During the NEH Summer Institute on Contested Territory, a moment occurred in a lecture Christian Lentz gave on the Struggles at Dien Bien Phu that caused me to reconsider the agency of marginalized groups. When presenting the notion of conscripted labor during the war effort for the various ethnic groups living in the hills surrounding the battle site, he made the point that the many of these non-Vietnamese people contributed to the war effort out of a sense of duty tied into citizenship- to which I asked, “Why would a Hmong woman care about Vietnamese citizenship?”

My assumption was informed by the notion that state power is often exerted through force and marginal people are absorbed into the state and lose part of their identity through the process of forming the nation. Yet what the struggle at Dien Bien Phu illustrates is that marginal groups are not merely subject that are acted upon by state forces, but as people they often leverage what dominant groups offer to benefit their own lives and their communities. For some of the Tai and Hmong folks in Vietnam, this meant entering into a larger Vietnamese community through participation and sacrifice in the form of labor and military service, in exchange for promises of equality and opportunity in an independent Vietnam. Giap’s forces didn’t necessarily have coerce ethnic peoples into fighting against the French, decades of brutality under French imperialism was persuasive enough for people to carry tons of supplies through difficult terrain to the frontlines and supply troops and fight alongside them, despite their cultural differences.

The larger takeaway for me is that there is always local agency, no matter how marginal a group is, and that while the options may be limited, people can make choices that will benefit them. This should have been obvious to me given my experience working with marginalized folks, and yet I assumed that the instinct of Hmong women would be to “escape to the hills,” when many were eager to be a part of this new national experiment. The larger story of Vietnamese identity and the place of ethnic minorities within the nation is still being contested today, but the struggles at Dien Bien Phu told a much more complicated story than I had assumed. It’s inspiring to step out of the simple narrative of state-sponsored brutality and consider how marginal groups can benefit from participation in the state, the responsibility the state has to make good on its promises.

The implications for our own national narratives are encouraging as well. Personally, I tend to bemoan the state and the violence created through nation building, and those whose cultures and suppressed, erased, and demeaned at the whims of the dominant culture. While the ethnic dimensions of American identity are fraught with inequality, marginalized groups have always leveraged agency throughout that story. Our role as educators should be to unearth those narratives for students and to connect the stories from their communities to the ones happening in the hills of Southeast Asia and around the world.

– Becky Goncharoff (Thailand Program Manager, Thrival World Academies and Rustic Pathways)