AN ancient Sioux Indian chant beats out the saying that a tribe without a history is as fleeting as wind on the buffalo grass. Art substantiates man's innate desire for a legacy. As early as 2600 BC, at the dawn of written language and civilization as we know it, Sumerian artists made a great conceptual leap from the random, albeit beautiful, primeval markings in caves to ordered visual stories carved in stone and designed to preserve for posterity conquests, migrations, real events in time and place. On the unlikely surface of 230 feet of cloth, deft artisans in the 11th century embroidered an action-packed account of the Norman invasion of England. Sioux warriors painted laborious visual records of hunts, festivals, and battles on tents and hides. Examples abound. With such a long list of precedents, what is so fascinating about so-called ``war cloths'' embroidered by Laotian Hmong women to record their experiences during the Vietnam war? Quite a lot.
For thousands of years the Hmong of the Laotian highlands lived in lush hillside jungles, holding time in virtual abeyance. Fiercely independent, peaceable, and committed to community, the Hmong managed to preserve the language, primal religion, and culture of Asian neolithic life dating back some 2,000 years.
Before the Vietnam war in Laos, the Hmong enjoyed a bucolic agrarian existence. Much like American Indians, they tilled the soil, shared harvests, practiced nature and ancestor worship, and cultivated a belief in a universal life-spirit unifying all things. The Hmong had no written language, but possessed a rich and poetic oral history. They also had highly developed textile arts of elaborate costumes and embroidered cloths that women stitched into geometric patterns held sacred by the Hmong for centuries. Indeed, a woman's fitness as a future wife was measured by her mastery of needle, thread, and indigenous abstract design.
In the late '60s the Hmong became geography's victims. Communist troops burned and pillaged their farmlands, appropriating Hmong land as strongholds. The American-backed Laotian government began large-scale bombing to dislodge them. These actions turned the verdant hills into a wasteland.
Eventually the Hmong took to mountainous, man-made caves. In 1975 those who had survived fled on foot and in makeshift river rafts to refugee camps in Thailand.
As one refugee put it, all that they carried away was their ability to sew and to remember. Once in refugee camps the women began again to sew. But for the first time in their art history they adopted a foreign figurative vocabulary. Geometric patterns were overshadowed by elaborate visual stories recalling their happy past, horrific scenes of warfare, and the end to village life as they'd known it.
From Thailand camps, the textiles made their way to the United States for sale as decorative curios.
Then, the Long Beach Museum in Calif. organized 45 of them into an exhibition called ``Embroidered History: Hmong Story Cloths,'' later on view at the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu.
In a raw, folkish style of puerile charm, stitched with unparalleled delicacy, the textiles limn grisly scenes of modern warfare. Tiny, brightly colored threads are handled with the precision and grace that fascinated ethnologists long before the Vietnam war brought the Hmong culture to the public eye.
Cloths include exquisite scenes of prewar Hmong life. We see great seasonal festivals where communal plantings and harvests were celebrated with fanciful acrobats and great feasts. We see fields of bright yellow corn husks stitched with happy animistic eyes turned upward, green pet pigs roaming farmlands, and benign monkeys peering out of trees. These are crafted with a nostalgic, detailed tenderness that conveys a special closeness to the land.
Other cloths detail treasured cultural myths about the tribe's mythical beginnings, about diligent ancestors who outsmarted the malignant forces of nature - personified by a hungry and clever tiger - through hard work, prayer, and the help of kin.
The more startling textiles depict maimed bodies, torture, communist troops battling Laotian fighters who wield state-of-the-art machine guns while huge helicopters loom overhead. Through it all, bewildered villagers in their native black stitched garb try to work the soil, only to become victims of the fighting.
For their sheer technical virtuosity these cloths deserve our attention. Thread is as supple as paint or as dimensional as clay. It builds up beautifully shaded pictures showing the round pink form of a family cow, the shiny cold steel of war tanks, or crisp yellow-and-red flames engulfing huts set ablaze by troops.
To a sophisticated Western society that has rarefied and specialized art into a commodity made and enjoyed by few, these cloths are remarkable reminders of the purity and social efficacy of folk art. These cloths remind us how art looks and acts when it is an organic part of life, when it can change its function as the needs of its makers change. Without minimizing art's modern role, these cloths take quiet note of art's potential to function as sacred symbol, as a personal diary of experience, as a record for posterity, and as curative process by which people deal with cataclysmic change.