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5.5: Pacific Islander Studies

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    • Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges

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    People and Place

    Chamoru (Chamarro from Guahan or Guam) Poet and scholar Craig Santos Perez (2016) writes,

    We belong to Oceania. We belong to a diverse sea of moving peoples, cultures, languages, and ecologies. We belong to navigation that teaches us how to read the stars, waves, winds, and horizons. Pacific Islanders peopled Oceania thousands of years ago and developed complex societies based on the values of interconnection, harmony, balance, sustainability, and respect. We named and recognized the sacredness of waters and lands (Perez, 2016, p. 373).

    In naming his people, Perez (2016) recognizes the relationship to the land, to the Earth, to the seas, to one another. He recognizes cultural philosophies and values, and generational longevity. In doing so, he amplifies the persistence and presence of Pacific Islander peoples to this world and beyond and calls attention to the wholeness and oneness. This section will use longer block quotations to help amplify Pacific Islander voices.

    Sidebar: Definition of Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

    Wright and Balutski (2013) share the official categorization by the Office of Management and Budget of the White House. They share, “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander is defined as the following:

    A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. (The term “Native Hawaiian” does not include individuals who are native to the State of Hawaii by virtue of being born there). In addition to Native Hawaiians, Guamanians, and Samoans, this category would include the following Pacific Islander groups reported in the 1990 census: Carolinian, Fijian, Kosraean, Melanesian, Micronesian, Northern Mariana Islander, Palauan, Papua New Guinean, Ponapean (Pohnpean), Polynesian, Solomon Islander, Tahitian, Tarawa Islander, Tokelauan, Tongan, Trukese (Chuukese), and Yapese (OMB, 1997 in Wright and Balutki, 2013, p.97).

    This definition shares who is Pacific Islander and includes who is not by explaining that people are not “Native Hawaiian” just because they are born in Hawaiʻi. Furthermore, the definition shows the vast cultures and peoples included, as well as some that aren’t as recognized in the mainstream. This also dispels the notion that Pacific Islanders are only made up of a few groups.

    Place and People

    The late Teresia K. Teaiwa (2017) wrote this as part of her introduction about teaching Pacific Studies,

    How does one begin to describe the enormity of the Pacific Ocean? The most prominent geographic feature on this planet, it occupies one-third of the Earth’s surface area. How does one begin to describe the history of the first peoples to settle this watery region (p. 265).

    Teaiwa and others put the Pacific Ocean at the forefront of identity and culture. The description of the ocean helps to provide more prominence to it especially as an overlooked aspect of the planet by those who may not come from the Pacific. She pays homage to the ancestors from which they came.

    the rising sun over the ocean
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Pacific Ocean Sunrise" (Guam). (CC BY-SA 4.0; Jonathan Miske via Flickr)

    Teves and Arvin (2018) show the expansiveness of Pacific Islanders:

    The Pacific Ocean contains upward of 25,000 islands, extending from the Arctic to Antarctica and from the coasts of the Americas to the coasts of Asia. What are often referred to as the “Pacific Islands” number into 30,000, home to 2.3 million people and 1,500 languages, constituting a third of the earth’s surface and nearly 50 percent of its water (p. 108).

    This also expands the understanding that Pacific Islands are not confined to a small space with little diversity and that this population is significant to our world. Finally, we see Pacific Islanders in the diaspora, with a sizable population on the west coast. Camacho (2021) writes, “According to the 2010 census, 150,749 Pacific Islanders now dwell in California, with more than one-third residing in Los Angeles” (p. 23).

    Amplifying Pacific Islander Voices

    Henderson discusses stereotypes about big sizes of Samoans such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson playing a Samoan character in book to film Be Cool (1999) and “[his] character is still marked in the text by his size and propensity for violence” (Henderson, 2011, p. 282). These two tropes of big size and being violent are two common stereotypes Henderson finds in many works and cultural representation about Samoan men. Further, she points out that part of the problem is that stereotypes have material consequences at “stake” (p. 289). Two “ramifications” that she mentions are within education and law enforcement; notions about Samoan men

    1. mediate a lot of their career or educational pathways into athletics as the “only expected pathway to success” (Henderson, 2011, p.289);
    2. and have high rate of incarceration and a lot of claims of police profiling.

