Hmong archives getting settled in new home

Potential donors show Marlin Heise an newspaper article they want to add to the Hmong Archives at the East Side Freedom Library. (Marjorie Otto/Review)
Potential donors show Marlin Heise an newspaper article they want to add to the Hmong Archives at the East Side Freedom Library. (Marjorie Otto/Review)
East Side Freedom Library was filled for the Feb. 10 Hmong Archives relocation celebration. (Marjorie Otto/Review)
East Side Freedom Library was filled for the Feb. 10 Hmong Archives relocation celebration. (Marjorie Otto/Review)

The Hmong Archives has had many homes over the years.

On Feb. 10, the Archives celebrated its relocation to its newest home, the East Side Freedom Library. 

The celebration was attended by many members of the Hmong community, including DFL state Sen. Foung Hawj and state Rep. Tim Mahoney, and Ramsey County Board of Commissioners chair Jim McDonough.

The collection, which contains thousands of books, photographs, pieces of art, videos, CDs and many other materials, is attempting to collect as many items related to the Hmong experience as possible.

The event included a brief program explaining the history of the Archives and how it came to be at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Ave. 

A resolution was signed stating the new home for the Hmong Archives is the ESFL and the goals that both organizations hope to achieve in this new era for the collection.

As of Dec. 31, 2015, the Hmong Archives reports that its volunteers have logged 29,898 hours, and about 1,000 worldwide donors have added to the collection, which has 187,763 items.

The Hmong Archives has been a 501(c)3 non-profit since Feb. 10, 1999, but its history extends much further back.

‘King of the Archives’

Born in 1941, Marlin Heise grew up on a farm in western Minnesota, with many of his Norwegian relatives living close by. 

He talked about going to birthday gatherings for cousins and how they were a time for family to gather and share news and a meal. When he latter became involved in the Twin Cities Hmong community and attended Hmong family events, he realized that the two cultures weren’t that different. 

“That felt an awful lot like our monthly farm get-together. And I think because almost all Hmong are originally farm village people, they, to me, were very comfortable to be with,” Heise said. 

Heise said he always had a love for reading about other countries, world travel, and learning languages. 

His first introduction to the people from Laos and Indochina was a photograph from a 1952 edition of National Geographic. The picture featured a Hmong woman holding a green parrot. He said he loved birds and saved the picture for the bright green parrot, or leeb nkaub, as he would later find out it was called. 

“I cut off her arm and kept that part of the picture with a bird. And many years later, it had a different connection,” Heise said with a laugh. 

Knowing he didn’t want to be farmer, Heise earned a bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota. He eventually became a librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society, and it was there where he first came in contact with the Hmong community. 

He became friends with four student interns. They would go to Thai and Chinese movies, which would sometimes have Hmong subtitles. They would also go to Irish and Norwegian folk music events. While sharing these events together, Heise said this was one of the first times he noticed how similar all these cultures were. 

“So many things were enough alike that is just felt totally OK to be with people. Strange at times, but still OK.” He says the idea of people being more similar than different across the world, became an overarching theme in his life. 

It was during this time that Heise first started collecting items related to the Hmong community. 

In 1982, Heise went to Laos for the first time. He stayed in the Ban Vinai refugee camp for five weeks, which was the camp where his four student friends had relatives. 

“It was a strange experience, of being taken care of by people who had nothing,” Heise recalled.

He talked about how difficult it was to travel to Laos for the first time, getting used to the different language and the different way of life. However, he said each time he went, it became easier and easier, until it felt like home. He has been returning to Laos each year since that first trip.

He continued to collect Hmong books, cassette tapes and records, and eventually this led to him becoming an archivist for the Hmong Archives in 1999.

The Archives’ history

Yuepheng Xiong is another member of the board of directors for the Hmong Archives. He became involved in the Hmong Archives in the early 1990s.

“I met [Heise] in the early 1990s, probably ‘91 or ‘92,” Xiong said.

Xiong was born in Laos and moved to the U.S. when he 15 years old. His family first lived in Chicago, and then moved to Eau Claire, Wis. He graduated from an Eau Claire high school and attended college there for a while, before moving to the Twin Cities for his studies and to open his bookstore, Hmong ABC, in 1996. 

“At that time, many people come and they wonder if it’s a library and they [want to] see if they can loan books out,” Xiong said, “That’s something that probably triggered my thinking that I have something like a library or museum where Hmong materials [are] collected.” 

It was during this time that Xiong and Heise first began to talk about creating an archive of Hmong materials. Heise already had many Hmong-related items, and Xiong had community members asking for some kind of a collection.

When Xiong had an opportunity to do an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society for a few months, he saw what it had collected on Hmong people. That was also when he first met Heise.

“With the intern program at the History Center I learned that the History Center doesn’t collect everything about Hmong. They only select what pertains to the state of Minnesota.”

“So that is why we say that ... we should collect and preserve beyond what the History Center will collect for us. So that’s how [the Hmong Archives] began.”

Xiong said that without Heise and his expertise in library cataloging, he is not sure if the Archives would have ever happened.

“Marlin (Heise) is king of the Archives,” Xiong said, chuckling. 

The Archives’ first location was a 12-by-12 room at Metropolitan State University. Back then, volunteers mostly just recorded who donated which items and when the donation was made.

They also recorded when people volunteered, but records were not kept as accurate as they are today.

Later on, the materials were moved to Heise’s home, and that’s where they remained until space at the East Side Freedom Library became available. 

Cataloging continues

“The thing that really has to get done is this cataloging,” Heise said.

Today, the Archives face the problem of how to catalog the collection. While the books and printed materials are easier, it’s items like handmade crafts that are difficult to catalog. The goal is to add all the items to the online World Catalog system, making these materials searchable any time of day from any location on the planet. 

Heise said another problem is that many items don’t have prices, and they don’t know who made what. Each object needs to be accompanied by a biography and a photograph of the person who made it.

Heise also wants to index the collection, making it easier to identify which parts in a book or other material discusses an aspect of Hmong culture.

The Hmong Archives also needs to find volunteers who can read materials in different Asian languages so items can be cataloged properly.

“Are there going to be more volunteers who will come out? People who can do Lao and Thai and Chinese? I don’t know,” Heise said. 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at or at 651.748-7816. 


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