CORVALLIS – The two graves are almost half a football field apart in the Corvallis Cemetery. Each is marked this Memorial Day with a Royal Laotian flag.
Between them is a smooth expanse of grass on the bench southeast of town with a fetching view of the Bitterroot Valley and the snowcapped peaks beyond.
Not long after he arrived in western Montana in the mid-1970s, Gen. Vang Pao showed a reporter from People Magazine around the 400-acre farm he and his extended family lived on near Woodside, across the river and Highway 93.
Leader-in-exile of some 11,000 Hmong refugees in the United States, Vang Pao was set up with the farm and houses in Missoula by the U.S. government in compensation for leading CIA-funded guerrillas in the highlands of Laos.
Vang Pao said it hurt his heart to leave Laos after the Communist takeover in 1975. But he added in broken English, “This valley looks just like my country, the Plain of Jars. The mountains which surround it are also alike. The plants are the same, and it does not hurt my heart to buy this farm.”
By the mid-1980s Vang Pao and many of his followers had moved to the Central Valley of California, and he died there in 2011. But a turf war that’s partly his making is brewing up at the cemetery.
In 1980 Vang Pao, his son Vang Chang, and four other Hmong purchased 30 grave plots. Only three were ever used.
Two of them are the final resting spot of Vang Pao's mother, Sao Song Thao. She was 95 when she died in February 1983. Locals still recall the traditional three-day Hmong funeral process at the farm.
“I was downtown in Hamilton and my wife was frantically trying to call me. She said VP’s mother died and they needed five steers,” said Allen Bjergo. “His son, I think it was the one who went to West Point, came and picked up five yearlings, about 800 or 900 pounds apiece.”
Bjergo, 80, was a contractor for the U.S. State Department in Vietnam during the war and was community development specialist for Ravalli County’s state extension service when the Hmong arrived in the Bitterroot.
He remembered the crowd that gathered at the farm came from “Hong Kong, Paris, all over.” Bjergo recalled 20 or 30 hogs and hundreds of ducks and chickens that contributed to the lavish feast that ended in the burial up at the cemetery.
According to cemetery records, the grave at the other end of the row holds the remains of Chong Su Vang, a nephew of Vang Pao. He was buried on Dec. 31, 1983. For more than three decades the other Hmong plots have sat vacant.
Inside the cemetery shed last week, Don Thorson, president of the Corvallis Cemetery Association, pulled out copies of two certificates of ownership. One, dated Oct. 22, 1980, was the only record of the purchase for $240 of a six-plot lot by Vang Pao and Vang Chang.
The other, for Nov. 13, 1980, was a deed to four adjacent lots with four names on it: Pa Lee Lor, Wa Thai Yang, Pa Tong Lee and, again, Vang Chang.
Thorson called it “very unfortunate” that the secretary of the cemetery issued all four deeds on the same piece of paper. It doesn’t help that the paper is small, essentially a receipt, and there's no record of it at the Ravalli County courthouse.
“There was nothing legal about anything that they did,” he said. “That, unfortunately, seems to be the way cemeteries have historically been run.”
It’s not surprising, then, that of all the Hmong he's talked to so far, none have the 1980 deeds or even knew of their existence.
Still, in the eyes of the law and the cemetery, those men or their rightful heirs still own 27 unused grave sites.
That presents a messy problem, as Thorson began to learn last June when he got a phone call from Cheng Vang of Fresno, California.
“He said the 'committee' – that’s what he called them for a long time – has made the decision that we will claim all of the graves,” said Thorson.
He never learned what committee Vang represented, though there are indications it could be affiliated with a Hmong Heritage Preservation Committee. It took some asking, but Thorson eventually discovered who else was on it – Dr. Su Vang, Mr. Ker Vang, and Mr. Ying Vang.
On June 11, the cemetery board mailed copies of the 1980 deeds to Cheng Vang with a request for revisions. An accompanying letter explained that any new documents would be recorded at the courthouse in Hamilton. Five weeks later the revised deeds came back.
