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North Woods shooting highlights culture clash

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

RICE LAKE, Wis. At the upper edge of the nation, in the thick woods of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, there are rules. Rules about property. Rules about deer hunting and the generations-old traditions that surround it. Rules about how people treat each other when they come upon armed strangers among the trees.

Most of these rules are not written down. So when different kinds of hunters people with different backgrounds, different traditions come together in the North Woods, anything can happen.

On the second day of this year's deer season, the worst kind of clash occurred a fight over a tree stand used as a vantage point for aiming and firing. When it ended, six hunters were dead in a fusillade of bullets. Two more were wounded. And a man who came from a hunting culture on the other side of the world stood accused of murder.

With the arrest of Chai Soua Vang, a truck driver from St. Paul, Minn., and member of the Hmong ethnic group, the region's cherished autumn tradition may never be the same. With few facts clear, questions are being asked, suspicions whispered: Was this the doing of an untethered individual or a cultural clash? Could it have been avoided?

And what are the rules when the people who follow them hold differing views about the land beneath them?

''Your hunting area, if you own the land, is kind of sacred,'' said Rob Petersen, who owns land a few miles from where the shooting happened. ''It's such a touchy thing.''

Many businesses close during Wisconsin's nine-day deer hunting season, which begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Church and school attendance plummets. Main streets become ghost towns. Friends and relations retreat to deep-woods camps where they celebrate family, commune with nature and relive past glories. Many camps go back generations, drawing family members who have moved to far-flung states.

Many long-established residents own a piece of hunting property, or know somebody who does. They expect their rights as property owners to be protected and respected.

The Hmong, an ethnic minority from Southeast Asia, are relative newcomers to the North Woods who brought their own strong hunting tradition from the hills of northern Laos. They can be frustrated by the paucity of land open to them. They often feel uncomfortable in the homogeneous communities of rural Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Of about 200,000 Hmong living in the United States, 46,000 live in Wisconsin and 60,000 next door in Minnesota. But according to census figures, few live in either Sawyer County, Wis., where the shootings occurred, or in adjacent Barron County, where most of the victims lived.

Together, Minnesota and Wisconsin grant more than a million deer licenses each year. That, combined with the increasing closure of private land, leaves many hunters especially city dwellers with no personal contacts in the upstate areas scrambling for a piece of ground in the patchwork of public lands.

Ever since the Hmong began traveling to these woods to hunt a generation ago, locals have complained that they violate game laws and poach on private land. Hmong first appeared in the area where the shootings happened about five years ago, said local hunter Wayne Aspseter.

''They came up in big droves,'' he said.

The Hmong counter such charges with complaints about harassment and threats. Tou Vang, a hunter from St. Paul who is unrelated to the suspect, said Hmong hunting camps have been overrun by all-terrain vehicles and occasionally intimidated by gunfire. Other Hmong tell similar tales.

Conflicts can occur when a lost hunter ends up on private property, or when two groups stake out the same piece of public land.

''It does happen quite a bit, and it's usually resolved quietly and civilly,'' said Michael J. Bartz, a conservation officer with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The situation has gotten touchier in recent years, though, as new landowners who are less friendly to hunters declare their land off-limits.

''My first 25 years, I never saw a 'No Trespassing' sign,'' said Ed Biedron, a roofer who owns 241 acres near Weyerhauser, Wis. ''Now, if a new person comes in and buys 40 acres, a 'No Trespassing' sign goes right up.''

But officials in both Minnesota and Wisconsin say they have received few, if any, complaints about harassment of Hmong by local hunters. And they say the Hmong are no more likely than any other group to violate game laws.

Chai Soua Vang, who appeared at a hearing Tuesday after being charged with intentionally killing six hunters and trying to kill two others, maintains the hunters pelted him with racial slurs a charge the surviving victims deny. Vang remained in jail on $2.5 million bail, awaiting a Dec. 29 preliminary hearing.

In the aftermath of the shootings, notions being discussed are uncomfortable even by the admission of locals trying to sort out their feelings.

''We all know that it's wrong to judge a culture or a people by the actions of one person, but it's hard to do otherwise when that one person has harmed the community so deeply,'' wrote editors of the Chronotype, a local weekly newspaper.

The attacks happened on land belonging to Terry Willers, who was injured in the attack, and Robert Crotteau, who was killed. Authorities say Willers came across Vang sitting in their tree stand, an elevated platform where hunters wait for game. Willers radioed other members of his party, then asked Vang to leave. The other hunters arrived on all-terrain vehicles as the shooting began.

The popularity of the people who lost their lives only increases the hurt. All the victims were originally from the small communities of Rice Lake and Haugen, both about 20 miles west of the shootings.

''This tragedy forever puts a cloud over this tradition in our area,'' said Tom Kamrath, who owns a Rice Lake outdoor equipment store.

At their funeral, Robert Crotteau and his son Joseph were remembered as fun-loving, hardworking outdoorsmen. Hundreds showed up at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church to pay their respects to the men, whose family has lived and hunted in the area for at least four generations.

''Right now I think everybody might feel unsafe,'' said Tong Vang, a Hmong hunter and educator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The Hmong have frequently found themselves as unwanted guests on other people's land. They originally settled in Laos during the 18th and 19th centuries after being driven from southern China.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong fought alongside American forces. When the U.S. military pulled out of Southeast Asia in 1975, thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand, where they were forced into refugee camps.

Acknowledging their service, the U.S. began welcoming Hmong immigrants in the late 1970s. The arrival of another 15,000 this year will coincide with the closure of the final remaining refugee camp in Thailand.

Tou Vang, 45, who owns an auto-body shop, hunts with his family on public land in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. As a teenage soldier in Laos, Tou Vang often hunted for food in the jungle a life-and-death effort very different from the deer hunts he has enjoyed since coming to the United States 28 years ago.

''I just go for fun,'' he said. ''You don't care if the deer is coming or not coming.''

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, some Hmong fear their whole community will be punished unfairly for the actions of one individual. In a gesture of sympathy, Hmong leaders have established a memorial fund for the victims and their families, but they worry it may not prevent mutual suspicion from growing into outright fear and prejudice.

Landowners are especially anxious about how to confront trespassers in the future. Kamrath expects to sell more two-way radios to hunters and landowners who now fear being alone in the woods.

The losses and the violence that caused them will echo through the trees for years to come.

''Too much tragedy,'' Carol Crotteau said after the service for her son and grandson. ''It's going to affect a lot of people for a long time.''

AP Writer Gregg Aamot in Rice Lake contributed to this report.



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