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Little Town on the Prairie: Hmong Identity and Community Transition in Rural America

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Abstract:

The small town of Walnut Grove in southwestern Minnesota is best known as one of the sites associated with the childhood of famed children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the Banks of Plum Creek was published in 1937. Within ten years, fans of Wilder’s books began to seek out the actual Plum Creek, a meandering stream not far from the center of town. Walnut Grove gained increasing prominence in the 1970s as the primary TV setting of the family drama “Little House on the Prairie,” based loosely on Wilder’s stories. A thriving tourism industry developed, yet the town was challenged by problems faced by rural communities across the nation – an aging and dwindling population, a continuous lack of jobs, and disappearing farms.

Walnut Grove however has been back in the headlines in recent years. After years of population decline, a surge of newcomers began moving into the community. In 2001, a small but enterprising group of Hmong immigrants began to call Walnut Grove home. As they resettled in the tiny town, their presence led many long time residents – individuals who could trace their German and Scandinavian roots back generations – to face racial integration for the first time. The Hmong have now had a major impact on the town’s population. The community has gone from around 600 and declining in the late 1990s to around 825 and increasing in 2006.

This paper will explore how Walnut Grove has adjusted to the cultural changes that have taken place in such a short period of time. Despite setbacks due to the preconceptions and prejudice of some long time residents, this group of immigrants has already made significant inroads within the community. The local Hmong clan leader and the school administration worked together to open a Hmong cultural center. Two Hmong businessmen own the only two grocery stores in town and have plans to open a restaurant and laundry mat. In 2006, a member of the Hmong community ran for city council.

This paper will also address how Walnut Grove’s connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder shapes its community identity. How do her books simultaneously function as a locus for collective community memory and as texts that help attract new ethnically diverse groups to the region? The town has worked hard to cultivate an image closely tied to Wilder and her representation of Walnut Grove. Frontier heritage and wholesome family values are the main attractions for a wide variety of tourists. As my paper will illustrate however, these qualities and the popular images they bring to mind played a pivotal role in attracting the Hmong. Collectively, they seek many of the mythic qualities Wilder’s books embody. A priority on family life, a safe environment, and the ability to more easily hold on to cultural traditions away from the city are key attractions. This small town represents in myriad ways the changing nature of rural communities and identities in the twenty first century while also illustrating the continuing appeal of life in rural America.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Hajdik, Anna. "Little Town on the Prairie: Hmong Identity and Community Transition in Rural America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185486_index.html>

APA Citation:

Hajdik, A. T. , 2007-10-11 "Little Town on the Prairie: Hmong Identity and Community Transition in Rural America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185486_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: The small town of Walnut Grove in southwestern Minnesota is best known as one of the sites associated with the childhood of famed children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the Banks of Plum Creek was published in 1937. Within ten years, fans of Wilder’s books began to seek out the actual Plum Creek, a meandering stream not far from the center of town. Walnut Grove gained increasing prominence in the 1970s as the primary TV setting of the family drama “Little House on the Prairie,” based loosely on Wilder’s stories. A thriving tourism industry developed, yet the town was challenged by problems faced by rural communities across the nation – an aging and dwindling population, a continuous lack of jobs, and disappearing farms.

Walnut Grove however has been back in the headlines in recent years. After years of population decline, a surge of newcomers began moving into the community. In 2001, a small but enterprising group of Hmong immigrants began to call Walnut Grove home. As they resettled in the tiny town, their presence led many long time residents – individuals who could trace their German and Scandinavian roots back generations – to face racial integration for the first time. The Hmong have now had a major impact on the town’s population. The community has gone from around 600 and declining in the late 1990s to around 825 and increasing in 2006.

This paper will explore how Walnut Grove has adjusted to the cultural changes that have taken place in such a short period of time. Despite setbacks due to the preconceptions and prejudice of some long time residents, this group of immigrants has already made significant inroads within the community. The local Hmong clan leader and the school administration worked together to open a Hmong cultural center. Two Hmong businessmen own the only two grocery stores in town and have plans to open a restaurant and laundry mat. In 2006, a member of the Hmong community ran for city council.

This paper will also address how Walnut Grove’s connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder shapes its community identity. How do her books simultaneously function as a locus for collective community memory and as texts that help attract new ethnically diverse groups to the region? The town has worked hard to cultivate an image closely tied to Wilder and her representation of Walnut Grove. Frontier heritage and wholesome family values are the main attractions for a wide variety of tourists. As my paper will illustrate however, these qualities and the popular images they bring to mind played a pivotal role in attracting the Hmong. Collectively, they seek many of the mythic qualities Wilder’s books embody. A priority on family life, a safe environment, and the ability to more easily hold on to cultural traditions away from the city are key attractions. This small town represents in myriad ways the changing nature of rural communities and identities in the twenty first century while also illustrating the continuing appeal of life in rural America.

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Similar Titles:
Citizenship in Rural America: Political Knowledge and Participation in Impoverished Rural Communities

Hmong Means Free: Hmong Women and Identity Formation in America


 
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