the only person in the Hmong society that has the ultimate authority and responsibility over his entire group. He is the man who can create, maintain or destroy the reputation of his members. In general, it is fair to say the stronger the leader, the better his group would become. Conversely, the family with no leader or a weak leader is more likely to be scattered, low profile, facing more challenges and the family’s standing in the Hmong community may be mediocre.

When two Hmong meet, they need to established two things. First, what is the relationship between them by inquiring through the clan, subclan or inter-marriage. Secondly, they need to establish each “standing in the Hmong community”. One will ask, “Koj yog pab/pawg twg?” – which group do you belong to or what “family group” do you belong. For example, few years ago, I sent my younger sister to USA and France to do some business for me. She grew up in Australia and has not met many Hmong. Upon meeting her, the Hmong quickly established that she is a Thao and she is the sister of Thaophia Saykao. Then the Hmong would say, “Oh, yes I know you well….”, meaning that they know her brother well. From that point onwards, she would be accepted or treated as they would do for her brother. Her credibility (to the Hmong who have never met her) is determined by the credibility of her brother or her family reputation. This is something quite extraordinary.

For the Hmong, the family reputation may be the single most important issue and the family leader usually takes this issue very seriously.

Third level: the sub clan level^

At the sub clan level, there are at least two leaders. The first one is usually known as “tus coj noj coj haus” or “tus coj plaub coj ntug” . This can be considered as the “legal” leader of the subclan. The selection is based on his personal qualification and the general consensus of the members. Its function is similar to the family leader but he can preside over a larger group of many families. This leader can be equally powerful as the leader of the family level.

In some case there is no leader at this level and the subclan is run by a council of family leaders and wise men. The council can be called on demand and there is no fix members or term of office. It is more of a case by case sitting.

The second leader is the religious leader. His role confines to the religious sphere and it is exclusively a male figure. He is selected based on his expert knowledge of the rituals, other spiritual skills pertaining to his particular subclan and his religious knowledge as practiced generally by the Hmong community. It is his responsibility to ensure that all the rituals are performed to ensure the spiritual well being and prosperity of his members. In the past, this leader also played important role in the area of members’ relocation or in simple issues like “timing to travel”, selecting special dates for special occasions or even to determine the possibility of success for a particular battles at a particular time and setting during the war.

Fourth level: the clan and inter-subclan level.^

There does not appear to have a formal structure or position for a clan leader in the case of the Hmong in Laos. Generally. when the need arises, there would be a “council” of few subclan or family leaders to deal with any issue of political or judicial importance. I have not come across any Hmong who are considered to hold this position for an entire clan.

In the past, there may be one or two prominent members of the clan who is well respected and look up to as the main person in their clan but this person may not necessarily be the leader for the entire clan.

In 1982, members of the Thao, Kue and Kang clans (which are considered to belong to one clan) had attempted to form a clan organisation to represent all its members. Various leaders of the subclans from USA, France and Australia met in Minnesota. This was the largest clan gathering ever assembled in our clan history. The meeting supported, in principle, the formation of an umbrella organisation but it did not amount to anything due to different priority of each subclan. In addition, the elected leaders did not have the personal qualification to rule across the subclan boundary.

Fifth level: the Inter-Clan Leader:^

Historically, one may consider loosely that there are some Hmong who have reached this position. But it is a matter of definition. On the political side, there are at least four Hmong can be regarded as reaching this level. The first is Kiatong Lo Bliayao from the Lo clan, followed by Lyfoung from the Ly (Lee) clan, Faydang from the Lo clan and General Vang Pao from the Vang clan. These leaders managed to bring many clans together through their personal leadership skill and/or through their polygamous inter-clan marriages.

In Laos, from the mid-60’s to mid-1975, Vang Pao was the most well-known and prominent Hmong leader. He was able to preside over the entire Hmong population that was under the control of the Royal Lao Government and over some Hmong in Thailand as well.

In the US, the Hmong have created few new organisations called the Hmong “Council”, consisting of “leaders” from many clans. So far, they have acted like an umbrella organisation with some political inclination. Their effectiveness in presiding across clan has been far from the expectation of the Hmong, especially the younger generation. One reason for this failure may be due to the fact that the sitting member is not the true leader of the clan or a subclan. He is either elected or appointed. Being only a representative from a section of his clan, he does not have the authority to preside over the whole clan and he does not have the support or the respect from all members of his clan.

