Knowledge-forming takes place through mutual and collective enterprise: Reflections on the Transregional Academy

Emma Powell is a Pacific Studies doctoral student at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in New Zealand. She holds Bachelors degrees in Public Policy (BCA) and English Literature (BA Hons 1st) from VUW and completed a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Auckland.

On the coast of Oaxaca, the indigenous Chontal people of Huamelula celebrate the San Pedro Festival. They have moved across a portion of Mexico’s coast, a rim of a watery continent called the Pacific Ocean. Part of their story is the arrival of Pirates byway of this Oceanic highway. At other edges of this continent, there are communities traversing well-travelled roots through islands. As those paths are worn with generations of insistent footsteps, these moving peoples carve deep marks into soils from the Cook Islands to New Zealand, Auckland to Brisbane, to Samoa and Tonga and back again. At another time, Japanese medical professionals expand onto larger landed continents to the East, and West to archipelagos and new Americas, bringing with them their entrepreneurial spirit and a concurrent, imperial project. Such stories continue with descendants of these Japanese ancestors, visible and articulated anew in places such as Hawai’i. There, renewed expressions of self-determination are chanted to and danced beneath Mauna Kea by ‘ōiwi and activist allies alike, on those archipelagoes at the top of a colonial triangle. Criss-crossing these spaces and times, scientists and ancestors shaped by nuclear colonialism in the Pacific are found speaking in the loaded silence of archival bunkers; there is a genealogy waiting to be pulled into the now-time.

In 1976, Albert Wendt wrote his seminal essay, “Towards a New Oceania.”. Like Epeli Hau’ofa’s “Our Sea of Islands”, the essay has been oft-quoted by scholars writing about the Pacific region.

So vast, so fabulously varied a scatter of islands, nations, cultures, mythologies and myths, so dazzling a creature, Oceania deserves more than an attempt at mundane fact; only the imagination in free flight can hope – if not to contain her – to grasp some of her shape, plummage and pain.

Group C

For many, the reproduction of this quote is almost annoyingly familiar. And yet, the work of “Group C” during the Transregional Academy’s “History of Migrant Knowledges” has been testament to the shifting understandings, disciplinary approaches and emergent genealogies that make up our various Pacifics. Indeed, diverse topics, methodological styles and imaginaries of the region encouraged productive tensions and new learnings. The group’s end-of-week reflections identified the prominence of interdisciplinary practice across a number of the participants’ respective projects; the potential of genealogies and genealogical method; the diverse and nuanced nature of different empires and; the importance of positionality and reflexivity in understandings of ourselves as researchers and the place we understand as the (Trans)Pacific.

On day one, Ruth Faleolo described her mixed-methods approach in examinations of Samoan and Tongan migrants crossing from New Zealand to Australia. Candid and insightful, Faleolo’s descriptions of her research to-date revealed a curious new development: e-Talanoa – a mutual knowledge-sharing and knowledge-forming practice wherein Faleolo undertook extended conversations with research participants via digitial, social-media platforms. In arguing for culturally responsive and respectful engagement with Pasifika peoples, Faleolo described how social-media platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Facetime were not only able to fold great geographic distances between the researcher and subject, but also enabled observation of, and admission to, moments often inaccessible. What does the interviewee share as they fold laundry, ride the bus to work, drop the children at school, while communicating simultaneously with the researcher through their cellphone?

These kinds of intimacies in the work done with, and about, indigenous Pacific people necessarily implicates the researcher; knowledge-forming takes place through mutual and collective enterprise. Within indigenous Pacific epistemological and methodological practice, the researcher accepts that they are never truly objective given their kuleana (or responsibility) to the work and thus, the people and places their work affects. Karin Louise Hermes’ narration of Kānaka Maoli and allied resistance and activism through the arts and demonstrations for and at Mauna Kea, on the island of Hawai’i, reminded us of this. As a former Filipino-German student at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Hermes discussed her personal involvement with the resistance movement and the various forums and spaces where she had spoken and published about the construction of a 30-metre telescope atop one of the Hawaiian peoples’ most sacred mountains. Her paper, dubbed an experimental piece, braided narrative and personal reflection to powerfully illustrate the potential of (her) solidarity to the Kānaka Maoli cause. It not only highlighted deep recognition between researcher and subject, but in it’s own way, fulfiled kuleana.

