Author Interview: April Henderson


MILILANI GANIVET (MG): We are so glad you agreed to this interview! Your work has been an inspiration to many of our students and emerging colleagues. For instance, in your article “The I and the We: Individuality, Collectivity, and Samoan Artistic Responses to Cultural Change” (Henderson 2016; 316-345), relationality is a key leitmotiv. I imagine some of the same tensions and stakes around relationality could be identified and engaged in the realm of academia. In some sense the field of Pacific Studies is about relationships, the connections we make, the networks we foster over time and the communities we are a part of that lift us up. Could you please share with us the importance relationships had in your academic journey? Who mentored you and who played an important role in shaping your scholarship and academic genealogy?

APRIL K HENDERSON (AKH): Thank you for the invitation—and what a great way to begin. Intellectual genealogies are a recurrent theme in our Pacific Studies program at Victoria University of Wellington: from the first undergraduate course, PASI 101, to the honors seminar, students are prompted to think about who their “intellectual kin” are. Students’ responses often discuss well-known Pacific scholars and intellectuals, but they also include what my late colleague and our program’s founder, Teresia Teaiwa, termed “the ancestors we get to choose” (Teaiwa 2014): people not of Pacific descent whose work has been formative, valuable, or inspirational to them. Teresia articulated a model for critical empowerment in Pacific Studies that held staunchly to both a sense of intellectual sovereignty—being able to draw inspiration and tools from a wide array of sources—and an imperative of responsibility to critique regimes of exploitation and violence, whether they were non-indigenous or Indigenous in origin (Teaiwa 2010). True empowerment for her was being able to hold everybody to account.

As you can guess from this opener, Teresia—the person who gave me my first permanent academic appointment, my friend and colleague for fifteen years at Victoria—is a central post supporting my house of ideas. But her space-making for the expansiveness of intellectual genealogies in Pacific Studies also serves as a helpful preface to the rest of my responses to this and subsequent questions, because key figures in my intellectual genealogy come from both within and beyond Pacific Studies, within and beyond the region—and, importantly, within and beyond classrooms. I’ve benefitted from truly extraordinary professors, supervisors, and mentors, as well as inspirational texts, but, at every stage, deep learning has always also come from fellow students as well as people and contexts outside of classes. As someone who has chosen to live and work mostly amongst communities that I was not born to and cannot claim literal genealogical kinship with, I am intensely conscious of the need to maintain humility and acknowledge those to whom I owe so much. In the end, relationships are all we’ve got, and I count on my relationships to hold me to account.

Recitation of genealogy is always contextual. Given the venue for our conversation, I’ll start with some familiar places and names. I completed my MA at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS) in the mid-late 1990s. My thesis committee was comprised of Terence Wesley-Smith, Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard and Geoffrey White, all of whom were supportive, kind and wise. They allowed me a great deal of freedom with the style and tone of my thesis; as a result, that writing is probably livelier and more creative than a lot of what I’ve done since. I also took courses with Vilsoni Hereniko and historians David Hanlon and David Chappell; texts and pedagogical practices from those classes have influenced my thinking and my teaching. As I was wrapping up my MA, I served as Geoff White and Vili Hereniko’s assistant for their National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar for Higher Education Faculty on the theme of representation in the Pacific. The materials and discussions in that NEH seminar were wonderfully rich, and I still have the two massive binders of readings that were part of my work to compile.

Just as important as academic faculty, though, my peers at CPIS and at the East West Center (EWC) were a huge part of my learning. Katerina Teaiwa and Keith Camacho, who entered the MA program at the same time, became close friends: our boisterous discussions regularly spilled out of the classroom and off to a beach, a basketball court, or Mānoa Gardens. Alexander Mawyer, Noe Michelle Tupou and Kealalokahi Losch were at CPIS at that time too. Anne Hattori had finished at CPIS and was working on her PhD in History. Many of us lived in the EWC residence halls. Selena Tusitala Marsh was there for a time while doing her doctoral research: last year when we went to her farewell as NZ’s Poet Laureate, I thought back to first seeing her perform “Statued (stat you?) Traditions*” in the lounge of Hale Mānoa (Marsh 1997).  Days in the classroom were augmented by evenings and weekends with the Pan-Pacific Club in the many social spaces the EWC afforded. These scholars and artists are all now points in a sweeping constellation of Pacific thinking and creating that stretches from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to the University of Hawaiʻi system (UH) and University of Guam (UoG), and south to the Australian National University (ANU), Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington (VUW). It was an amazing time to be at UH, and I feel those CPIS/UH/EWC components of my genealogy strongly. 

