In Northern Wisconsin, Death of Immigrant Fuels Tensions
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
PESHTIGO, Wis. -- This part of America -- Wisconsin's Northwoods -- is known for huge logging trucks cramming narrow highways, thick blankets of evergreens that stretch for miles and markers lining the roads' bends, advertising opportunities to harvest your own maple syrup or to buy fresh-cut wood and deer corn.
But although this area of the state stretching from Michigan to the Twin Cities has been a place of recreation for generations of Midwesterners, it has also become known in recent years for something more troubling: incidents of prejudice toward racial minorities, some of them recent immigrants. Some here now wonder whether a recent slaying will turn out to be another example.
On Jan. 6, Cha Vang, 30, a Hmong factory worker from Green Bay who had gone missing from his weekend hunting party, was found stabbed to death and partially hidden in the Peshtigo Harbor Wildlife Area, part of 5,000 acres of hunting land.
James A. Nichols, 28, of Peshtigo, who is white, is in custody for possessing a firearm as a felon and as a person of interest in the death. Nichols, a convicted burglar, has not been charged in the killing, although police say he and Vang met accidentally in the woods and were involved in an altercation there.
"At this point, all I can say is it was an accidental meeting," Marinette County Sheriff James Kanikula told reporters days after Vang's body was found. Authorities have since been tight-lipped.
The incident follows the 2004 slayings of six white men by a Hmong hunter in Rice Lake, Wis. In that case, Chai Soua Vang, of St. Paul, Minn., shot eight hunters during an altercation over hunting on specific land.
Chai Soua Vang has been sentenced to life in prison. During his trial, he said the group of white hunters shouted racial slurs and started shooting at him before he shot back. The surviving hunters disputed that assertion.
Combined, the slayings have fueled continuing racial tensions here, which included incidents of violence against Native Americans in the late 1980s during clashes over hunting rights.
"People are protective of their land and their hunting -- that's what it is all about," said Randy Jarvis, a lifelong resident and electrician in the Peshtigo area. "Overseas, they do things differently than they do here, and many people here feel they are being invaded. But it's not like people stay awake at night to pick on the Hmong."
But there are concerns that the tensions over hunting will only grow as the influx of Hmong, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia, continues. Many Hmong men hunt, a skill and tradition carried over from their time in the rugged environments of refugee camps in Thailand and Laos.
"This is what a lot of the men are used to doing, and it is something that a lot of people here don't understand," said Xiongpao Lee, resource and youth coordinator for the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn., where 15,000 Hmong have immigrated since 2003. "No one here ever had to hunt like these people did before."
Tens of thousands of Hmong have evacuated the last of the refugee camps and, with the help of federal and state governments, have moved to pockets throughout the United States, including northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.