Thesis Proposal

Decolonising Epistemology: Pacific Studies as a Va’a in the Vā


This paper was given at a thesis proposal review seminar at ANU in May 2016. It was written and delivered on Ngunnawal country. My work is mostly produced on Ngunnawal country, and draws heavily on work produced by indigenous people from all over the world.

In October 2013, students and staff at the University of Hawai’i painted a mural on campus. It was protesting the University’s affiliation with plans to build a telescope on Mauna Kea, a very sacred site for indigenous Hawaiians. The mural was captioned with this message:

“UH (University of Hawaii) cannot be a Hawaiian place of learning while leading the desecration of Mauna a Wakea. Hey UH, be accountable, be a Hawaiian place of learning, stand with the people, stop the desecration, stop the thirty meter telescope.”

There’s a lot that can be said about the Mauna Kea protests, but what’s interesting to me is this call for institutional accountability regarding an issue that arguably doesn’t concern many students or staff in their day to day campus business.

The Mauna Kea protests aren’t alone. All over the world, students and academic staff are part of activist movements to call their universities to account in a similar way. You might have heard of students in South Africa – and later the UK – calling for statues of Cecil Rhodes be taken down, or climate change activists calling for universities to divest their fossil fuel –based share portfolios.

These movements are evidence of the recognition that universities are not isolated ivory towers – the knowledges they produce and disseminate are highly politicised and not at all insulated from colonial, neocolonial, postcolonial or decolonial processes outside of their campuses. Of course, social justice protesting on campuses is nothing new. But we’re seeing right now is a movement which recognises the deep entanglement between universities and the political realities of the ‘outside’ world in a way that animates critical theory and forces many scholars out of complacency. These protesters position themselves as navigating a complicated activist-student or activist-scholar role – participating in the system while protesting against it.

The activists involved in these movements see universities as being immensely powerful institutions with many tools at their disposal: investments, resources like archives and libraries, staff and student populations, as well as their teaching and research activities. With arguments specific to context, each movement calls for a dramatic transformation of how settler-colonial states regard indigenous communities and other oppressed groups.

My PhD will look at Pacific Studies as a case study into how academic communities engage with decolonial movements.

What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation is something of a hot topic among scholars and activists working with issues of indigeneity, race, power and oppression.

Decolonial theory posits that ideas of modernity and civilization are borne of European colonial domination, and continue to affect lives today. Latin American scholars working in this field refer to the ‘colonial matrix of power’ in which social difference and discrimination is codified as racial, ethnic, and cultural – in ways that correspond with the particular context in which they operate. This field of critique asks us to consider that modernity is built on assumptions of the universality of Western/European ways of knowing. This genre of scholarship situates decoloniality as at once a political and an epistemic project.

I’m interested in learning about the links between the political and the epistemic elements of this movement – how these links are realised in practice. I’ve read countless examples of scholars, undergrad students, artists and activists using this language and calling for the dismantling of colonial structures, systems, behaviours and identities in the current world. It’s a big field though – so to understand exactly how decoloniality informs action and animates theory, I’m conducting this case study.

Sea of Islands/3 Rationales

The study of the Pacific has a long history in anthropology, history and linguistics departments all over the world. ANU’s first humanities and social sciences departments called themselves Pacific Studies but looked toward Asia and the Pacific more generally – as research in areas of national importance was a founding purpose for this university in 1946. The Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai’i began offering programs specialising in the Pacific at around the same time, with the first graduate program launched in 1950.

For the purpose of looking at decolonial motivations, though, I track Pacific Studies as an independent discipline back to the early 1990s, which saw a new critique of the way that the Pacific was researched, taught about, and represented in academic texts and the policy decisions of major colonial powers. Let me be clear here that I’m talking about Pacific Studies as a separate entity from its disciplinary forebears – distinguished from what Teresia Teaiwa has called “any and all studies in or of the Pacific” (2010, 112).

To justify why Pacific Studies is an apposite case study, I think it’s worthwhile to go over some of the seminal publications of the field. Revisiting these has helped me to establish that Pacific Studies is founded upon decolonial motivations.