I went on to do my PhD in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz. When I applied I knew relatively little about “HistCon”, just that it was producing an incredible string of Pacific scholars—Vicente M Diaz, Teresia Teaiwa, J Kēhaulani Kauanui—and I wanted to drink from whatever well they were drinking from. I arrived in the department at a good time. I inherited from those scholars a lead supervisor, James Clifford, whose critical language and theorizing had already been reshaped through his interactions with what he’s termed his “island-savvy graduate students” (Clifford 2001). Jim acknowledges how their work helped open up new ways for him to think about “indigenous articulations,” and those of us who followed benefitted from that developing thinking. Kēhaulani was still there when I arrived, and another of Jim’s supervisees, Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, was a year ahead of me and became a dear friend. Noe and I now co-edit a book series for UH Press, Indigenous Pacifics ( As a supervisor, Jim was generous, thoughtful, engaged: Teresia once shared an anecdote about him returning handwritten commentary on her draft that rivalled the length of the draft itself. I often find myself passing along nuggets of his wisdom to my own students. 

At HistCon I also took a year-long course with Angela Davis on Marxist intellectual histories and her seminar on radical critiques of penality. It’s impossible to convey here how much of an inspiration Angela is—for her incisive scholarship illuminating the intersections of gender, race and class; for her decades of work giving us the language to name and challenge the prison industrial complex and other capitalist commodifications of human life—but she’s also a beautiful example of a seasoned scholar and activist who will readily discuss how her own thinking continues to develop, and who is genuinely inspired by and hopeful about young people (qualities that Teresia, also a supervisee of Angela’s, very much shared). Angela, along with Neferti Tadiar and Herman Gray, made up the rest of my dissertation committee and I benefitted greatly from their insight and rigor.

Those who know me or know my work may already know of the CPIS and HistCon genealogies. Less obvious, but just as important in shaping my thinking and trajectory, are the learning experiences that led me to CPIS. I’ll speak about my undergraduate experience shortly, but thinking all the way back to high school, in my senior year at Honolulu’s Roosevelt High School, our Advanced Placement US History teacher Joy Denman assigned us Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) as our textbook. Students (and presumably school administrators) had no clue at the time about how radical that was; I only realized years later when friends were reading it for university courses. But Ms. Denman knew, and as an educator now, I find myself thinking about her. She was not charismatic nor beloved by students as some other teachers were. We rolled our eyes when she regaled us with stories of her student activist days at UCLA or some-such continental university. But decades later, I reflect on the impact on me of her subversive choice of textbook and other pedagogical decisions, like inviting a recent Roosevelt alumna, Kanaka Maoli emcee Charlotte Kaluna, into our class to rap original verses and offer critical perspectives on Honolulu’s homelessness and addiction crises and the incidents of police harassment she had witnessed. Ms. Denman is my reminder and assurance that good teaching can be about the broader environment you create for developing and transmitting important critical intellectual genealogies. A course coordinator’s decisions about content, and how they’ve set up structures for engagement in the classroom and ethics for caring for the space and each other, are critically important to how it all works, but it’s OK if the persona of the teacher seems almost incidental to students’ experience of the course. It’s been exciting—freeing—for me to embrace models for decentering myself in my teaching.

MG: As you argue in your article, artistic forms such as hip-hop which are seen as translating “egocentric needs” can be used to express sociocentric dynamics (Henderson 2016; 323). How did you come to this topic of inquiry? Can you trace the genealogy of ideas that gave birth to this article?

AKH: I’ll respond in a roundabout way that picks back up on the first question about intellectual genealogies, because I think my undergraduate experiences undergird most of my direction since. After Roosevelt, I received a scholarship to attend Pitzer College, a small private liberal arts university in Claremont, in eastern Los Angeles County. The courses that had the deepest impact on me there were those focused on race, politics, and African American and Chicanx histories, art and literature. In my first year, I took a course called “The Politics of Race,” team taught by faculty affiliated with what was then known as the Intercollegiate Department of Black Studies. One of our professors was prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who went on to co-found (with Angela Davis and others) the organization Critical Resistance. Ruthie was an impactful figure in the classroom, but her ability to facilitate our education extended beyond it. For example, four days after the release of the “not guilty” verdict in the trial of the white police officers caught on tape beating black motorist Rodney King, Ruthie and husband Craig took a carload of us to Crenshaw Blvd to slot in with community relief efforts for those impacted by the collective outpouring of rage that the verdict had released. A lot of the reading material in “The Politics of Race” was admittedly beyond my theoretical fluency at the time (I think I’d had to get special permission to enroll as a first year) but it was apparent to me how much energy our professors drew from that rich intellectual world of ideas, and that it was inextricably linked to their activism. I began to nurture ideas that “theory” could and should be about developing language with explanatory power to re-shape how we understand and exist in our world, and therefore a tool for diagnosing injustice, recognizing human dignity, and shaping action. Incidentally, another of the professors in that class, historian Sidney J. Lemelle, co-edited the book in which my first research publication appeared more than a decade after I graduated from Pitzer (Henderson 2006).

At Pitzer, Agnes Moreland Jackson’s African American literature class also had a deep impact. I began to realize that, as a fan of hip hop, I was accustomed to consuming the cultural narratives of a very narrow portion of African America, namely mostly non-university-educated urban black men between the ages of seventeen and thirty. My world grew with the depth and breadth of what we read in Agnes’s class—from the narratives of former enslaved women and men through the efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance and critical classics of the 1960s and ’70s, to contemporary novels, many of them by women. I got hooked on authors such as Nikki Giovanni and spent hours with their work in the library stacks. Albert Wendt has often observed that “The most revealing and meaningful histories about a people are the stories, poems, myths, plays and novels written by those people about themselves” (1974, cited in Sharrad 2002, 111). Many of the histories and critical lenses I was getting from other courses at Pitzer were given greater depth, texture and feeling by opportunities to immerse myself in literature.

In class and out, knowledge imparted by fellow students at Pitzer was essential to my learning, just as it would continue to be in graduate school. One important friendship was with someone whose father had been a member of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and, following the state-sponsored assassination of its leader Fred Hampton, had hijacked a plane to Cuba. Less than a year after we teamed up for an assignment in “The Politics of Race,” I was following that friend and a broad coalition of students from across the Claremont Colleges into a three-day occupation of the Pomona College administration building, issuing a careful list of demands that included many of the same concerns that, sadly, still plague universities today: hiring and tenure processes for faculty of color and the resourcing of programs and centers that foreground the histories and experiences of marginalized people. Difficult decisions were made during the occupation: it became clear that the risks of arrest fell disproportionately on black students and non-citizen Latinx students who could face deportation. Some had to make the agonizing decision to leave the occupation. These were tangible glimpses of the lived and experienced stakes of the racial politics we discussed in class.

Pitzer College opened doors to so many new worlds of learning for me, but at that time Pacific Island worlds were not really represented at the Claremont Colleges—not amongst the faculty or student body, at least. My BA was my first and last qualification in the field of anthropology, and while there were some invocations of the Pacific in anthropology course materials, my experiences of these were mixed. My undergraduate advisor, Donald Brenneis, was engaging and supportive and had done fieldwork in IndoFijian contexts (I had occasion to reconnect with him more recently when he adeptly and generously examined my student’s dissertation [Shandil 2019]). However, there were disconcerting moments in other courses, like when another professor assuredly pronounced in lecture that Samoan tattooing traditions had died out, but I had just returned from a summer spent working on the Ali‘i Kai Catamaran where many of my male Samoan co-workers bore full pe‘a (I tell this anecdote to my undergraduate students to make points about both the validity of the knowledges they bring to the classroom and the potential for lecturer fallibility!). It was difficult to reconcile the way some course readings and lectures talked about islanders, trapped in a static “ethnographic present”, with the dynamic milieu of early-mid 1990s O‘ahu that I returned to for most summer and winter breaks, with its adaptive Tongan kava circles, Samoan hip hop heads, steadily pulsing island reggae gigs, and the surging, swelling voice of the lahui in the lead-up to the anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Throughout my undergraduate years, it felt like I was regularly crossing between very different worlds. The internet was not yet a presence in my daily life, so island music was my way to bring my dynamic, agentic O‘ahu world with me to Pitzer. Likewise, hip hop music took on new importance in Honolulu, where it spoke to and recalled the knowledge I was gaining on my progressive campus in Los Angeles County, where “the politics of race” was not just a course title but an all-consuming interest outside the classroom.

