Damakant Jayshi

In the mid-1980s a sophomore at Wausau East High School wrote a journal as part of his English class assignment. He wrote about his family’s experience of trying to escape the communist government forces in Laos in about 1975 after the end of the Vietnam War. 

During the journey, the teen at the Wausau school wrote, his elder brother was shot and killed while the family, along with many other Hmong, attempted to cross the Mekong River into Thailand.

When Marty Harris, English and Arts teacher at Wausau East, read the sophomore’s journal entry, she wanted to learn more. Her husband, Jim Harris, was hearing similar tales at Weston Elementary School in the D.C. Everest School District. One of the stories he remembers is of a girl who had to crawl on her stomach to escape the bullets.

This account is based on interviews with the Harrises.

Years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong from the high mountains in Laos were forced to leave their homes and take refuge in camp in Thailand after the Lao’s People Party-led communist government declared them the enemies for having helped the Americans in the war.

The students, and some parents, would often talk about their extended family members in Wausau. The two teachers decided to visit Laos to find some of the family members. So they took addresses from parents and set off to Laos during their summer vacation in the early 2000s, making their first of the many visits to the Southeast Asian country. That association continues to this day. 

“That first trip established the pattern of my reconnecting the families of my students with relatives left behind in Laos,” Jim Harris said, adding that he continued making trips for the subsequent four summers.

“After retiring from our jobs in 2003, we traveled to Laos for our longest stay, from March 2006 through late that year,” Marty Harris said. “That was the beginning of Jim’s work with UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance teams. It was during that trip, while Jim worked in remote villages, that I worked in Vientiane (capital of Laos) doing volunteer work – teaching English and art at three different schools.”

She did that with the help of several teachers who could speak a little English. Jim worked with an interpreter while in Laos.

The Harrises, especially Jim who traveled each summer, did something else, too. They brought souvenirs and artifacts of Hmong and Lao life, culture and history back to Wausau with them. 

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They started collecting the artifacts to show to their students to give them an idea of what life was like in the country their parents and grandparents were forced to flee. Bulkier items were shipped back to the U.S.

Subsequently, Harris would bring surgical instruments and medicines that were requested by doctors he knew in Laos, including Vientiane.

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Soon, the collection of artifacts began to grow as Jim Harris traveled to Laos every year during the dry season (October to April). The coronavirus pandemic prevented him from traveling to Laos last season, he said. 

Both Jim and Martha Harris felt it was necessary for the overwhelmingly white community in the Wausau area to learn about the life and culture of the Southeast Asian community. The Asian population constitutes nearly 12% of Wausau’s roughly 40,000 residents, according to the latest Census. Most of the Asians here are from the Hmong community.

The Harrises felt strongly that it was important for Hmong children to learn about their history and culture, as well as for the adults to feel ‘home’ away from the country they were forced to leave decades ago.

In the beginning, they held exhibits of Hmong artifacts and artwork at their respective schools.

But, as the collection grew, the Harrises decided to establish a museum featuring the collection. Thus was born the ‘From Laos to America’ museum, which opened in 2016 at Wausau Center mall. After attracting nearly 10,000 visitors in five years, the museum shut down when the mall closed and was ultimately torn down.

But ‘From Laos to America’ has a new home now, at the Third Street Lifestyle center, 200 Washington St. in downtown Wausau. Expenses are met through donations from the community and sales of coffee (“half the revenue is from the sale of the Laotian coffee”). So far, the Harrises have declined any grant money.

The museum now has hundreds of items – home utensils and farm implements, dresses representing different ethnicities, bamboo hats, traditional weapons, and even classroom objects like a blackboard, bench and books. 

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On one wall, there are pictures of people from the Southeast Asian community who have succeeded in different occupations in the U.S. The pictures are placed in alphabetical order, based on profession.