    Because of the misconceptions about Pacific Islanders, this section aims to show a glimpse of who Pacific Islanders really are.

    Tamaira and Fonoti (2018) share an important piece about how Pacific Islanders have worked hard to influence the way their stories are told, especially to the general public. Their work discusses the collaboration between “academic and nonacademic” Pacific Islanders (called Oceanic Trust) and Disney to create the movie Moana (2016). One of the things they discuss is the way that Pacific Islanders interjected to show more accurate displays of culture within the film and how there were actually transformed outcomes. For example, the Trust grappled with Disney’s Moana wearing tuiga, or Samoan ceremonial dress, in different scenes for various occasions but they argued that it should only be worn ceremonially (p. 316). In spite of the hard work the Trust put into the film, they still experienced naysayers from the community that believed they shouldn’t have collaborated with Disney. The work the Trust did to embody authenticity in Moana shows so much power in cultural representation. This section, as mentioned elsewhere, leaves a lot of “showing” to Pacific Islander scholars and I recognize my ability to amplify their voices.

    Differences between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

    Teves and Arvin make clear distinctions between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and call for the clear need to distinguish between them and not combine them. Although there are points of relation, there is a deep marginalization amongst the community where even Asian Americans sometimes commit sub-oppression onto Pacific Islanders. They explain similarities but emphasize the points of departure in order to express a marginalization that stems from how power dynamics operate, not just within each group or between them, but also within the larger society. They write,

    We share simultaneous struggles against U.S. imperialism and settler colonialism, white supremacy, and the expectations that our communities will simply "assimilate" into whiteness—all structures that are deeply gendered and thus wreak violence on Asian American and Pacific Islander women in particular ways. We also share analogous struggles within our own communities to decenter heteropatriarchy and anti-Blackness in the many ways that we have internalized such ideals. But the call we have put out in this essay is clear. To advance our important common work, Asian American feminists must recognize and change the ways they participate in Pacific Islander erasure and cultural appropriation, and commit to being our allies in decolonization (Teves and Arvin, 2018, p. 133).

    Further, Hall points out that much of the use of API/AAPI/APA refers to connections solely to Hawaiʻi and not to other Pacific Island groups. This can be problematic because whereas Asian American do not represent Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians don’t represent all Pacific Islanders (Hall, 2015, pp. 738-739).

    General Education

    Dropout rates show another reason why Asian American and Pacific Islander statistics and naming should be disaggregated. In the following quote, more than 20% of Pacific Islanders are affected in stark contrast to Asian American and white students.

    According to a report released in 2008 by the University of California Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy Multicampus Research Program (Education Work Group), Pacific Islanders’ dropout rates are much higher than their Asian American (7.9%) and White (11.5%) peers—more than one-fifth of Pacific Islanders drop out of school between grades 9 and 12 (Chang et. al 2010 in Saeula et. al, 2017, p.123).

    Studies show that culturally relevant pedagogies greatly aid in student success. However, Saeula et. al. (2017) find that this and other elements are missing from Pacific Islander student experiences. They write, "The literature that does exist on Pacific Islanders offers a stark landscape, noting achievement gaps, limited access to resources, and the need for more culturally relevant material" (Ah Sam & Robinson, 1998; EPIC, 2014; Hune & Yeo, 2010; Kawakami, 1990; UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2006; Takeuchi & Hune, 2008; Tran et. al, 2010; Tsutsumoto, 1998; Vakalahi, 2009) (in Saeula p.124).

    Higher Education

    Statistics on Pacific Islanders show a huge gap in educational opportunity whether in K-12 or in higher education, “…according to the U.S. Census, only 18% of Pacific Islander adults (Age 25 and older) hold a bachelor’s degree, a rate lower than the national average (28%) and identical to African Americans” (Saelua et. al., 2017, p. 124).

    A model for culturally relevant and community responsive education can be seen in Hawaiʻi not only for the university and students, but for all Native Hawaiians. Wright and Balutski (2013) explain,

    On May 16, 2007, the University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents approved the establishment of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge (HSHK), the only college of Indigenous knowledge in a U.S. research Institution…[which was guided by] a report of recommendations and research compiled by a task force of Native Hawaiian faculty and staff in the UH system (Wright and Balutski, year, p. 100).