In the meantime, Thorson got separate calls from three women from different states, all claiming they were family of Chong Su Vang, the second person buried, and all protesting the document changes requested by the “committee.”
“By and large the women seem to be the negotiators, and they were very, very anxious because of the fact their grandfather or their husband’s grandfather was buried up here,” Thorson said. “They said if anybody should have that group of graves it should be us.”
Thorson decided to consult the Ravalli County Attorney’s office, and on July 18 he sent a letter explaining that decision to Vang as well as Samantha Vang Mullin of Sammamish, Washington; Mai Vang of Sacramento, and Mai Vue of Hickory, North Carolina.
“Everything slowed down considerably,” he said.
But the conundrum for the cemetery was by now very apparent.
Chong Su Vang is buried in the lot purchased 36 years ago by Pa Lee Lor, who Thorson learned was still alive as of last year.
“If he’s still living he has the right to give them away before he dies,” he said. “But if he dies then it becomes a whole lot more complex. Then it has to go through the court system.”
Pa Lee Lor is just one of five lot owners. Thorson said that among the “really detailed” recommendations the county attorney’s office made was one to find the others, or their heirs, and to make them show ownership either by will or by a transfer of deed.
“What we’d really like is for these Hmong to step forward and claim ownership of the graves and tell us who the heck they are now,” Thorson said. “It’s going to be a headache and a half finding all these people. It’s basically going to take a lawyer for them to help clear it up.”
Meanwhile, there remains little prospect that any of the 27 vacant gravesites will ever be filled, and the cemetery still has to take care of them, said Thorson.
Last Nov. 30, the cemetery board took the advice of the county attorney’s office and set a deadline.
“We gave them five years to get this resolved, and I would like to reach out,” Thorson said. “I don’t like taking things away from people who rightfully own it, but if that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we will do.”
If the situation isn’t untangled by Nov. 30, 2021, Thorson said the cemetery board will go to district court to have the plots declared abandoned, he added.
“The lawyer said it’s not too detailed a process. They’re abandoned by these people and they’ve made no effort whatsoever to take them back.”
Still, this may be just the start of a knotty situation. The burial place is a sacred site for the Hmong.
“According to their animist religious beliefs, after death the body has spiritual continuity and the spirits of the dead have implications and influence over the living,” said a 2008 article by the University of Minnesota on desecrated Hmong graves.
Bjergo said the cemetery purchases made by Vang Pao in 1980 seem to be an indication that the general had intended to stay in the Bitterroot. The Hmong placed a high priority on education, and their children who went to Corvallis schools with Bjergo’s tended to be hardworking, well-behaved and highly intelligent. Young teens newly arrived in the U.S. with no English language skills would start their schooling at the first-grade level and advance so rapidly they graduated from high school on time, Bjergo said.
The Hmong were eager to share their own culture and customs with their neighbors. J.R. Iman’s family had the farm next to Vang Pao’s and were within a few days of buying it in the mid-1970s when government officials showed up at the door and informed them that wasn’t going to happen.
Iman, now a Ravalli County commissioner, went to work for Vang Pao for nine months, introducing the Hmong to American farming techniques, including how to operate equipment they’d never seen before. He remembers the women's elaborate ceremonial dress, replete with pounds of jewelry, breastplates and “mantles around their neck that looked like they did back in Egypt.”
But eventually Vang Pao led an exodus out of Montana – to California, to Minnesota and elsewhere.
“VP just couldn’t assimilate that many people into the Bitterroot,” Iman said. “He didn’t have the room, (and) there weren’t the jobs, opportunities and support for that number of them.”
The departing Hmong left their empty grave sites behind. What was $40 for a plot in Corvallis in 1980 is now $500. According to Thorson, it's not uncommon for someone to reserve entire cemetery lots as the Hmong did to assure their families will be buried together.
“That wasn’t an unusual thing,” he said. “The only part that went wrong was they didn’t stay.”