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Wisconsin Hunting Season Opens Amid Racial Tension

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In northern Wisconsin tomorrow, 36-year-old Chai Vang will be sentenced for the murder of six deer hunters last November. The shooting followed a racially charged trespassing confrontation. Vang is Hmong, and the killing sparked racial tensions in both Wisconsin and Minnesota, where more than 100,000 Hmong have settled after fleeing Laos. As Wisconsin Public Radio's Gil Halstead reports, the tension still lingers as hunters get ready for this year's deer hunting season.

GIL HALSTEAD reporting:

The leaves are already off the trees in Sawyer County. From a trail on Dale Olsen's land, just two miles from where the killings took place, the hills around Meteor Township are a soft grayish brown dotted with the occasional bright green of a balsam fir or a white pine.

(Soundbite of crunching leaves)

HALSTEAD: Olsen is the Meteor town chairman. Today he's checking for deer tracks, as he walks to the edge of his land to post a `No Trespassing' sign in Spanish, Hmong and English.

(Soundbite of hammering)

Mr. DALE OLSEN (Chairman, Meteor Township): After the tragedy that we had last year, I wanted to do something, anything, whatever I could do. And our town actually looked at trying to get a grant to purchase a thousand of these signs and give them away.

HALSTEAD: A local hunting club helped out, and the signs are going up, in part, as a testament to the linguistic and cultural divide between Hmong and white hunters. During his trial, Chai Vang claimed the victims threatened him with racial slurs and fired a shot at him before he fired back, killing six and wounding two. But the two surviving hunters testified that Vang fired first. Vang was convicted of six counts of first-degree homicide. Dale Olsen says it was trespassing that apparently sparked the incident.

Mr. OLSEN: People do really dumb things for a deer.

HALSTEAD: Olsen says it will take more than new signs to solve this problem. Looking up at his tree stand on the hill above his house, he says he and many other hunters plan to be more careful this year when meeting others in the woods.

Mr. OLSEN: If I came to this stand and saw somebody up in it, you can be absolutely sure I would approach with more caution, if approach at all. There's no doubt about that.

HALSTEAD: Hmong hunters say they, too, will be more cautious. In the days after the killings, many told stories of harassment from white hunters. George Shong(ph) has been running Hmong-language classes on state hunting regulations, including the boundaries of private property. He recalls one case where Hmong hunters returned to their campsite to find human excrement in their cooking pots and a threatening note nailed to a tree.

Mr. GEORGE SHONG (Hunter Training Educator): There's a lot of people that have been doing something like treat the Hmong unfairly in the North Woods up there.

HALSTEAD: Another Hmong hunter, Lo Pau Vang(ph), is a junior high guidance counselor who's been hunting in Wisconsin for 18 years. He says he's never been harassed, and he hopes last year's killings will encourage Hmong and white hunters to get to know each other better.

Mr. LO PAU VANG (Hunter): It was a mistake from both side, I believe. But I have heard talk in the Hmong communities and, also, in the mainstream communities as well about, `How do we actually talk to each other, communicating with each other?'

HALSTEAD: Trespassing during hunting season is not a new problem. There have been angry confrontations between white hunters as well. Department of Natural Resources Warden Mark Burmesch says changing land ownership patterns are affecting all hunters, and it's getting harder to get permission from some land owners to hunt on their land.

Warden MARK BURMESCH (Department of Natural Resources): Years ago if a hunter wanted to go out and hunt a 200-acre parcel, you'd find one land owner that owned that whole acreage. Now because land has been divided up and sold in smaller and smaller pieces, you may have to try to track down 20 individual land owners. They all own 10 acres. It's more complicated now.

HALSTEAD: The DNR is now airing radio and TV public service announcements in Hmong, Spanish and English highlighting trespassing regulations and safe hunting practices.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Unidentified Man #1: Accomplished hunters follow the rules of hunter safety. They always ask three questions before crossing the fence or pulling the trigger: Is it legal? Is it safe? Is it fair?

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HALSTEAD: The state has also hired Hmong translators to staff a poaching hotline to handle calls from Hmong hunters with complaints or questions. Tomorrow's sentencing of Chai Vang will bring last year's killings back into focus for many, just as the hunting season here is about to begin, and hunters are trying to forget about last year's tragedy. For NPR News, I'm Gil Halstead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gil Halsted
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