After Sunisa Lee, a Hmong American gymnast from Minneapolis, won Olympic gold earlier this year, Harris received requests to include her picture on the wall. Jim Harris said Lee’s picture will be displayed alongside letter ‘O’ – for Olympian. “We want children to understand that a limitless number of occupations are open to them.”

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Another major attraction at the museum are the models of bombs that have been removed from their native farmlands and forests.

Those models are of unexploded bombs and ordnance that were mostly dropped by U.S. planes during the Vietnam War. Harris personally helped remove unexploded ordinance since 2006, when he began working with Phoenix Clearance Ltd., a New Zealand company responsible for clearing bombs, land mines and other unexploded ordnance in Laos.

The Harrises jointly founded the nonprofit, We Help War Victims, that is devoted to the task. They fund its work entirely through charitable donations – from individuals, school groups, community, and church groups and sales of Lao coffee.

Initially, it was a hands-on museum, “encouraging visitors – especially young children – to touch and explore. But now there are items under glass and in cases.

“The change has occurred because we have witnessed that in Laos many cultural objects are becoming scarce, and we can no longer assume that if objects in our collection wear out that they can be replaced,” Harris said. “Also, an important consideration is my age.” Now in his mid-70s, “I might not have all that many more trips to Laos in me,” he said.

However, he still tries to have activities within the museum where young children can have a hands-on experience, like using a carry stick to tote water buckets weighted with sand, or carrying a doll with a traditional cloth baby carrier.

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The Harrises have now decided to hand over operation of the museum to tje Hmong American Center. The HAC plans a grand opening of the Hmong museum on Nov. 20. The month marks the Hmong New Year and harvest festival, said Yee Leng Xiong, the executive director of HAC.

“Even though the formal handover in 2022, the inauguration is happening this year to mark the 45th anniversary of the arrival of the first Hmong family in Marathon County in April 1976,” Xiong, who is also a county supervisor, told Wausau Pilot & Review.

A press release issued by the center gives details of the grand opening (see below.)

Neither side sees any problem in the handover, expecting it to go smoothly. The founders of the museum want to have a commitment from the center that entry to the museum will continue to be free, that the character of the museum – focused on the everyday life of the Hmong and Lao commoners – be kept intact, and that the artifacts be protected. “I have met people saying, ‘Oh, I know that! Can I take it to my home?’ and I always decline because if the items are in the museum everyone can see them.”

Jim and Martha Harris also want that the museum to be run by volunteers and not by paid staff, reasoning that the Hmong people should come forward to keep alive their culture, history and heritage.

As for the final handover, the HAC is in no rush.

“We want Jim and Marty Harris to feel comfortable. We don’t want to rush and want to give our best shot. After all, this is a work of decades.”

Jim and Marty Harris say it is more important now than ever to keep the museum going – to help educate about SEA and Hmong culture and as an answer to the vitriol some residents say they have endured.

“There will always be a jerk or two in the community but we are not defined by them,” said the former principal. “We believe the museum can make a difference.”

Martha Harris agreed.

“Jim and I both agree that over the four decades that Wausau has been home to Hmong families, we have seen a tremendous growth in the community’s acceptance and support of cultural diversity,” she said. “In spite of that, in the last several years, we know there has been an increase in some isolated incidents of racism. The national mood in recent years has emboldened individuals to act upon their own bias and hatred. For that reason, we feel our work to educate about and embrace cultural diversity is more important than ever. This was a primary motivation for opening the museum when we did!”

Details of the Grand Re-Opening of the ‘From Laos to America’ Museum

When: 10: 30 a.m. Nov. 20, 2021

Speaking Program (11:00 AM – 1:00 PM) at the Lincoln Ballroom at the Jefferson Street Inn located at 201 Jefferson Street Inn, Wausau, WI 54403.
Tours will be available for the public from 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM.

The speaking program will be held at the Lincoln Ballroom. After the Speaking Program, the event will transition to the museum located at 200 Washington Street, Suite 100, Wausau, WI 54403, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Speakers include U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes and Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.