Archive for January 9th, 2007

by Jay Stevens 

I recently finished The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an account of a community of Hmong refugees in central California. It’s a fantastic book and may deserve its own post — especially because Missoula also has a large community of Hmong — but I just want to talk about a chapter and how it relates to our failures in Iraq.

(The Hmong’s presence in Missoula is a fascinating story. A Bitterroot rancher and smoke jumper turned CIA liaison — Jerry Daniels — worked with our Hmong allies in Laos during our “engagements” in Southeast Asia. When the US pulled support for the Hmong after the collapse of Vietnam, Daniels was instrumental in evacuation of as many of the Hmong as possible, real heroic stuff, bought land in Missoula, and helped settle hundreds of refugees in the area.)

The central story of “The Spirit Catches You…” is the conflict a Hmong family has with Western medicine in treating an epileptic daughter. For the Hmong, many of Western medical practices violate traditional beliefs or morality:

…A txiv neeb [Hmong healer] might spend as much as eight hours in a sick person’s home; doctors forced their patients, no matter how weak they were, to come to the hospital, then might spend only twenty minutes at their bedsides. Txiv neebs were polite and never needed to ask questions; doctors asked many rude and intimate questions about patients’ lives, right down to their sexual and excretory habits…Txiv neebs never undressed their patients; doctors asked patients to take off all of their clothes, and sometimes dared to put their fingers inside women’s vaginas….

To add injury to insult, some of the doctors’ procedures actually seemed more likely to threaten their patients’ health than to restore it. Most Hmong believe that the body contains a finite amount of blood that it is unable to replenish, so repeated blood sampling, especially from small children, may be fatal….If the body is cut or disfigured, or if it loses any of its parts, it will remain in a condition of perpetual imbalance, and the damaged person not only will become frequently ill but may be physically incomplete during the next incarnation; so surgery is taboo…

Traditional Hmong medicine involves herbal remedies, ritualistic sacrifice, spirituality; basically a holistic approach, one where mind, body, and spirit are all treated together.

In 1985, Dwight Conquergood worked with an international relief agency in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand to provide health programs for the residents. He described the Hmong people’s reaction to the Western-style camp hospital:

I heard horror story after horror story from the refugees about people who went to the hospital for treatment, but before being admitted had their spirit-strings cut from their wrists by a nurse because “the strings were unsanitary and carried germs.” Doctors confidently cut off neck-rings that held the life-souls of babies intact. Instead of working in co-operation with the shamans, they did everything to disconfirm them and undermine their authority….The refugees told me that only the very poorest people who had no relatives or resources whatsoever would subject themselves to the camp hospital treatment. To say that the camp hospital was underutilized would be an understatement.

Not only did the staff at the hospital ignore Hmong concerns, many of them were Christian missionaries looking to convert the refugees to Christianity, thus making a trip to the hospital a risk not only to the body, but to the soul, as well.

Basically Western disdain for Hmong tradition and beliefs drove them away from the obvious benefit that Western medicine could provide the refugees. To his credit, Conquergood used Hmong myth and storytelling techniques to convince refugees to use the hospital facilities, once arranging a “parade” of Hmong dressed in traditional costumes to convince people to bring their dogs to the hospital for rabies vacinations.

But Conquergood’s interaction with the Hmong wasn’t just about exploiting their own traditions to get them to use Western medicine. He was also the beneficiary of Hmong medicine:

During Conquergood’s five months in [the refugee camp], he himself was successfully treated with Hmong herbs for diarrhea and a gashed toe. When he contracted dengue fever (for which he also sought conventional medical treatment), txiv neeb informed him that his homesick soul had wandered back to Chicago, and two chickens were sacrificed to expedite its return.

Conquergood’s success, then, with the Hmong refugees was his ability to not only know them and their culture, but actually understand and appreciate it as well:

Conquergood considered his relationship with the Hmong to be a form of barter, “a productive and mutually invigorating dialog, with neither side dominating or winning out.” In his opinion, the physicians and nurses at [the refugee camp] failed to the co-operation of the camp inhabitants because they considered the relationship one-sided, with the Westerners holding all the knowledge. As long as they persisted in this view, Conquergood believed that what the medical establishment was offering would continue to be rejected, since the Hmong would view it not as a gift but as a form of coercion.