Sixth level: The Hmong nation (ib haiv Hmoob).^

During their history, there has not been any Hmong leader who presided across borders even though the Hmong have a word denoting to a Hmong national leader – (Hmoob tus vaj – tus coj ib haiv Hmoob). The one person that comes closest to this position is General Vang Pao. Due to his record in Laos during the Vietnam War, the Hmong all over the world have heard of him or have respect for the man. He is considered by some as the Hmong paramount leader. Most Hmong from Laos agree that he succeeded in bringing the Hmong from the Stone Age to the Information Age in a period of 30 years. This is quite a remarkable achievement in the Hmong history.

Point Four: Understanding of the non-tradtional model.^

(a) French introduction of a new leadership style in Laos^

Since the arrival of the French in Laos during the last century, an administrative hierarchy structure, like Kiatong, was set up and some Hmong were appointed as discussed by Gary Lee in his article on “Hmong in the Making of Laos” and another article entiltled ” The Hmong in Laos” . Since Laos’ independence from the French in the mid-1950’s, this type of hierarchy was modified and a civil administration was introduced. From this, there emerged a new groups of western-style leaders.

One person was selected or elected to be the “village head” (Nai Ban). Many villages form a district and administered by a Tasseng. Many Tasseng form a Muong (governed by a Chao Muong), and a number of Muong form a Khoueng (province). There were Hmong occupied all levels of this new structure in Laos. On the Royal Government side, few people were elected as deputies to represent their locality and constituent at the National Assembly. By the mid 60’s, Touby and Tou Geu Lyfoung had reached the level of ministerial position in the Lao Government and by the early 70’s, Touby became members of King’s Council (equivalent to the Senate). On the Pathet Lao side, Faydang Lo has reached the highest level of Vice-president position in 1975, even though it is only a ceremonial position in the Lao Communist Government.

Few of the above positions were occupied by the traditional leaders. The majority was appointed or elected based on their ability to read, write or languages skills. Although, many of these leaders were prominent and well known but not all of them are the true traditional leader within his group.

(b) Leaders in the Armed Forces^

During the same period, the Hmong began to enter the military service and a few people gained entry to the military school. This was the beginning of the rise of the Hmong military leaders headed by General Vang Pao.

(c) New breed of leaders^

By the 1970’s, a new breed of young leaders emerged due to their “personal qualifications”. This group included people like Dr. Yang Dao, Lo Fong, Lyteck Ly Nyiavu, Tou Fu Vang, Vang Yee, Thao Phia Saykao etc… Tou Fu Vang became the director of College de Samthong for a short period them joined Vang Pao’s team from 1970. In 1973, Dr Yang Dao and Lo Fong were co- opted to joint the Provisional Government body in Laos. As the Communist was taking over Laos, Yang Dao fled to France. Lo Fong, being althoug faithful to the Communist cause, just faded from the political scene and eventually died. Lyteck Ly Nyiavu remained willingly with the Pathet Lao but he died in the concentration camp as many other prisoners.

By the early 1980’s, the Hmong “specialist” or professional group emerged. This group include people like Dr. Gary Yia Lee (anthropology and Hmong history & culture specialist) and Dr. Thaopaou Bliatout, Dr Touxa Lyfoung (as health professionals). Gary Lee is probably the most respected Hmong scholar and he has published widely about Hmong history and culture. He is currently working as an ethnic officer for the State Government of New South Wales, dealing with Asian matters.

Since then, there are many other younger Hmong who are qualified as engineers, dentists, academia ect… from all over the world. This is an entire new group of Hmong and they are beginning to make their presence felt.

Professional vs. traditional leader^

Hmong professionals are a new addition to the Hmong leadership. Many Hmong believe that once you earn a master or a Ph D, by having a title, you are automatically a leader. This is far from the truth. A PhD makes one no wiser in Hmong traditions than someone who is illiterate. The only difference is that a professional has learned one small subject extremely well but this does not imply that this person would know as much in other areas. I remember, my subclan members were very disappointed with me because I did not metaphorically turn into a leader when I become a doctor.

But professionals have their role to play and they should be no conflict with the traditional leader. For example, my subclan leader in the USA required to have some extensive dental treatment. He telephoned me in Australia to consult and he gave me the authority to advise him. I then talked to his dental surgeon to get the full information about his condition and his plan of treatment. Once the information was available, I could make a final decision and he accepted my decision.

