The University of Iowa

In the news: Matsalyn Brown keeps her Tai Dam culture alive in Iowa

June 21st, 2018

Matsalyn Brown, who is the executive assistant to Dean Sarah Gardial. Brown came to the United States as a refugee when she was 7 months old, and is very active in preserving the Tai Dam culture. She also is an Iowa alumna, receiving degrees in anthropology and Asian studies. Photo by Tim Schoon.

By Tom Snee, Iowa Now

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.