Throughout the week, concepts of relation and recognition intersected with the thematic discussions of the wider Academy. These concepts bookended Group C’s discussions: Emma Powell presented on genealogical method (‘akapapa’anga) in the Cook Islands context on the afternoon of day one, and Talei Luscia Mangioni’s description of the government-military-research complex undergirding the broader historical narrative of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement, ended the schedule of presentations. Much like Hermes and Faleolo, Powell’s use of story to begin her highly conceptual discussion of genealogical method as a tool of scale, became both an illustrative example and a reflexive marker. Powell recounted how her grandmother had gathered her placenta from an Auckland hospital and subsequently buried it on land purchased when her grandparents first migrated to New Zealand. She went on to explain how such acts demonstrate the different scales of geography, mobility, and relatedness being invoked by Cook Islands Māori people in contrast to economic and development models of diaspora. Like Faleolo, Powell proposed that in order to truly understand how Māori are understanding and moving through their worlds, researchers must have cognisance of culturally appropriate scales. In large part, Powell’s genealogical method hinged on alternative spatial and temporal scales. Powell proposed that as her grandmother planted her placenta in a foreign land (New Zealand), the Cook Islands Māori world became enlarged.

Mangioni proposed a similar, latticed network of relatedness between people and place. In her multisited research, she described her embodied tracing of NFIP genealogies through haunting across her own academic orbit. Using the nuclear science programme of the University of California, Berkeley campus as a beginning reference point, Mangioni traced key historical intersections between American actors in the development of nuclear science and her own institution, the Australian National University (ANU). Offering a walk-story of foundation stones and university archives, she reflected on the notion of situated knowledges within Western academic contexts and questioned the power relations between science, area studies of the Pacific and state. From here, she acknowledged activist kin and teacher, Vanessa Griffen and, along with her beautifully considered survey of literatures in her paper, Mangioni sketched a network of spatial and temporal intersections across the region, made visible through the tracing of NFIP’s genealogy through creative resistance.

Such multisitedness reminds us that, depending on where you and your work are located, the region is redrawn multiply, with various historical, cultural and social geographies. While Faleolo, Hermes, Powell and Mangioni offered compelling work largely located in the island-Pacific and parts of the South Pacific Rim (New Zealand, Australia), Danny Zborover and Wei-Ti Chen reminded the group that the Transpacific is indeed “So vast [and] so fabulously varied”. At the annual San Pedro festivities in Huamelula, Zborover described costumed festival participants assuming the roles of pechelingues (pirates), negros (The Black Ones), turcos (Turks) and others. Through collaborative endeavour at the Insitute for Field Research (California), Zborover explained how the research had revealed that aspects of the festival – the aforementioned characters being cases in point – represented much older Chontal histories of colonialism, mobility and globalisation. The recurrence of pirates and piracy in Indigenous-European and particularly, Chontal history, reminded us of how arrivals and departures are imposed by the Pacific; how it sometimes frames landed and coastal peoples as expectant hosts, and simultaneously asks those at the edges of its watery body to step onto its surface, and see what might be within, and at, its other sides.

The Pacific Ocean thus becomes a highway, a connecting rather than separating body. Like Faleolo’s migrating, Trans-Tasman Pasifika community, and the transnational trajectories of Hermes’ own personal narrative, an entrepreneurial spirit has long motivated Japanese medical professonals to pursue opportunities in the far parts of empire. Chen’s discussion of the Taiwanese and Japanese expansionist project decentres the prominence of state power in Taiwanese and, in particular, Japanese history, showing that Japanese medical professional migrants were exercising agency at the height of imperialism, independent of state machinations. The trajectories of this community extended from Japan to China, Korea, Hawai‘i and North America, and the legacies of those migrant communities continute at, and through, those locations. Chen’s persuasive discussion is testament to her exhaustive work in the archive and her deft handling and analysis of the material and bureaucratic record. Similarly, Zborover’s archealogical expertise in concert with the interdisciplinary expertise of his team, and Mangioni’s incisive examination of diverse archival materials, shows us that “Histories of Migrant Knowledges” are indeed, Transpacific.

The broader framing of the Transregional Academy “Histories of Migrant Knowledges created space in the intersection of each project of the group and allowed every member to properly listen, read, and offer generous critique and comment. In this safe and encouraging space, new directions for each paper were reconsidered and discussions were used as springboards for pondering how critiques and comments might develop, potentially shaping respective methodologies and projects anew. In the ebb and flow of contemplating relatedness and relation, the significance of positionalities in individual framings of the Pacific became clear. Of what Pacific do you speak? And in acknowledging how foundational these positionalities are, the week closed with a launching of imaginations in free flight, in the hope that even if it is not possible to “contain” the Pacific, perhaps the group’s works will “grasp some of her shape, plummage and pain”.

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