Conference report: Pacific History Association

by Maile Arvin

Note: Brief conference reports such as this one will be a regular category on this blog, as we seek to share information about conferences relevant to Pacific Islanders that we have been fortunate to attend. Recognizing that academic conferences in particular often have a limited audience, we hope to convey to a wider audience (including Pacific Islanders, other Indigenous communities and other Indigenous Studies scholars) what the current academic conversations and trends about (or relevant to) Oceania are. We hope to reflect, analyze, critique, & amplify such conversations as a small part of recognizing and reaching out to each other. Academia itself is a kind of muliwai, a murky space many of us inhabit or cross but do not feel at home in; yet it also sometimes holds, on some of its isolated sand bars, the potential for connection.  

In early December, I attended the Pacific History Association conference in Taiwan. It was my first time attending this conference. It is usually held outside of the U.S., and as a graduate student I never had the funds to travel that far. I felt very fortunate to be able to attend now as a postdoctoral fellow, and to connect or re-connect with other Pacific Islander scholars. There were scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Guam, Japan, and Taiwan (of course), among other locations. There were a few from the U.S. as well, especially from Hawaiʻi. It was especially great to see senior female Micronesian/Pacific Islander academics on the opening roundtable: Teresia Teaiwa, of Victoria University of Wellington, and Anne Hattori Perez, of the University of Guam.

The conference was held in two locations. The first day was in the capital city of Taipei, hosted by National Taiwan University, and the following three days were held in Taitung, a smaller town on the southeast coast of Taiwan, hosted by National Taitung University. The travel to Taitung allowed conference participants to visit several Indigenous Taiwanese communities who live in southeastern Taiwan, including the Ami, Rukai, and Paiwan peoples. On the last day of the conference, we visited the National Museum of Pre-history, a huge, beautiful space with several exhibits that referenced Indigenous Taiwanese relationships with the Pacific. I was impressed especially with the organizers efficient handling of the logistics involved in shepherding conference goers (I believe there were over 90 in attendance), most of whom did not speak any Mandarin, around Taiwan. The conference also provided simultaneous translation (through headsets) of the keynote sessions, mostly for talks in English for Mandarin speakers, but also one talk given in Mandarin for English speakers, which was very cool.

A major organizing narrative of the conference was Austronesian connection. Austronesian (lit., from Latin and Greek, Southern islands) is a linguistic term denoting a broad language family spanning across southeast Asia and as far west as Madagascar and east throughout the Pacific Islands. The theme of the conference, “Path: Reconnecting Pacific-Asia Histories,” also noted several, similarly-sounding versions of the word “path” in various Austronesian languages: lalan, chalan, tala, ara. Though originating in linguistics, Austronesian as a discourse circulated at the conference more broadly to connote a sense of biological and/or cultural family that links Indigenous Taiwanese to Indigenous Pacific Islanders. Austronesian lineages have also been investigated in genetics, as most popularly recognized in the 2006 movie Made in Taiwan. (For more on this, see, for example, Mark Munsterhjelm’s book Living Dead in the Pacific: Contested Sovereignty and Racism in Genetic Research on Taiwan Aborigines.)

This discourse about Austronesian connections seemed more familiar to Indigenous Taiwanese groups, as perhaps their political visibility has depended on making such links to a wider Indigenous family. Though I have noticed this discourse about Austronesian connections before– for example, the recent renovation of the Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum in Honolulu includes a few panels noting the ancestral Austronesians who lived in Taiwan as some of the earliest settlers of Oceania– my sense was that there was a wider recognition of Austronesian connections in Taiwan, among both the academics and the Indigenous communities there. Among Pacific Islander scholars attending the conference, I felt both a strong desire to make meaningful (personal, political and intellectual) connections to the Indigenous Taiwanese people we were meeting and being hosted by, and a slight skepticism or hesitation to fully embrace the idea that because of the Austronesian language connection we are all one family. I share that skepticism in part because I think we must always be cautious and critical of universalist narratives claiming we are all the same, since such narratives often run roughshod over Indigenous specificities and sovereignties. In part, I also feel Indigenous Pacific Islanders are so often slotted into categories not of our own making (i.e., Asian/Pacific Islander); and perhaps Austronesian is simply the newest such category. I think we can maintain a cautious, critical view of Austronesian discourse while at the same time recognizing political solidarity with Indigenous Taiwanese peoples.

While I can’t do justice to all the papers I heard and things I learned at PHA, here are a few other highlights from the conference:

Overall, though there were some sessions I was disappointed by, I would definitely recommend PHA for Pacific Islander and/or Pacific Studies scholars. Especially for Pacific Islander scholars in the U.S., it is refreshing to be at a conference where the U.S. is not centered, and you can connect with Pacific Islander scholars working in Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of Oceania. The next PHA (held biennially) will be held on Guam in 2016. I believe many of the PHA attendees (myself included) will also be at the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO), to be held in February in Santa Fe.

You can view the 2014 PHA conference program (with full paper abstracts) here.

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