“Is It The Spirit or The Body?”: Syncretism of Health Beliefs Among Hmong Immigrants to Alaska



Because of the emphasis within the Hmong folk health system on spirituality and nonphysiological etiologies, there has been a significant degree of conflict between Hmong refugees and the Western health care system since the beginning of the Hmong migration to the United States in the mid-1970s. This conflict has been well documented in the literature, but previous research on Hmong health has tended toward a totalization of Hmong health beliefs to emphasize its distinctness from Western biomedicine and subsequently advocate culturally sensitive health care. In doing so, however, researchers have overlooked the burgeoning syncretism of health beliefs among Hmong in the United States. The present study seeks to explain how and why the Hmong health system in Alaska is developing into a syncretism of the folk beliefs and elements from the Western biomedical paradigm. This syncretism has lead to an intricate system of combined physical and spiritual diagnoses that significantly affects the way health care decisions are made within the Hmong community. Alaskan Hmong use contextual factors (regularity, longevity, and spiritual manifestations) as well as the course of traditional and biomedical treatments to assign and reassign spiritual or biomedical root causes to ailments. As this argument unfolds, I also address the use of “syncretism” as a theoretical construct and ultimately argue that it is the most useful concept for understanding changing health beliefs among the Hmong in Alaska, despite the pejorative historical use of the term. Understanding health seeking behaviors through a syncretic paradigm, health care professionals and anthropologists can better account for the multifaceted treatment paradigms that Hmong seek as well as account for changes between traditional and biomedical treatment regimes.