    It is significant that a Research Institution recognizes the significance of Indigenous knowledge and it is also significant that the efforts of “Native Hawaiian faculty and staff” research materialized.

    Race, Gender, and Stereotypes

    There are racialized and gendered experiences that also distinguish Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans. The hypersexualization of Asian American women and the emasculation of Asian American men is often broadly and wrongly applied to Pacific Islanders. Hall writes, “In my 2009 essay ‘Navigating Our Own ‘Sea of Islands’ I noted:

    Geisha girls, dragon ladies, and delicate flowers are not the stereotypes Islander women battle. The sexualized stigmatization of “promiscuous” native women is about a perceived lack of civilization, not the orientalism that creates stereotypes of decadence and sexual artifice. . . . On the continent, large-bodied and dark-skinned Islander men are gendered/ racialized as black men, with the attendant prejudice and danger of stereotypes of hyper-masculinity, not feminized with the stereotypes Asian American men face. The police violence experienced by Samoan and Tongan men in southern California, for example, has everything to do with their perceived blackness and savagery, not their emasculation. Neither set of stereotypes is “worse” than the other, but they are not the same.” Text originally found in: Lisa Kahaleole Hall, “Navigating Our Own ‘Sea of Islands’: Remapping a Theoretical Space for Hawaiian Women and Indigenous Feminism,” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2 (2009). (in Hall p. 742).

    Perez (2016) comprehensively compiles stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and reiterates how “Pacific poetry” resists these stereotypes.

    The Pacific Ocean has been viewed as an empty, virgin space awaiting American exploitation and power. Our islands have been seen as tropical paradises, stepping stones, unsinkable military bases, Hollywood sets, or scientific and agricultural laboratories. Pacific Islanders have been represented as violent, primitive, hyper-sexual, exotic, childlike, cannibalistic, dependent, noble, athletic, hyper- masculine, uncivilized, and hospitable. Much of Pacific poetry aims to challenge these stereotypes and humanize (Perez, 2016, p. 376).

    These stereotypes relate to and often reflect the Manifest Destiny of colonizers, and stereotypical characterizations especially of Native Americans and Black Americans mostly from the 16th century to the 20th century. But unlike these groups, the relationship between the Pacific Island peoples, their land, and the Pacific Ocean conveys a deeper connectedness amongst them that these stereotypes miss and wrongly characterize, not recognizing the richness and wisdom that actually exist.

    Ethnicity, Age, and Generation

    Scholar Camacho (2021) complicates the relationship to culture with age and generation. While within a culture, one may uphold generational practices but Camacho problematizes such treatment amongst those who are expected to follow but not benefit. He says,

    Across the region, many societies uphold their elders, knowing that they embody the chiefly, genealogical, material, sacred, and supernatural worlds of the lands, skies, and seas. In Sāmoa, for instance, the children acknowledge the prestige bestowed upon their elders. Very seldom, though, do the children receive such accolades and authority. As one Sāmoan put it, “Children are not heard, nor seen.” Text Originally from Frances King Espiritu, “From Childhood to Chief,” in Pacific Voices Talk Story: Conversations of American Experience, 4 vols., ed. Margo King Lenson (Vacaville, CA: Tui Communications, 2007), 4:57. (in Camacho, 2021, p.12).

    But Camacho also illustrates how others are able to draw from their positionalities to promote culture and facilitate access by saying,

    ...they show how the youth develop new terms about the media in Bislama, the lingua franca of Vanuatu. As in other areas of Melanesia, the youth of Port Vila have been the trendsetters in communicating and mainstreaming novel ideas, stories, and technologies across diverse ethnolinguistic groups. Text originally found in: Christine Jourdan and Johanne Angeli, “Pijin and Shifting Language Ideologies in Urban Solomon Islands,” Language in Society 43, no. 3 (2014): 268. (In Camacho, 2021, p.72).

    Race, Ethnicity, and Generation

    In considering literature, McDougall highlights a writer who is from a famous lineage and demonstrates the intersections of his identities.

    John Dominis Holt was among the first major writers in English to publish in the 1960s in Hawai‘i. Born in 1919, Holt was descended from ali‘i (chiefly) lineage and was the grand-nephew of Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch (McDougall, 2015, p. 40).

