In conjunction with The Art Gallery’s Being Pacific exhibition, Dr. David “Vika” Ga’oupu Palaita, Ph.D., was kind enough to speak with us regarding his involvement in Pacific Islands Studies and the greater Pacific Islander community in the U.S. Dr. Palaita is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and an adjunct professor at the College of San Mateo where he coordinates the Critical Pacific Islands & Oceania Studies programs, respectively. He has been teaching Pacific Studies courses since 2002, and has also taught at the University of Washington, Seattle, Seattle Central Community College, and the University of California, Berkeley. He is also co-editor of the Matamai anthology (vol. 1 and 2) and is currently working on its third volume, We Are Ocean.
About Critical Pacific Islands and Oceania Studies (CPIOS)
For students, faculty, and members of the Pacific Islands Studies community, the CPIOS certificate program marks a monumental accomplishment as the first of its kind in the nation. The program was initiated by and for students who desired a curriculum that specifically focused on Pacific Islander communities and their cultures, especially in the U.S. diaspora. Students and faculty who advocated for CPIOS were concerned about the umbrella term “Asian Pacific Islander” (API), because it neglected to address the unique experiences and struggles of pan-ethnic communities within that label and issues specific to Pacific Islanders. Dr. Palaita, who has been central to the development of a PI Studies curriculum at CCSF and at CSM and currently with the Oakland Unified School District, notes that the field itself is “old,” but it wasn’t widely available because it was only taught at universities across the Pacific Islands and at the University of Hawai’i. It was only in the early 2000s when the first and second generation of “state-side” born Islanders increased advocacy for the separation of “PI” from “API”—a struggle that has been happening in the wider Pacific community since the 1960’s—on a national level. For the third generation, a large majority of PI students were born in the US, and had recognized that PI experiences were overlooked amongst the API curriculum. This absence fueled their demand for courses that were accurately representative of PIs and separate from Asian American Studies.
By disaggregating PI as unique from the Asian American experience, this exposes issues and historical context that impact the ways PIs navigate and understand their daily lives. For the case of PI students, Dr. Palaita details five issues impacting the community in higher education that CPIOS seeks to address in its program:
One issue is access; it’s not necessarily that education kept them [PI students] out, it’s that a lot of students didn’t see education as part of their identities or didn’t have role models in the community who’ve gone through the U.S. higher education system. The second issue is race relations and the stereotypical notion that the only way you can get in to college is through sports or are offered some an athletic scholarship. Third is retention, institutions don’t retain students well, and PI students experience a sense of alienation and lack of institutional support. In addition to that, the curriculum doesn’t include PI history, culture, and community experiences and struggles. The last issue is that, if students successfully completed community college they didn’t transfer into a four-year institution. That’s why CPIOS is important, because it’s a transfer prep program.
Seeing that these issues had a significant impact on the potential of PI students to advance in academia, the purpose of CPIOS are two-fold in that the program (1) allows PI students access to a unique curriculum around PI identity, cultures, and communities and (2) provides students with transferable courses that meet GE and IGETC CSU requirements. Essentially, the program encourages PI students to learn about their culture in ways that provides access to a network of support with the PI community, while simultaneously preparing them for transfer to four-year universities.
Students of Pacific Islands Studies and the Matamai Anthology
When attending UOW as an undergraduate, Dr. Palaita saw that many PI students in Seattle didn’t have the programs that represented PI history and culture. He witnessed many PI students leaving the university due to a lack of representation, sentiments of isolation, and minimal support from the institution. For Dr. Palaita, the development of PI Studies courses is a “personal political project” which he began as a student at UOW in the early 2000s. Amongst teaching courses at UOW, he has since initiated and taught a number of PI Studies courses throughout California. He has encouraged students of PI studies to see the Ocean as a way of connecting the islands, its cultures and communities rather than being divided by it. He found that when students embraced the Ocean as a framework, a methodology, they began to “voyage” through their thoughts and possibilities that life could provide for them:
Students were writing powerful things about themselves and their life experiences as a way of healing, as a means to connect with other people rather than being confined both physically and mentally. They revived, reimagined, re-empowered, reflected, and reconstituted how the ocean shaped their identities and how the ocean served for people of the Pacific a place to learn, a place to create and store knowledge, a place of beautiful cultures, and most importantly a place where the ocean can be a powerful compass in healing themselves from years and pain from colonialism.
These empowering narratives offered the backdrop and inspiration behind the anthology series, Matamai. In 2009, the first volume, The VASA in Us featured a collection of poems, short stories, and artwork by students of Pacific Islander Studies across the U.S. The title itself was created by students who were using the native language as a means to create meaning and express how they felt about their experiences. “Mata,” found across Pacific languages, translates to “eyes” or “to see”, while the word “mai” translates to “to embrace” or “to welcome.” When the words are combined, it creates the term Matamai which means “to summon a vision”.
Though Matamai beautifully intertwines works that celebrates PI cultures and communities, Dr. Palaita specifies that not all writers identify as PI, but are connected to this project through their relationship to the ocean:
Matamai is anyone who loves the sea, the ocean, it’s an opportunity to share what they feel about that place and how that place makes them feel. It’s a space where students get to write things that they have never written before…it is an opportunity to compare their relationships with the sea with those from the sea…
In a 2010 Press Release, the National VASA Conference notes the key motivations behind Matamai:
It empowers students by allowing them to “take ownership” in their learning; it creates a network for students while sharing in the production of knowledge in the field of P.I. Studies; and it becomes an archive of a growing Pacific Islander movement in the U.S. to build P.I. Studies programs across colleges and universities.
The anthology has since published a second volume, Intersecting Knowledge Across the Diaspora, which featured students from a number of universities and participants of the 2nd Annual National VASA Conference. The forthcoming volume, We Are Ocean is expected to be released this Fall 2016, and will feature PI themes that intersect with contemporary political and social struggles such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Stand with Standing Rock campaign. In retrospect to the framework of Oceania, the third volume embraces how we can imagine a society that is aligned along an ocean rather than defined by the “smallness” of islands.
Credits: By Renae Moua, Assistant Art Gallery Manager, and with the help of final edits by Dr. Palaita.