Epeli Hau’ofa’s Our Sea of Islands essay, first published in 1993, is a text that many turn to as the progenitor of Pacific Studies. What has come to be talked of as the ‘Sea of Islands approach’ posits that there is real harm done by portraying islands and their inhabitants as isolated, tiny, dependent and insignificant. Hau’ofa rather emphasises Pacific Islanders’ deep histories, vibrant cultures, expansive kinships and cross-ocean mobility, and asks that other researchers do the same. He also talks about how the conduct of research institutions can affect the kinds of knowledge they produce: noting that condescending portrayals of Islander life are inevitable if the only stories validated by academia are ones told by the colonisers.

Shortly after Hau’ofa’s Our Sea of Islands and related works were published in the early 1990s, Terence Wesley-Smith, a political scientist from the University of Hawai’i, published an essay called Rethinking Pacific Islands Studies. In this, Wesley-Smith ponders the purpose and effects of Pacific Studies programs at the graduate level. He evaluates work according to three rationales or approaches, which he terms the laboratory approach, the pragmatic approach, and the empowerment approach.

The ‘laboratory rationale’, as identified by Wesley-Smith, is characterised by an adherence to disciplinary modes of inquiry (particularly anthropology and linguistics). In its most extreme form, the laboratory mode “can easily reduce Pacific Islanders to mere objects for study” (Wesley-Smith 1995, 124), used in the ultimate goal of contributing to an esoteric, externally-serving and externally-justifying body of knowledge (Wesley-Smith 2016). Of course, better understandings of the world around us are inarguably valuable. The key problem here is that laboratory approaches are “generally about but not for Pacific Islanders” (Wesley-Smith 2016, 159).

The pragmatic approach, on the other hand, is premised on the idea that there is value to a study of the Pacific that is ‘for’ its inhabitants. Pragmatic rationales underlie work done in development studies and applied anthropology. According to Wesley-Smith, its “ultimate purpose has been influence rather than understanding” (1995, 124) and it “largely reflects the agendas, priorities, and perspectives of outsiders” (Wesley-Smith 2016, 157). In 1995, Wesley-Smith observed that the pragmatic rationale was the primary purpose of Pacific-related programs in Hawai’i, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, we see more diffuse and nuanced approaches, but the overall tendencies of the pragmatic mode endure.

The ongoing presence and effects of the pragmatic and laboratory rationales are much debated, but at the very least, these classifications remind us that, in Wesley-Smith’s words, “knowledge is never a neutral commodity that stands entirely free of the historical or political context in which it is produced” (1995, 120).

In this work, Wesley-Smith argued that a third approach was possible: empowerment. In this approach, interdisciplinarity would allow for indigenous ways of knowing and being to form the frame, approach and content of research and teaching.

I talk about this work in detail in my literature review because it’s one of the first and most discussed critiques to how the Pacific is engaged with in university settings. Wesley-Smith’s arguments are twenty years old, and have been made more sophisticated and qualified by feedback over that time. What I find inspiring about this work is that it is a bold move into self-reflexive critique that would inevitably make many of the author’s colleagues feel uneasy or criticised, it explains a sticky and complex network using a memorable and durable framework, it links practice with theory in a grounded way; and most importantly, it matches a rather cutting set of criticisms with an equally fervent constructive project for how Pacific Studies might improve in the future.

So how do these works illuminate decolonial politics? Through much of the following two decades, members of the Pacific Studies community have produced work that builds on an inherent commitment to decolonial goals.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s pioneering work on methodology (1999) has added fuel to a global movement of indigenous scholars scrutinising the depth of engagement that the social sciences really have with the indigenous communities it claims to know so well. Examining the scope of Pacific native cultural studies, Konai Helu Thaman confirms Smith’s central argument that institutions of higher education and research “have not regarded Oceanic cultural knowledge, skills, and values as worthy of inclusion” (Thaman 2003, 8) and that broadly, “indigenous peoples’ perspectives have been silenced, misrepresented, ridiculed, and even condemned in academic as well as popular discourses” (2003, 10). She – and others – argue that it is not enough to have a ‘place at the table’ for indigenous researchers – we need to find ways to make space for indigenous perspectives to form the agenda for conversation (Wesley-Smith 2016).