    McDougall writes about Holt’s work by saying,

    Similarly, in Waimea Summer, the young protagonist Mark Hull is urbanized, light skinned and hapa (half-Hawaiian, half-haole), but the keeper of family mo‘olelo (stories), who is, therefore, more sensitive to the ancestral. In visiting relatives in Waimea, and coming from Honolulu, he is, however, fearful of being given ancestral knowledge and ultimately turns away (McDougall, 2015, p. 41).

    The protagonist Hull being mixed race is representative of many Pacific Islanders who are mixed race. The focus of ancestral knowledge in this mentioning helps to demonstrate the presence and grappling of generational knowledge and epistemology, or the way we understand knowledge. McDougall also highlights the cultural divide between the city and the smaller town, at least for the way the protagonist interprets different types of knowledge and ways of being.


    Wright and Balutski (2013) explain what it’s like to have military testing done in the Pacific Islands:

    During the 12-year period between 1946 and 1958, a total of 66 atomic and hydrogen bombs were tested in the Marshall Islands. Robie (1990) explains, “Many islanders claimed they were used as guinea pigs for the experiments. Now, more than 40 years after the first Bikini tests, many islands are still uninhabitable because of the high radiation levels while the Bikinians and Rongelap islanders remain exiled people (p. 2)" (in Wright and Balutski, 2013, p. 99).

    Not only does their land become “uninhabitable” but the occurrences go largely unnoticed by the general public. Using the land for testing also shows the disregard for Pacific Islander lives.

    Settler Colonialism

    Haunani Kay Trask (1993) illustrates what it’s like when Native Hawaiians are seen as exoticized commodity as a part of settler colonialism,

    Thus Hawaiʻi, like a lovely woman, is there for the taking. Those with only a little money get a brief encounter, those with a lot of money, like the Japanese, get more. The state and counties will give tax breaks, build infrastructure, and have the governor personally welcome tourists to ensure that they keep coming. Just as the pimp regulates prices and guards the commodity of the prostitute, so the state bargains with developers for access to Hawaiian land and culture… Permits are fast-tracked, height and density limits are suspended, new groundwater sources are miraculously found...Our people who work in the industry-- dancers, waiters, singers, valets, gardeners, housekeepers, bartenders, and even a few managers-- make between $10,000 and $25,000 a year, an impossible salary for a family in Hawaiʻi. Psychologically, our young people have begun to think of tourism as the only employment opportunity, trapped as they are by the lack of alternatives (Trask, 1993, pp. 144-145).

    Those with more money have more access. Governmental policy will favor tourism and initiatives that bolster tourist entities. There is a fight for more land and entities will do whatever they can to make it happen. Trask further states that the workers make a little per year and is not enough to live on. She importantly mentions that “young people have begun to think of tourism as the only employment opportunity” so they don’t see any way out or 'alternative' pathways for jobs."

    marchers with signs reading LGBT labor and hotel workers rising!
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Honolulu Pride Parade 2012". (CC By 4.0; Daniel Ramirez via Flickr)

    Climate Change

    Brown Pulu (2013) brings to attention “Tonga’s Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Lord Ma’afu” and his “plea” to the “international” community.

    Snared in the small island, uncertainty of rising sea levels was the inevitability, climate change refugees might need another place to live (Bedford and Bedford, 2010; Fagan, 2013). Where would they go? Who would take them in? What countries would help the Pacific Islands? (Pulu 2013).

    Bryant-Tokalau (2018) shows us what it’s like when “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” are accessed as a way of knowing especially in this time of extreme climate change. The author explains ways of knowing when predicting occurrences of “cyclones” “such as very hot and wet weather, the high abundance of man- goes and breadfruit, an increase in land crabs and changes in the flight paths of sea birds”. Text originally in Brookfield 1977 (in J. Bryant-Tokalau, p. 68).

    Sidebar: Climate Change in Northern Mariana Islands

    Climate change in the Pacific Islands is a huge issue. Check out some of the sources that explain more about the crisis in this post titled: "Climate Change in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Indicators and Considerations for Key Sectors."

    This page titled 5.5: Pacific Islander Studies is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .