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Blugold balances life as a college student and as a shaman

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Tou Ger “Billy” Lor was still a tween when he realized that his life’s journey was going to take him down a path that he had not expected nor, at the time, especially wanted.

Lor, now a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, was raised in Eau Claire as a Christian by Hmong parents who wanted to leave behind their native country of Laos and many of its cultural norms.

It turns out the spiritual world had other plans for him, however, Lor says.

In middle school, Lor learned that he had been chosen by the spirits to be a shaman master, a highly respected spiritual healer in the Hmong community who serves as an intermediary between the spirit and material worlds.

“My parents pushed assimilation, so they had left shamanism behind in the old country,” Lor says. “I appreciated Christianity and grew up going to church every week and being involved in church activities. I believe in western medicine and science.

“So, accepting shamanism was a challenge; it was a religious challenge and a cultural challenge.”

Still, after initially resisting his role as a spiritual healer, Lor came to realize that he could not simply wish shamanism away, so instead, he decided to embrace it.

Tou Ger “Billy” Lor is both a college student and a highly respected Hmong shaman.

Tou Ger “Billy” Lor is both a college student and a highly respected Hmong shaman.

Now, a decade later, Lor is successfully juggling his roles as both a college student and a shaman, spending his weekdays immersed in schoolwork and campus activities, and his weekends helping Hmong community members find peace and good health.

“I’m a shaman and a leader in shamanism, but I still think of myself as a college student first,” Lor says.

As a Blugold, Lor has enriched the campus community and served as a leader and inspiration for his peers, says Dang Yang, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

“Billy is not only a student leader, but a cultural leader in the Hmong community, too,” Yang says. “He applies his cultural knowledge to help his peers explore and navigate their own cultural identities, and he does it in a way that bridges the strength of their individuality within the Hmong cultural framework of interconnectedness.”

Being ‘chosen’ as shaman master

Lor was around age 11 when he began experiencing sleep paralysis, awaking in the night with a dark figure hovering over him. He was unable to move but could feel the figure pushing him down, he says.

“The first time it happened, my brother woke up and he kind of got scared and woke me,” Lor says. “It was unexplainable. We prayed and went back to sleep. After that, it happened almost every night. I thought it was a mental health issue. I became very ill. I turned to western medicine for help, but nothing was working. My sleep paralysis and other illnesses wouldn’t go away.”

According to traditional Hmong beliefs, an individual does not decide to be a shaman but, like Lor, are chosen by the spirits. Those who are chosen experience unexplained physical and mental illnesses as the spirits try to connect with the new shaman. The illnesses disappear when the chosen person begins their work to become a trained shaman.

So, with his health deteriorating, Lor and his family came to accept that he had inherited the shamanism lineage, says Lor, who later learned that the dark figure appearing in the night was his late paternal grandfather, who also was a shaman.

“It was hard for me to handle,” Lor says of his health struggles. “But once I realized my true calling was to become a shaman, I became better. It really is not a choice. When you are selected within a family, you are selected. I either had to accept it or know that I would be dealing with illnesses my whole life.”

After he began studying shamanism, his health improved dramatically and the supernatural/spiritual experiences in the night ended, Lor says.

While his overall health improved, there still were many struggles as he began to follow his new path.

Among the challenges, he says, was his age. Typically, people are chosen to be shaman when they are well into adulthood, not while still a child. Also, because he did not grow up immersed in a Hmong community, he had to learn the Hmong language and many cultural practices.

He worked hard, first serving as an apprentice to a shaman teacher, and later, on his own, eventually becoming a shaman master who now teaches others to be a shaman, including several Blugolds.

Healing his community

Tou Ger “Billy” Lor performs a healing ceremony in front of an altar as he serves the Hmong community in his role as a shaman.

Tou Ger “Billy” Lor performs a healing ceremony in front of an altar as he serves the Hmong community in his role as a shaman.

Even after training as a shaman, Lor still was skeptical of the good he could do, wondering if the rituals and ceremonies he was to lead would make a difference to those requesting his help.

“At first, I would do a ceremony not really believing in what I was doing,” Lor says. “But many people began telling me they were healed after the ceremonies were over. They were experiencing certain symptoms, and after a ceremony they say they feel better and their illness has not returned.

“I see them smile and they have their health back. They return to work and school. That is when I believe. Whether spiritual or supernatural, what I believe in is the healing.”

Shamans’ rituals connect them with the otherworld, so they can restore someone’s health or guide a lost soul back home. During ceremonies, shamans perform rituals in front of an altar, using herbs and special instruments to connect and negotiate with the spirits on someone’s behalf.

During a ceremony, which typically lasts two to 10 hours, Lor remains in a trance, a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.

“I don’t say a lot of things,” Lor says. “Many times, I see with my heart. Your eyes can confuse you, but your heart knows where to go. I follow the spirits, and the spirits always know your heart.”

One of the best things about a ceremony is that they bring families together, which is especially important to the elders in the Hmong community, Lor says.

“Many of the elders feel very alone,” Lor says. “They came from a place where kids never leave. Here in America, kids do leave their families. So, elders are lonely. When we do a ceremony, families attend, sometimes coming from far away. They are very happy afterward. A lot of the healing I see is mental healing because families reunite.”

Following his path

While Lor now is enjoying his life as a Blugold and a shaman, the road to get there was not easy, he says.

Since he became a shaman at such a young age, he did not have peers who could guide him or relate to what he was experiencing, Lor says. There was no community for him to lean on, he says.

Lor’s family had little money, which also made life challenging. His mother died in 2013 while Lor was still in high school. His father died in 2016, just two months before Lor started college.

The money Lor had saved for college went instead to pay for his father’s funeral, making it even more difficult to pay for his education, he says. The death of his parents also meant he had to assume more responsibilities to support and help his younger siblings, he says.

“Starting college was extremely hard,” Lor says. “I came to college with nothing. It was hard being a full-time student, working a job, supporting and helping my siblings and being a shaman.”

As a result, Lor struggled with his mental health. Eventually, he says, he began using what he has learned as a shaman to heal himself.

“During the ceremonies, I often help people unpack their traumas,” Lor says. “I finally saw that I had to unpack my own traumas. Now I know it’s OK to not be OK, that it’s OK to ask for help. People come to me for help, but I had to learn to ask for the help that I need.”

The coronavirus pandemic has added even more stress to his life as a student and a shaman, Lor says.

His classes are mostly online, and internships have been hard to find. He and his family have struggled during the crisis. And shamanism has gone virtual, limiting his ability to help Hmong community members, Lor says.

Seeing the pandemic’s effect on traditional Hmong funerals has been especially hard because they are important events that typically bring families together physically and emotionally, Lor says. Hmong funerals often last three days and include many special traditions that cannot be done virtually, making it even more difficult for families to deal with the loss of a loved one, he says.

“Family comes from all over the country,” Lor says of a traditional Hmong funeral. “Everyone wants to spend time with their loved one. Now, even if we have a funeral over two days, we must leave our loved one alone at night. To spend the night before they leave us forever apart is a conflict of the heart. Everyone wants to be with them until the very end. It’s very hard for everyone, but especially the elders.”

Finding a community at UW-Eau Claire

Lor, who came to UW-Eau Claire because of its critical Hmong studies program, will graduate in May with a degree in integrated strategic communication.

“I chose ISC as a major because it involves so many things, like public relations, marketing, graphic design and videography,” Lor says. “There is so much I can do with this major. I can be a professional but also foster my creativity.”

At UW-Eau Claire, he also found a community that supports and understands him, Lor says.

While he’s found support across the campus, his connections with staff and students in the Office of Multicultural Affairs have been especially meaningful, Lor says. Through OMA, he’s found friendships, support and many opportunities to learn and lead, he says.

Now a student intern in OMA, Lor leads discussions, plans programs, helps strategize promotion plans and gives staff insights into how the office can better serve students, Yang says.

“Billy has enriched our campus, and I am so proud of everything that he has accomplished,” Yang says. “It’s easy to point to his list of accomplishments, including his leadership in the Hmong Student Association and his coordination of a student research trip to California with his faculty researchers, but what makes Billy stand out for me is the way in which he approaches each of these projects with a lens on equity and advocacy.”

Lor hopes other students can learn from his experiences as a first-generation Hmong student from a low-income household. He wants all students to know that they — regardless of their backgrounds — do belong at UW-Eau Claire and can be successful here.

“It was hard for me to come to the university because I had so many other responsibilities and I had no money,” Lor says. “But there are so many resources on campus that help. I tell people that if they use the resources that are offered, they will make it here. They can be successful here.”