To analyse the deep relationships between knowledge and colonialism, we need to first observe that colonial regimes operate on processes that destroy, devalidate or otherwise diminish the knowledge systems (or epistemologies) that belong to colonised indigenous people (Smith 1999, 29). In a quantitatively measurable way, we can observe colonialism’s role in decimating the use of small indigenous languages – and the epistemologies that they communicate (Evans 2010). The obliteration of indigenous knowledges at the hand of colonialism is, for Thaman, the sinister origin of Pacific Studies: a field of study that supplied “Pacific peoples with a mentality and a history the colonizers could deal with” (2003, 4).

Of course, none of this was happening in a vacuum. The movement to decolonise anthropology came to be popularly debated worldwide because of works like Faye Harrison’s edited volume Decolonizing Anthropology, first published in 1991. Work by indigenous scholars, people of colour and feminist thinkers all over the world added to a groundswell of debate. These works are enjoying a renewed interest at the moment as the rhetoric of decolonisation enters further into the mainstream.

Decolonising epistemology

All of this work – in Pacific Studies and in decolonial theory more broadly – criticises the hegemony of universities in controlling what kinds of knowledges are validated and legitimised. The university continues to enjoy authority as an institution with power to endorse some ways of understanding the world – the scientific method for example – while other ways of understanding the world are rendered as mere belief. A critical analysis of this process problematizes the authority of the university in this regard, and a decolonial critique calls for this authority to be radically altered.

So what does this look like? From what I’ve assessed in Pacific Studies, decolonisation involves:

  • Critical interrogation of assumed power dynamics between researchers and their subjects, between universities and their staff/students, and so on
  • Working towards reciprocal, collaborative and respectful relationships between the groups mentioned
  • Active and constant reflection upon the researcher/educator’s positionality and privilege – personally and institutionally
  • Working to contribute meaningfully to dismantling colonial structures that affect people’s everyday lives. (In Wesley-Smith’s words, to “address rather than reproduce imbalances of power, to be of and for the region rather than simply about it” (Wesley-Smith 2016, 156)
  • Making space for indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing) and ontologies (ways of being), and encouraging greater epistemological plurality – in response to the hegemonic Euro-American epistemological landscape.

Critical interrogation of knowledge-producing practices is premised on a persistent unsettling of presumptions. The most pervasive – and elusive – of these are presumptions about truth and objectivity. For example, Graeme Whimp (2008) observes that producing academic knowledge in History has some of the following characteristics: that it “privileges the existence of a single and verifiable truth, a separation of events and the perceptions of them, linear time and sequence, narrativization, development, cause and effect, and the primacy of stable, written texts” (2008, 403). These ingredients result in what we could consider ‘truthful’ or ‘objective’ accounts of human history, and they are not unlike what goes into producing truth or objectivity in other social science or humanities disciplines.

Of course, what we consider to be inarguable and provable ‘truth’ evolves over time. Our investigations must turn to how knowledge and truths are constructed and validated through socially-formed tests of objectivity.  It is worthwhile to consider “what is permitted to contribute to truth and what is excluded” (Whimp 2008, 403), and who holds the power to decide such things.

The effects of creating truths and objective perspectives are relevant to my case study. We can track how culturally-bound discourses are validated into realms of ‘truth’ and then observe how other ways of knowing or ways of being are encountered. Terence Wesley-Smith’s revisit of his ‘3 Rationales’ paper favourably reflects on Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which looks at this process on a global scale. Wesley-Smith observes Connell’s argument that social science “embeds the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan society, while presenting itself as universal knowledge” (Connell 2007, vii-viii), and that other ways of thinking are “intellectually discredited, [and] dropped from the curricula of schools and universities” (Connell 2007, xi; Wesley-Smith 2016, 160).

When I talk about decolonising epistemology, I’m describing a process of attempting to re-centre whose accounts of the world get validated. In other words, if some epistemologies are made hegemonic via methods of validating objectivity, how can we constructively respond? One good example is in Edvard Hviding’s Between Knowledges (2003), which recounts an interaction with a Solomon Islander research interlocutor whose account of turtle reproductive patterns directly challenges peer-reviewed published scientific research. Rather than seeking to reconcile these two measurably different interpretations of the natural world, Hviding proposes that we widen our disciplinary lenses to incorporate a plurality of epistemological standpoints.

It’s examples like these that initially made me want to learn more. How can such a radical transformation of the knowledge production process be achieved?

Key research questions

My PhD research will track the alignment between what people aim for in a decolonised scholarly practice, what actions they are able to take to bring those visions to life, and how effective they evaluate these to be.

What is a decolonised Pacific Studies practice? Why does Pacific Studies exist and what differentiates it from other disciplinary modes of inquiry?
What does a decolonised scholarly practice look like?
How does Pacific Studies engage with indigenous epistemologies?
What actions are taken to enact this? What are the gaps between discourse and practical implementation of decolonial goals in Pacific Studies?
How do universities mediate, enable, or obstruct action?
How do people working in this space navigate, negotiate and evaluate their practice?
Methodological questions How can we best map an academic movement, in such a way that illuminates links between political aims and academic practices?
Future of the humanities What can Pacific Studies teach us about the nature of knowledge production in area studies/cultural studies, and how it is changing?


Four arenas

What interests me most about decolonisation is that it describes practice. Decolonisation implores each actor to critically assess their own complicity in colonial systems and work towards dismantling them (Tuck and Yang, 2012). In research for my PhD, I hope to track decolonial work in practice and assess the myriad obstacles faced by those doing this work. From my initial reading of the Pacific Studies field, I have located decolonial work done in four loosely categorised arenas:

  • Alternate disciplinarites
  • research methods/ethics
  • pedagogical practice
  • artistic collaborations and outreach activities

First, let’s take a closer look at alternate disciplinarities. Given the criticisms directed at ‘traditional’ disciplinary approaches to studies of the Pacific – for example, Wesley-Smith’s or Thaman’s arguments that approaches that strictly adhere to History or Anthropology might drown out indigenous perspectives and further embed settler colonialism – it is unsurprising to see calls for updated disciplinary lenses. Trans- and multidisciplinarity (moving across disciplines or working in more than one of them) are sometimes talked of as useful approaches. These terms are not interchangeable with interdisciplinarity. The latter involves multiple disciplinary modes that combine and create something new, constructed specifically in response to the research context in which it is applied. An interdisciplinary approach aims to unsettle the boundaries between disciplinary modes, and in doing so, contest the fundamental assumptions of how we approach epistemological production. Interdisciplinarity is a lofty goal: it involves making a drastic change of scholarly practice, resulting in the “creation of a whole new object, owned by no one” (Whimp 2008, 406). Beyond-discipline approaches of any kind are difficult to fully achieve, because they require mastery of more than one discipline in order to truly move between them at will (Jolly and Jamieson 2002, 66). Interdisciplinarity has been much debated in Pacific Studies, and has been responded to with enthusiasm and scepticism in almost equal amounts.

Notably, Wesley-Smith’s Rethinking essay championed interdisciplinarity’s innovative solutions to old problems. He argues that an interdisciplinary approach “acknowledges that societies do not fall neatly into segments or compartments with labels coinciding with the names of university departments. [It also] recognizes the key roles of creativity, subjectivity, and poetics in the ‘science’ of interpreting and representing the social world. It encourages researchers to be reflexive, to acknowledge the contingent and open-ended nature of inquiry, to incorporate multiple voices into their narratives, and to experiment with new ways of presenting material” (Wesley-Smith 1995, 128). These definitions locate interdisciplinary approaches as grounded in ethnography but taking a distinctly decolonial and creative flavour.

The second arena for decolonial action in Pacific Studies is how we conduct research. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s work reminds us that “research is not just a highly moral and civilised search for knowledge. Research is a set of very human activities that reproduces particular social relations of power” (Smith 2004, 6).

Decolonising research practices involves transforming relations between researcher, university, audience and informant at every step of the way. It’s not just ticking the boxes on an ethics approval, but re-imagining the very assumptions of the expert-subject dynamic.

In terms of teaching programs, there are two key themes of decolonised practice: the content of what is taught, and how teaching is conducted, or pedagogy. In terms of content, decolonised Pacific Studies programs might try to teach indigenous epistemologies first and foremost, and then use ‘Western’ theoretical work or case studies to supplement these. They might encourage the recognition of multiple and contradicting epistemologies and rather than forcing a battle between them, urging students to widen their view to simultaneously allow competing understandings of the world. For example, in teaching the Pacific Islands Field School in Hawai’i, we attempted to encourage students to learn about both indigenous and settler Hawaiian understandings of the Mauna Kea telescope controversy. The result for at least some of the students was gaining a nuanced understanding of a multiepistemological cultural landscape, as evidenced by students who wrote impressively interdisciplinary essays.

Thaman (2003) outlines the myriad ways in which decolonising pedagogy impacts Pacific Studies education programs: by allowing indigenous students to see validation of their own worldviews (2, 10-11), by adding depth to more conventional studies and improving relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous students (11), and by highlighting the epistemological differences of indigenous perspectives (Thaman 2003, 12). In her own contemplations of Pacific Studies pedagogy, Teresia Teaiwa has considered the need for “deep learning”, characterised by a vision of ‘mastery’ that is defined not by a capacity to collect mundane fact, but a fundamental shift in the learner’s understanding of reality (2011). In this pedagogical approach, everyone is a learner – students and researchers (T Teaiwa 2005, 2011). This is a mode of teaching that is not unlike the methods put forward by critical pedagogy theory, but updated to a new setting.

When we talk about creative innovations in teaching, often we’re trying to imagine how corporeal or embodied forms of knowledge can be conveyed to students and used in assessments. When I imagine what a decolonised classroom looks like, lots of things from the Pacific Islands field school comes to mind. I’ve done this program as a student, as a kind of stowaway research assistant, and as a tutor. I hope to use my reflections on this program in my research, as I think it defies classroom expectations in a really exciting way. In this program I’ve learnt about the history of Micronesian navigation by sanding down a canoe, about where to pick edible seaweed through a hula dance, about the connections between food security and sovereignty by helping to build a sea wall, and about the spiritual significance of the taro plant by getting dirty in a garden.

In researching pedagogical methods like these, I hope to argue that the form of knowledge communication is just as critical as the content. Katerina Teaiwa argues that ignoring the ways and forms in which knowledge is produced, embodied and communicated is akin to “being parasitic of indigenous knowledges” (K Teaiwa 2005, 226). For a decolonised practice to have integrity, championing creative and non-written work is just as important as examining conventional academic literature.

Another cluster of practices that decolonial Pacific Studies programs operate in are outreach programs and collaborations with activist organisations and artistic enterprises. By analysing artistic collaboration as part of my research, I hope to make the point of seeing these as just as important as conventional scholarly practice – and in doing so, offer my small vote of validation to spaces in which indigenous epistemologies and ontologies thrive. There are many examples of festivals, collaborations and online spaces marked by strong personal and institutional links between academics and artists, and strong endorsement of the artistic legitimacy of indigenous experience. In a short scoping trip to the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival in Melbourne in 2015, I was thrilled to hear artists, writers and curators discuss decolonisation with a candour and energy that I had not seen in academic settings. For the artistic community, decolonisation is not a metaphor for a slightly updated practice, but rather a lived, embodied and critically urgent imperative to action. There are some inspiring examples of scholars integrating artistic expression into academic spaces like conferences (Teaiwa 2008). The enmeshing of written, peer-reviewed work with corporeal and embodied forms of knowledge are sites of great interest to me.

I am also interested in investigating decolonised practices within universities that fall outside of the research/teaching duopoly. In particular, there are two arenas of action I hope to examine: community outreach programs and institutional subversive creativity. Outreach programs such as Pasifika at ANU are grounded in a moral imperative to nurture Pacific Islander students and invite them to be an active presence in the research and teaching activities of a university like ANU. Their programs take shape in activities not usually part of university research or education programs: like cultural celebrations, workshops in the community, mentoring networks and charitable fundraising activities. Regarding institutional creativity, I am interested in the diverse ways in which program administrators might need to take creative risks to negotiate around colonised university structures or seek new collaborations; or how creativity itself might alter institutional behaviours (Lavie et al 1993, 5).


Multi sited ethnography

I am conducting a multi-sited ethnography, which will follow the Pacific Studies community and its commitment to decolonisation (I use ‘following’ as a guiding method, as per Marcus 1995). In conducting a study of decolonisation through participant observation and practice-led methodologies, I subscribe to Marcus’ idea of the “ethnographer-activist, [who] renegotiates identities in different sites as one learns more about a slice of the world system” (1995, 113).

Pacific Studies is a community easy to locate in conferences, university corridors, published works and classrooms – tangible, geographically-mappable places in which decolonised practice happens. But it is also crucial that I capture that Pacific Studies is a mobile, floating network that exists, for example, on the internet (mailing lists such as the ANU Pacific Institute or the AAPS Facebook page) as much as in tangible ways. I hope to have constructed a list of methods wide enough to capture such spaces.

To tackle such a complex field, I have a toolkit of methods and methodological foundations. In all instances I see my kit of methods as evolving, growing in response to my multi-sited field.

The key methods I plan to employ are:


  • Participant observation at conferences, seminars, festivals, classes
  • Semi-structured interviews with academics, students, artists, activists

Textual analysis:

  • Critical analysis of Pacific Studies published work
  • Critical discourse analysis of Pacific Studies syllabi


  • Reflection on my own experience in Pacific Studies teaching and research administration
  • Creative practice of interpretation – my own creative writing and photography that reflects on my research journey


In a recent reflection on Pacific Studies, Teresia Teaiwa (2011, 220) lamented that “Pacific Studies has evolved as a field and practice without many good maps of itself.” My research aim is to build this map. I am inspired by the many insightful debates about cartography in Pacific Studies (such as Jolly 2007; Matsuda 2007), and debates about the significance of place and regional imaginaries (such as Hau’ofa 1998). Consequently, I am thinking of my overall method as being a research-led cartography, in which I create a map of decolonisation in practice across the Pacific Studies field. Drawing inspiration from Greg Dening’s reflections on his ethnographic method, I hope to allow my wide and complex field to lead me in a practice of creative cartography – to produce a map that is, in Dening’s words, “kaleidoscopic”, “framed” and “artful” (2004, 186).

Focusing on practice and action allows a better view of mobile indigenous epistemologies that are often obscured by the assumptions imbued in hardened colonial national borders (Smith 2012, 130; Wood 2003). Many have lamented that the very diversity of the Pacific is the thing that makes it so hard to study. I argue that perhaps rather than searching for an elusive systemised body of indigenous knowledge, we should focus on where multiple epistemologies are manifested in practice, action and method. Highlighting practice also turns our attention to important instances of transformation.

Methodology and metaphors

Va’a/Va metaphor

Drawing on the work of many others, I have come to think of Pacific Studies as a va’a (canoe) that navigates the vā, a word in Samoan and Tongan that refers to a mysterious and poetic in-between space (which is cognate with ‘wā’ in Māori and Hawaiian languages).

‘Vā’ can refer to both the distances between people, places and things; but also to the relationship between them (Milner 1966, 307). I use vā in both senses: the distance between and the glue that binds within a relational ontology. Albert Wendt’s paper about Samoan tatau (tattoo) practices and embodied postcoloniality has a definition of vā as follows:

“Vā is the space between, the betweenness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things (Wendt 1996).

Marata Tamaira explains that the vā is “an intermediary site – a liminal zone marked not only by tension and transformation but also by confluences and connections” (Tamaira 2009, 1). Tamaira reflects on her own position as inhabiting, and feeling alienated from, both her Māori and Pakeha ancestries. On this, she says, “the space between is uncomfortable. The space between is deeply personal. It is also transformative” (ibid).

In more practical terms, Whimp (2008) has also used the concept of the vā to characterise the space that Pacific Studies operates in. Wesley-Smith picks up on this apt metaphor, saying that

“Pacific Studies will of necessity exist in the vā … navigating choppy waters between rationales, disciplines, knowledges, identities, lands, peoples, and cultures. Despite all of its instability and uncertainty, however, Pacific Studies has become a vital academic space to encourage deep learning, promote creativity and understanding, generate counter-hegemonic discourse, and nurture personal growth and self-determination.” (2016, 164)

From reading discussions of the vā from Wendt, Tamaira, Wesley-Smith and Whimp, I understand the concept as one that highlights relationships, relational ontology, diverse epistemology, connectedness, and recognition that open space (like open ocean) is not empty. To press the metaphor further, it also could represent that the space – or vā – between disciplines, between people, between cultures and histories – the vā of Pacific Studies is a productive, fertile space in which new transformative experiences can emerge.

The va’a, on the other hand, refers to the ways that the vā is traversed and navigated. A va’a is a canoe and the word is native to Samoan, Hawaiian and Tahitian. Va’a were the legendary vessels that first carried Pacific Islanders across the ocean in the biggest journeys of sea-based human migration of all time (Spriggs 2009). Dening writes evocatively about the va’a, saying that it is an “artefact of cultural genius,” and “a thing imprinted with millennia of experience” (2004, 2). I see a stirring alignment between the way that Teresia Teaiwa talks about the Pacific Studies classroom as a ‘metaphorical canoe’, a space of teamwork and trust; and how Dening explains that while each part of the va’a has its own name and history, these parts combine to make the va’a “larger than itself” (2004, 5). Dening characterises the va’a as a tangible manifestation of disparate expertises combining to produce a vehicle that facilitates the expansion of cultural worlds across diverse geographies. Surely we could say something similar of effective Pacific Studies teaching or research?

A va’a in the vā, then, infers a conceptualisation of Pacific Studies as a collaborative vessel through which disparate expanses of space, time and culture are made connected. The metaphor offers an emphasis on process rather than product; focuses on Oceanic peoples’ knowledges as the key tool of navigation and dictates that the value of those knowledges are the raison d’etre for action.

Making landfall – a study of practice

Lea Lani Kinikini Kauvaka recently published a discussion of the canoe metaphor in The Contemporary Pacific. This paper has helped me to calibrate my use of the va’a metaphor. Kauvaka suggests that the canoe metaphor, while ‘seductive’, might allow us to fall back on the mobile and ephemeral nature of these discussions in such a way that we don’t move towards actual change. She asks that we pay attention not just to the vessel traversing the ocean of knowledge, but to the berths and anchorages that ground our practice – that for Pacific Studies to achieve its political and intellectual goals, “the canoe must make landfall” (Kauvaka 2016, 151). This has reminded me that a study of practice and a focus on real people rather than abstracted theories is the most important contribution that my research can offer.


I am both an insider and outsider to this field, and have experienced some of these areas a lot (like being a student) and some not much at all (like conducting research). I hope to leverage my multiple, conflicting and shifting positions to try to empathise and understand a range of different perspectives.

I have spent much of my pre-reading investigating the notion of place in the Pacific and meditating on what it means to be a non-Islander and non-indigenous Australian, working from landlocked, dry Canberra. Decolonial scholars and activists often argue that in order to understand indigenous perspectives, we need to radically interrogate how we relate to place, land and country. My relation to these issues is complex: as a newcomer to the Pacific I consider myself to be always learning about what it means to have a connection to the ocean and the islands and how those connections are embodied through daily life, artforms and scholarly work. And yet simultaneously, I need to be able to undertake the sort of “deep learning” that Teresia Teaiwa talks about. I cannot offer definitive resolutions to my problematic positionality and I don’t believe that it is necessarily productive to strive to achieve such an illusion. Rather, I focus again on practice: I hope to conduct myself in in ways that are respectful, honest, open-minded, aware, and non-invasive (see Dening 2008).