While the Pacific was minimally represented in Claremont itself, Pitzer did facilitate one of the most significant steps towards my future work in Pacific Studies: in the lead-up to my junior year, the study abroad office talked me into trialing the School for International Training’s brand-new program to (then-Western) Sāmoa. In preparation for the trip I took Samoan language at UH while back home over the summer, and SIT’s initial orientation period even took place at the East West Center. I think all of this lulled me into a false sense of security—that Sāmoa would be familiar, that I knew what to expect. What instead eventuated was some profound, and at times painful, learning about the importance of place: that urban Honolulu was a very different context for expressions of Samoan culture than independent Sāmoa. At the same time, though, things that were startlingly familiar would crop up where I wasn’t expecting them: an Apia nightclub DJ spinning the latest American hip hop; a household on Savai‘i with a stack of dubbed episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on VHS cassette; a young man paddling a paopao on our rural mangrove tour, in a seemingly “remote” village, turning and speaking in an unmistakably urban Californian accent.

Those undergraduate months in Sāmoa planted questions about what I would come to understand later as the nuances of diasporic formation. What generative tensions arise between the particularity of place and the mobility of people and culture? What do people care enough about to take with them when they migrate? How are popular cultural forms enmeshed in the ways people express connection, disconnection, belonging and desire? And, more cheekily, how come scholars were writing about monetary remittances sent back to Sāmoa but not all those painstakingly dubbed episodes of Fresh Prince or Yo! MTV Raps? A few years later, these questions would work their way into my CPIS master’s thesis on Samoan participation in hip hop across the diaspora. I remember initially pitching some other project to Terence Wesley-Smith—something that seemed worthy and like what I should be researching. I think he could tell my heart wasn’t in it, though, and he asked “What else have you got?” Terence’s astute question is now a cherished part of my toolkit as a supervisor. Students can come in with narrow ideas of what lines of enquiry are worthy, or necessary: I find it useful to walk the conversation back from what students think they should be doing, to instead open up a conversation about what they want to be doing. If you start with their passion, you can usually then find ways to craft that into a project that asks, and answers, important and worthy questions. 

Coming back to your question, all three of the articles I’ve published in The Contemporary Pacific over the years bear some relationship to the research that started formally with my masters, which in turn was seeded by all the undergraduate experiences I’ve now narrated at length. I’d been exposed to, at times immersed in, and heavily influenced by both African American and Pacific contexts. However, because I am not of those contexts myself, ancestrally or culturally, participating in them has always involved very conscious (sometimes intensely self-conscious, sometimes painful) learning. In exploring Pacific uptakes of Black diasporic popular culture, I’ve tried to offer critical analysis in ways that acknowledge the mana and dignity of both Black and Pacific communities with stakes in the topic. Albert Wendt’s oeuvre has offered many touchpoints in this work. My first TCP article “Gifted Flows” (2010), invited for the special issue Teresia and Selina edited in honor of Wendt, discusses his decades of acknowledging both the inspiration Pacific people take from Black cultural production as well as how Pacific people are nevertheless capable of perpetuating anti-Black racism. Writing from the vantage of 2020, I am struck by how many of the possibilities for Black/Pacific collaboration and contestation, the beauty as well as the ugliness that we’ve seen in this extraordinary year—it’s all signaled there in Wendt’s writing in the 1970s. 

The “Fleeting Substantiality” article I subsequently published in TCP attempts to map out a genealogy of popular US mythology about Samoan men—mythologies that have harmful real-world implications such as in education and rates of arrest and incarceration (2011). It sprang initially from my attempts to grapple with the legacy of Southern California hip hop artists the Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. I became increasingly aware that, before I could discuss that group and the troubling ways that they were present/absent in West Coast hip hop historiography, it was necessary to plot out the broader discursive terrain for Samoan men in US popular culture. To do so it was helpful to draw upon the broad and deep literature critiquing popular mythmaking about black men, both as a source of analytical language and in order to see what was shared and what was particular to Samoan contexts.

The TCP article you’ve specifically asked about here, “The I and the We” (2016), also springs from the hip hop work, especially the many powerful testimonies I’ve encountered over the years of how important hip hop forms are to Samoan artists’ sense of themselves, their efficacy, their understanding of the world and their place in it. The article has at least a few aims: first, to gently prod the oft-invoked truisms about how Pacific, and specifically Samoan, collectivity operates; second, to excavate beneath the apparent egocentrism of hip hop cultural forms, especially the self-aggrandizement of emcees, to illuminate how hip hop offers ways to express both old and new forms of collectivity; and third, to acknowledge how hip hop cultural forms, like more institutionally sanctioned art forms such as literature, are important tools for navigating familial and community expectations alongside individual needs and desires amidst contexts that are decidedly globalized. Put more simply, hip hop, like reggae, has played a key role in helping a lot of Samoan young people work out how to be in the world, and given them reason to keep being in the world.

