The Hmong in Montana story cloth is part of a collection donated to the Montana Museum of Art & Culture by Helen I. Cappadocia.
The collection includes more than 600 objects that range from traditional and ceremonial dress, wedding outfits, skirts, prayer shawls, an elephant head cloth and a money vest, to contemporary story cloths – embroidered textiles that tell important features of Hmong history in stitched pictures and words. Among the story cloths in the collection are depictions of the Hmong migration from China, images of political unrest and conflict including the Vietnam War, and relocation to Missoula.
This particular story cloth tells a simpler story, one of the everyday lives of the Hmong immigrants in their new home: Missoula. The schools and graduations, the hospital with a newborn baby, the Hmong New Year, kids at play, and men hunting and fishing. It depicts celebrations and funerals, and the farms that fill the farmers markets every summer.
Prominently placed at the top of the piece are two depictions important to the history of the Hmong in Missoula. One is the funeral of Jerry Daniels. Daniels was a CIA officer in Laos and Thailand in the early 1960s until his death in 1982. For 20 years he worked closely with the Hmong people, and when the communists took over Laos in 1975, Daniels was responsible for the evacuation of Gen. Vang Pao and more than 2,000 of his officers and their families. Many of these refugees were sent to Missoula, Daniels’ hometown. After Daniels’ untimely death in Thailand, his body was returned to Missoula and the Hmong were allowed to honor him with a full formal three-day traditional funeral celebration depicted in the story cloth. According to his biography, never has any non-Hmong been paid such tribute.
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The other nod of respect to Daniels in the piece is the Smokejumper Base. Daniels was one of the youngest smokejumpers in Missoula’s history, parachuting into his first fire at age 17.
Cappadocia began collecting Southeast Asian textiles in 1989 as an effort to preserve the Hmong culture in the midst of unrest in Laos. A former art gallery owner in Chicago, Cappadocia was inspired to collect Southeast Asian textiles when she moved to Missoula and was exposed to the Hmong culture and art. The Museum of Art & Culture became the beneficiary of the collection in 2000.
The Hmong in Montana story cloth is part of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture’s Permanent Collection and can be viewed at the Meloy Gallery on the University of Montana Campus in the PAR-TV Center. MMAC’s exhibit “Hometown: The MMAC Permanent Collection Celebrates Missoula” runs until Sept. 12.