Collaborative ethnography

It would be fairly hypocritical if I didn’t also pay attention to how I might decolonise my own methodologies. I’m excited by reading about collaborative ethnography – thanks to Kirin for bringing this to my attention. This is a methodological approach that I had been imagining all along but hadn’t been able to give a concrete shape to. This approach describes a constant process of exchange with interlocutors – not just in an effort to check that you have interpreted them correctly, but inviting the people you research to be the ones to shape your entire approach, method and argument. In doing so, the ethnographic voice of the text is unsettled and the authority is decentered to reflect the community itself. This approach is not an easy one for many employing more conventional ethnographic modes, but I feel like it’s a good fit for my study. I’m uneasy about positioning myself as any sort of expert so it was always my plan to engage my informants in shaping what the study might look like – and I’ve tried to use the literature review process to do that already. My approach will be informed as I go by learning about how Pacific Studies researchers decolonise their own work and seeking to incorporate their lessons into my own practice.


Previous work to inform approach (self-funded or paid work):

  • Participation in PASI3005/6005 (Pacific Islands Field School) as student in 2013 in Samoa, research assistant in 2014 in Hawai’i and tutor in 2015 in Hawai’i
  • Australian Association for Pacific Studies conferences in Sydney (2014) and Cairns (2016)
  • Scoping trip to Melbourne’s Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival (2015)

Planned (ethics approved – so can begin interviews):

  • Pacific History Association conference in Guam (2016)
  • Festival of Pacific Arts in Guam (2016)
  • Two trips to New Zealand in 2016-2017 (to visit universities in Auckland, Wellington)
  • Possibly a trip to Suva, Fiji to visit the University of the South Pacific and the Oceania Cultural Centre (dependant on remaining funds)
  • Skype/email/telephone interviews with people I’ve met from the University of Hawai’i
  • Ongoing work at ANU


My research will be most immediately significant to the Pacific Studies community. Teresia Teaiwa has said that it’s surprising that “Pacific Studies has not been more consistent in generating a literature that reflects on its practice as well as its underlying theoretical or philosophical assumptions” (Teaiwa 2010, 203). Lea Lani Kauvaka’s recent article argues that right now is a kind of bottleneck moment between ideas and action. She says that “a consortium of berthing spaces for Pacific practices and processes of learning, teaching and research is waiting to emerge but seems to be caught in a breech position in the birthing canal” (Kauvaka 2016, 145).

I hope that my case study might offer a little help in shifting this birthing/berthing practice forward. By linking political and epistemic goals with action, I hope to be able to offer some mini models of how we all might help the decolonised humanities be born into the world.

While in some ways my own position is privileged by enduring colonial structures and thus my ongoing work is inherently problematic, I would argue strongly that it is crucial for privileged scholars like myself to become fluent practitioners of decolonisation. It is my highest hope that just as I learn from scholars before me, my own work into this tricky area might help contribute to a burgeoning critical mass of scholars whose moral and ethical compasses are firmly set on dismantling some of these problematic systems.

On a different level, I hope that my work might contribute constructively to the global debate surrounding the future of the humanities. What theoretical, pedagogical, or technical interventions might help to ensure the longevity of humanities and arts disciplines, which are increasingly facing university budget cuts? It would be validating to find evidence in my case study that a decolonised, interdisciplinary approach offers the humanities something new that might insulate it through the 21st century.

In the much-awaited update to his Rethinking essay, Wesley-Smith quotes Teresia Teaiwa, saying that he shares her “deep ambivalence towards the scholarly or academic project, and an equally profound commitment to it” (Teaiwa 1995, 59; quoted by Wesley-Smith 2016, 153). This is the tension that motivates my work: a deep unease about colonial systems and structures, coupled with a fervent belief in the value of learning more about others. I look forward to getting to know others who share such a tense ambivalence, and learning about how they navigate this in their work. I hope that my research can demonstrate that the Pacific Studies va’a is a complex, dynamic and active vessel within which to navigate the great vā that stands before us.




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