Learning and Practicing as a Shaman Leader

I call Eau Claire home. I grew up in Elk Mound but was born and raised in Eau Claire. My Hmong-American identity really comes out on the weekends.

Tor Ger Billy Lor | Eau Claire, WI

On the weekdays, I hang out with people my age. But, on the weekends, I hang out with people twice or even triple my age to perform Shaman ceremonies and am learning how to sew Hmong tapestry (paj ntaub).

I am a college student at UW-Eau Claire, a leader, an advocate, an activist, a Shaman– I wear a lot of different hats.

My parents were both brought to the U.S. through church sponsors, so we became Christians and left Shamanism, as we say it, behind in the “old country.” My parents pushed for me and my siblings to assimilate in America. We went to church every week and did a lot of church-related activities. I loved what it provided for my family, but I started to get sick. I was starting to deal with mental health issues.

It was around middle schoolseventh or eighth gradewhen my life took a turn. It was really hard to identify what I was going through with my mental health because nothing worked, including western medicine. When my illnesses wouldn’t go away, we turned to a family Shaman, who diagnosed me with news I never expected. I was selected as a Shaman.  A Shaman is someone who is spiritually chosen to perform Shamanic rituals, mostly for the sick or someone going through difficulty in their life. They typically perform rituals during traditional Hmong ceremonies. Being told I was selected as a Shaman was not my choice, and this was really hard for me to accept.

For years, I rejected it because it challenged my faith as a Christian. It brought on cultural challenges. I couldn’t speak the Hmong language and knew nothing of the Shaman religion. At the time, I had no one that I could relate to and help me talk through what I was experiencing. It’s been 10 years, and even to this day, I’m still learning and adjusting to it. Some days are harder than others. I never chose to become a Shaman. It chose me. It was either I continue to live with my unexplained sicknesses, or I get better by accepting this part of my life as a Shaman.   

My siblings and I take care of each other. They’re my rock. Knowing that I have a great support system from my family members is key. It was hard for me to talk about my own mental health, especially when both of my parents passed away. Coming from a low-income family and going into college with practically nothing was extremely hard. My father passed away two months before I went to college in 2016, and everything I saved up for was used for his funeral. I came in with nothing. I was in a bad state of mind. We’ve been through everything. We’re all in this situation where we have nothing, so we’re trying to better our lives and really live our parents’ dreams. For me, it’s getting that degree and balancing all those hats, including being a Shaman.

COVID has interrupted a lot of things. My classes have gone virtual, and Shamanism has also gone virtual. Just last month, it was my first time doing a ceremony for someone virtually while I was doing a ceremony. They wanted to come to me with their family, but I wanted all of us to stay safe, so we used our phones instead. It was really new to me.

In traditional Hmong Shamanism, funerals are the biggest part of one’s life because it’s the celebration of one’s life. It’s also a time to mourn.

The most symbolic thing during a Hmong funeral is dressing your loved one in traditional clothing. This is the final moment for us to show our respect. Now with COVID, we can’t dress them. We’re not allowed to touch the deceased, especially if they passed away from COVID. We can’t perform those symbolic ceremonies anymore. Even for me, who is of a younger generation, it hurts to see a stranger dress my loved ones. I have attended a few funerals recently, and it is very different from what it was pre-COVID with having large crowds. Now, you have to wait in line to go into the building. Feasts are a large part of Hmong funerals, and now, most are not serving food, let alone, performing other traditional practices that pay respect to the deceased. It’s very different, and it’s really hard not to do the full-on traditional funeral, especially for our elders.

Funerals are typically three days, but now most are only one. The reason why we do three days is because we want to be able to have enough time to spend time with our loved ones. Many families have people come from out-of-state and out of the country, and we want to give them enough time with their loved ones. Now, they’re not given that opportunity. Even if funerals are two days, they’re closed at nighttime. The Hmong tradition is to spend the whole night with our loved one before they leave us forever. Now, we’re having to close the doors, turn off the lights and go home at night, and leave our deceased one alone. Culturallyit’s a conflict of the heart, knowing that they’re alone. We want to be with them until the very end. So, it’s a battle. It’s a battle that we’re still getting used to.

As a Shaman when I perform a ceremony, I talk with people about their traumas and difficulties that they are going through. This has helped me learn how to unpack my own traumas. This was the biggest thing that I learned from Shamanism that helped me with my mental health. It’s okay not to be okay at times, and it’s okay to break down and cry. It’s okay to ask for help. People would ask me for help, and I also had to learn how to ask for help, too.

Tor Ger Billy Lor’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.

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