MG: As aptly remarked in your article, “both contemporary spoken-word performance poetry and the hip hop culture from which rap music springs share a genealogy of influence from African-American expressive cultures” (Henderson 2016; 328). Similarly, the late historian Banivanua Mar has uncovered and unpacked striking influences and points of connection in freedom struggles between African and Pacific networks (Mar 2016). We would be curious to know if you have identified some articulations of that genealogy of influence as diasporic cultural forms of expression.

AKH: I love Tracy Banivanua-Mar’s work. When I last taught our 300-level course that focuses on the role of artists and activists in Pacific societies, I assigned Tracy’s chapter “Black: decolonization and networks of solidarity” from Decolonisation and the Pacific (2016) alongside Misatauveve Melani Anae’s work on the Polynesian Panthers (2006, 2020) and an article from Robbie Shilliam that looks at the influence of the Black Power movement in Aotearoa (2012), published before his Black Pacific book (2015). I had long been aware of the Polynesian Panthers, partly because key members are quite literally the parents of Aotearoa hip hop artists: hip hop/soul artist Che Fu is the son of Panthers Tigilau Ness and Miriama Rauhihi-Ness, and the former South Auckland chapter leader of the Polynesian Panthers, Vic Tamati, is the father of singer and emcee Ladi 6 and dancer and graffiti artist SpexOne and uncle of emcee Scribe. What I’ve especially appreciated about Tracy’s attentive history is how it has extended my (and our students’) knowledge of the influence of the Black Power movement to include Australian contexts, where it was taken up in Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Australian South Sea Islander communities, as well as in Papua New Guinean contexts. In our Aotearoa New Zealand setting for Pacific Studies, given that our concerns are so much framed by who is represented in the domestic Pacific population and where New Zealand’s colonial ties were/are, we have to actively resist tendencies towards Polynesian-centricity. 

There are so many examples of how Pacific people have taken inspiration from Black diasporic cultural production. Pacific novelists and poets such as Sia Figiel and Selina Tusitala Marsh speak about the influence of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou on their work. Selina depicted a stack of such influences in her award-winning autobiographical children’s book Mophead (2019). More broadly, of course, there is regional uptake of hip hop, and reggae is perhaps the most ubiquitous influence on popular music across the Pacific. I once examined an entire PhD thesis devoted to exploring Bob Marley’s legacy in Aotearoa, authored by longtime Auckland community and education advocate Tony Fala (2008). “Uncle Bob” is without a doubt an ancestor many people have chosen in the Pacific. These genealogies of Black musical influence in the Pacific did not just start in the 1970s, though. In 2006, Michigan doctoral researcher Matthew Wittmann came to our program on a Fulbright and unearthed archival documentation of the impact of tours by the Georgia Minstrels and Fisk Jubilee Singers amongst Māori in the late-19th century (Wittmann 2010). Michael Webb and Camellia Webb-Gannon have, separately and collaboratively, traced historical and current examples of how people in the Southwestern Pacific have adapted Black Atlantic music forms in their representations of themselves, their region, and their political struggles (Webb and Webb-Gannon 2020; Webb-Gannon, Webb and Solis 2018). Camellia Webb-Gannon’s forthcoming book Morning Star Rising (also in Noe’s and my Indigenous Pacifics series—quick plug!) features a chapter on the role transnational articulations of blackness have played in the movement for the liberation of West Papua (Webb-Gannon 2021). I should note that Afrodiasporic-Pacific musical influences were not just unidirectional: in the early 20th century, Hawaiian steel guitar techniques were taken up by blues musicians in the American South. During my Pitzer College years, when the lack of island presence there weighed heavy on me, one of the places I sometimes went was Claremont’s Folk Music Center, where a not-yet-famous Ben Harper would affably chat with me about the cross-fertilizations of Hawaiian and blues music traditions while tending instruments in his grandparents’ shop (tangentially, Ben now embodies newer Black-Pacific connections, covered as he is in tattoos by Māori tā moko artist Gordon Toi).