Have you ever read a paragraph anywhere that so magnificently sums up the reasons for our gross failures in Iraq? Does not the hubris and narrow-mindedness of the camp’s medical staff exactly mirror our own national rhetoric as we charged into Iraq?


Jon Tester’s first speech on the floor of the Senate addresses ethics.

Jon profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” (For some reason, the audio is connecting to an interview with Bush’s budget director. Try going backwards to the budget director interview, and you might get the Tester segment…)

BNSF interested in Schweitzer’s coal-to-gas plan.

Why do people think Montana Republicans are “fiscally responsible,” anyway?

In Idaho, the Governor and state legislature assume we’re all illegal immigrants, unless we can prove otherwise.

Notorious Mark T more than ably defends Canada’s health care system, which puts ours to shame.

House didn’t convene yesterday to allow John Boehner to attend last night’s football game.

The 100 hours (pdf) begins today!

Department of the obvious: Bush’s tax cuts benefit, disproportionately, the very wealthy.

Sean Hannity unveils his “Enemy of the State Segment.” Next up, “Heroes of the Glorious Revolution”? (Digby’s take.)

Remember: there’s still work to do in the Abramoff scandal

Apparently, according to a recent Gallup/USA poll, most Americans are “enemies of the state” and oppose Bush’s “surge.”

Ted Kennedy speaks out against escalation and introduces new legislation that requires Congressional approval before sending more troops to Iraq.

So Iraq really is about the oil. I’m shocked! Shocked!

Why is it that Republican leaders eagerly clamor for war – but refuse to pay for it? And you wonder why we’re not winning?

Josh Marshall: “The President is not a king.”

by Jay Stevens 

Montana has a loads of “behavior modification programs” for at-risk teens. We’ve got the rugged terrain they thrive on, and a distinct lack of oversight.

The programs generally rely on a boot-camp-like atmosphere combined with an almost cultish message and style, especially the schools subscribing to the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs theory of behavior modification. The member, and former member schools, divide teens into “family” groups, use a points system, and demand complete obsequious to the program’s “message.” Oh, and the kids can’t leave.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding these schools – some claim that it’s institutionalized child abuse – several have been shut down, and there are scads of lawsuits out against these schools. The most notorious incident involved the suffocating death of a fourteen-year old boy, Martin Lee Anderson, at the hands of “boot camp” guards – which was caught on film.

Montana’s most controversial program is at Spring Creek Lodge, where a girl recently committed suicide and a boy was savagely beaten by fellow inmates. The Independent’s John Adams has written extensively on the abuses at Spring Creek Lodge and other schools: I heartily recommend reading every word he’s written on the subject.

In the last state legislative session, responding to allegations of abuse, HB 628 put oversight of Montana teen programs into the hands of a five-person governor-appointed board under the Department of Labor and Industry – the brain child of Representative Paul Clark (D-Trout Creek), who also runs a teen program, and an intensive lobbying campaign on behalf of the teen program industry.

The problem with this solution is that it puts the foxes in charge of the hen house: three of the board’s members are representatives of the industry, and the bill ducks licensure of teen programs, as proposed by Senator Trudi Schmidt (D-Great Falls) in SB 101, which would also put regulation under the Department of Health and Human Services. That makes sense – the problem with the teen programs is with the mental and physical well-being of the program participants, not labor issues.

If Adams’ well-written and –researched stories don’t underscore the importance of decent licensing of the industry, check out Montana PBS’ documentary, “Who’s Watching the Kids?” which is a great summary of all the issues and provides video evidence of abuse.

Or check out the testimony on sites created by teen behavioral modification “survivors,” like the Community Alliance for the Fair and Ethical Treatment of Youth,” and the “Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse.”

Bottom line is this: Maybe the programs work. Maybe they don’t. But kids have died, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that abuse isn’t occurring at these teen programs. We need real oversight. We need a real and effective licensing program.

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