One of Iowa’s most historic moments came in 1975, when then-Governor Robert Ray launched an initiative to bring thousands of people from Southeast Asia displaced by war and political turmoil to the state and give them a new start.
Matsalyn Brown was a part of that moment.
Brown, the executive assistant to Dean Sarah Gardial in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business, came to the United States with her family when she was 7 months old as a member of the Tai Dam, the ethnic group that made up the majority of Ray’s initiative. The Tai Dam are indigenous to the Black River Valley of what is now northwestern Vietnam. Many were forced to flee their homeland because the community’s leadership was allied first with the French and then with the Americans during the decades of war in the region.
Brown’s family was one of those that fled, eventually settling in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where Matsalyn was born in 1975. But they were on the move again just one month after her birth, when Saigon fell to the communists in April and her family knew it was just a matter of time before Laos fell too. They crossed the Mekong River into Thailand that spring and were among the 1,200 Tai Dam chosen to come to Iowa as a part of Ray’s initiative. Other Tai Dam went to France, Germany, Australia, Canada, and other Western countries.
Brown and her family eventually made their way to Des Moines, which Brown considers her hometown. They continued to follow their Tai Dam cultural and religious practices in Iowa, observing Tai Dam holidays and speaking Tai Dam as their primary language in the home.
It was not always easy growing up. As a member of a stateless people, it was hard for Brown to figure out her identity. She looked at a map, but there was no place called Tai Dam. So who was she?
Still, Brown’s grandmother, who watched the children during the day while her parents worked, was particularly enthusiastic about maintaining all aspects of Tai Dam traditions in the home.
“No dating, stay at home until marriage, and sometimes there were arranged marriages,” Brown says. “After I reached a certain age and would do something like climb a tree, my grandmother would say, ‘Don’t do that. Act more Tai Dam. Act more like a lady.’”
Brown didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten, and she even dreamed in Tai Dam until later in her teenage years. She attended the University of Iowa, where she graduated in 1997 with degrees in anthropology and Asian studies.
“Going to the university opened my eyes to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different types of people and ideas,” she says.
She returned to the UI in 2003 as executive assistant for then-Dean Gary Fethke and has stayed on through the deanships of Curt Hunter and Sarah Gardial. Brown’s upbeat, always positive attitude is an important part of why the college has such a strong public image, Gardial says.
“For so many people, she’s the face of the Tippie College,” says Gardial. “She has an important position because she’s frequently the first person people meet when they work with the college, and she makes such a wonderful first impression. People love her.
“She’s such a great ambassador for Iowa too, to represent our state at the United Nations,” Gardial says.
Though their names are similarly spelled in English, Brown says, the Tai are different from the Thai in Thailand. Although they are closely related ethnically to the Thai and Laotians, Tai culture and traditions are similar to Chinese Daoism. The Tai Dam (Black), Tai Khao (White), and Tai Deng (Red) are the majority groups that make up the Tai peoples. They are distinguished by the color of their clothing and where they live. The Tai Dam traditionally lived along the Black River.
Eventually Brown came to appreciate her family’s past, and she now helps keep the traditions alive. She celebrates Tai holidays with her family, occasionally dresses in traditional Tai clothing, and still is fluent in the language. Brown volunteered for a time as a translator for Tai patients at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. She attends events at the Tai Village, a cultural center and nature preserve in Des Moines. She also worked with Des Moines Area Community College history professor Matt Walsh as he worked on his book The Good Governor, a history of Ray’s initiative and Tai Dam refugees in Iowa, which was published in 2017.
There are now an estimated 1 million Tai around the world, with an unknown number living in their indigenous Southeast Asian homeland.
Brown says the communists oppressed many of the Tai Dam in Vietnam and Laos, in part for the longtime Tai Dam political and military alliances with France and the United States. Brown says her family members who stayed behind were subject to forced labor, physical intimidation, and relocations. While the repression has eased in recent years, it hasn’t stopped entirely.
“Tai Dam children are told that they’re backwoods country people who don’t know anything,” Brown says. “The Tai have our own Sanskrit-style writing system, but many of our history books, customary laws, and literature were destroyed, confiscated, and lost due to colonizers. Students are taught in Vietnamese, not Tai, so the language is slowly fading out.”
The Vietnamese government also built immense dams on the Black River as part of a massive hydroelectric program, flooding the Tai Dam’s indigenous valleys and forcing them into new villages. They now must plant their rice fields on terraces in the mountains, and these new locations remain prone to flooding, especially during typhoon season. Brown says communities must frequently evacuate their homes to avoid the waters.
Climate change also has brought something new to the mountains and valleys—snow and sub-freezing temperatures—to which the Tai Dam are vulnerable as their homes have no insulation or heat source.
To alleviate these issues, Brown and other Tai Dam from the Tai Studies Center living in the U.S. attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April to initiate their request for funding for evacuation shelters the Tai Dam can use during flooding and bitter cold temperatures.
They also advocated for their native Tai dance to be designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, in part to bring more global attention to the plight of the Tai and keep their unique culture and language alive.
And they came to pay tribute to Ray, whose compassion saved so many lives and helped preserve the culture.
“I’ve heard my family talk about Governor Ray for years,” says Brown. “The Tai Dam people love him. He’s our hero and we’re so grateful to him.”