Up to date, the professionals are very effective at the family level because of blood relationship. In my case, I can tell my – because it is for the reputation and benefit of the family. But I cannot go to other subclans of the Thao clan and do the same. This is the challenges of the professional. They may be but they do not necessarily have the authority to carry on as within my own family.

Point Five: Consult, consult and consult …^

Very rarely, a Hmong leader needs to make a snap decision on his own. I cannot recall the last time that I have to do it alone. Almost all the decisions are made after full consultation with the council of elders or leaders – sablaj nrog kwvtij.

So always consult, consult and consult. Being a Hmong leader, any decision can affect widely. So, when face with any challenge, the leader needs to consider his action or lack of action and the effects on these levels:

(a) Personal level. (Yus tu kheej)

(b) Immediate family level (Yus tsev neeg)

(c) Extended Family level. (Yus kwvtij ib tu pog tu yawg)

(d) Subclan level (Yus in cuab kwvtij – ib tug dab tug qhua)

(e) Clan level (Yus ib xeem)

(f) The in-law level (Neej tsa)

(g) the Hmong Community level. (Pej kum tebchaws).

Point Six: Know the acceptable norms of the Hmong^

In any situation, the benchmark for a Hmong leader at any level is: “Is this action or lack of action, in this particular case, acceptable by the Hmong community as a whole?”. If the answer is “yes,” then action can be taken. If it is “no,” then more homework is required.

There are two ways to learn about these norms. Firstly, many of the norms are found the marriage and religion practices – especially the funeral rites. There are strict protocols to be followed. As a leader, one is required to know the “what” and “how” and more importantly the reason behind each all these practices. The leader does not require to be a practitioner in these specialties but he must understand these norms, teach them and police them within his unit, uphold them and pass them on to the next generation.

In the Hmong marriage custom, the rules are clearly set. For example, at the conclusion of a wedding, the bride’s parents would state clearly (nkawg lus) their position in any future conflict between the two families or sub-clans united by the marriage. It is said, “hauv hlua peb muab rau nej, qab hlua peb tseem tuav rawv,” meaning that “the top of the rope (the bride) is given to you, but we still hold on to the end of the rope (that we can pull back or follow up any time). If the bride does not fulfill her normal duties as a wife as expected by the Hmong, then the groom (and his side) is to bring her back to her parents so the latter can deal with the problem. But if she has fulfilled her role and it is the fault of the husband (and in the case that the marriage is beyond reconcilable) then she is to be returned (“coj twg, xa twg”) to her parents with full compensation. If the problem lies with the husband, it is the responsibility of his clan or subclan to deal with the issue; and in this case, the wife’s relatives will not get involved unless they are asked by his side. Many of the marriage conflicts I see today are due to the disregard of these well-known rules.

There are at least three books that cover all the Hmong marriage custom fairly well. I would recommend all leaders to consult one or more of these references. The first one is “The traditional Marriage among the White Hmong of Thailand and Laos” by Yves Bertrais (the original. limited copy, printed in 1978), and the “Kab tshoob kev kos” by the Association Communaute Hmong in French Guina. The third book is by an Australian group called, “Cwj Tshoob Coj”, published in 1995 by the Hmong Research Committee (in Hmong only).

Secondly, there is no substitution for hand-on experience. Learn by doing! One easy way to achieve this is to involve in all Hmong activities, from the personal level to the clan level and through to the international level.


In this article I have given a brief overview of some key points about the Hmong traditional leadership. A leader is not necessarily the most educated person but it is someone who can lead, who care for his people and who is fair and just.

In the Hmong society, there are leaders at different level who are responsible for all the conducts of his members at his level.

As discussed above, I believe that the leader at the “family” level is the most powerful and influential person in the Hmong communities. He is the person who can make changes in the Hmong community. One needs to identify this leader and rally for support. Without the support of this leader, any changes will be short term and temporary.

In any challenge, one need to identify the appropriate level and deal directly with the leader at that level. If unsure, one can always start at the top and asked those leaders to point to right direction. It is simply a step by step process. By following these suggestions, leading or dealing with the Hmong is as easy as it can be.

I hope that this paper has given some insight into Hmong leadership structure and that it would stimulate some of our young scholars to do more research in this field.

** NOTE: This article is specially written to form part of a resource disk for the Hmong Community Leardership Conference in Ohio, USA, March 27th, 1997.

About the author:^

Pao Saykao is a medical doctor, in private practice in Australia.
Please direct all communication to:
Copyright 1997.


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