Whether profound or seemingly mundane, so many touchstones of diasporic Pacific identity—so many “resources for experiments with self-making” as Appadurai has phrased it (1996, 3)—owe to Black diasporic cultural production. Many people who write about “Pacific culture” don’t consider these things, but I’ve always been interested in the cultures that people actually devote time and energy to in their daily lives, not just the practices they say are important, or acknowledge as their culture. In Aotearoa, listening to and performing reggae, hip hop, R&B and soul music has, for decades, been an implicit marker of Polynesianness. In the 1980–90s, even into the 2000s, this occurred in a context where peoples of African descent were barely represented in New Zealand’s population. When Polynesian artists were challenged about their adoption of hip hop, or reggae, or R&B, it was usually by Pākehā who could be easily dismissed as racist, conservative “baldheads,” or by their own elders, for whom they developed all sorts of other rationalizations. However, in the past few years a generation of young, vocal Black New Zealanders—including hip hop artists such as Jess B, Mo Muse, and Mazbou Q, and UFC superstar Israel Adesanya—have started publicly expressing some of the bafflement, pain, and frustration they’ve experienced growing up in a country where Black cultures were heartily embraced and claimed but they, as Black people, felt excluded and othered, including sometimes by Māori and other Pacific people. The organization Third Culture Minds is doing brilliant work to bring these stories to the public, both on NZ television screens (Third Culture Minds 2020a) and through leadership in events around the Movement for Black Lives (Third Culture Minds 2020b). In Hawai‘i, the Pōpolo Project has been instrumental in fostering necessary public dialogue. There will surely be many more difficult and productive conversations ahead, but this exceptional 2020 year has also crystallized for many the intersectionality of so many movements—movements against indigenous dispossession and anti-Black racism, movements for climate justice.

Particularly important contributions to these conversations are the artistic, scholarly, and social media commentaries emerging from people who quite literally embody dual Afrodiasporic and Pacific genealogies. Teresia—daughter of an African American mother and Banaban/I-Kiribati father—began doing some of this work before she passed away, alongside her fellow Black/Pacific artists and thinkers Joy Lehuanani Enomoto, Ojeya Cruz-Banks, and Courtney-Savali Andrews (Enomoto 2017; Teaiwa et. al. 2017). As is so often the case in the Pacific, it is artists and poets and other creators at the forefront of working through what it means to respect and value Black and Indigenous genealogies.

A final note on the theme of art, intellectual imagination, and productive cross-fertilization: over a decade ago, in that same 300-level class where I more recently assigned Banivanua-Mar, I began giving students the introduction of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002) alongside Albert Wendt’s iconic essay “Towards a New Oceania” (1976) in our introductory week. I encountered Kelley’s earlier work while an MA student and my admiration for his scholarship grew while at HistCon. I used Freedom Dreams in my doctoral thesis and noticed that Kelley’s introduction and Wendt’s essay, despite being written nearly thirty years apart and in different national and social contexts, made very similar arguments about taking inspiration from the past without romanticizing it; about the power of art in social movements; and about the necessity of imagination for building livable futures. Together, the two pieces lay fertile ground for a course that is a bit of a love letter to the work of artists, activists and intellectuals in Pacific societies. Since taking over teaching the course, my colleague Emalani Case has nurtured her own love of Kelley’s work and done far more with it, weaving it beautifully into her presentations and publications, including her stunning monograph Everything Ancient Was Once New, which will be the next title in Noe’s and my Indigenous Pacifics series (forthcoming from UH Press February 2021—plug #3!). As a result of reading him in class, some of our students already cite Kelley as “an ancestor [they] get to choose”; I have the feeling that Emalani’s work will do a lot to ensure he becomes adoptive kin in other Pacific intellectual genealogies as well.

MG: Identity has been a major topic of conversation and inquiry for successive generations of scholars involved in Pacific studies. While it remains an important conversation, I have noticed that there has been a notable paradigm shift from the conversation about identity strictly speaking to one focused on Indigeneity. The journal has been a conveyor and a facilitator of discussions on this issueas in James Clifford’s “Indigenous Articulations (Cifford 2001; 468-490) . We wonder if you have any thoughts on the role of TCP in this conversation? If so, do you have any thoughts on some of the forward-facing edges?

AKH: Interesting that you ask this: over the past two years, it feels like most of my PhD students, and some of my colleagues, have grappled with the meaning and application of the term indigeneity in the Pacific with increased intensity. All of our students encounter Teresia’s prescription (building on Terence Wesley-Smith 1995) that “Pacific Studies shall be interdisciplinary, account for indigenous ways of knowing, and involve comparative analysis.” (2010, 116) For years it seemed that the “comparative” part of Teresia’s prescription was the particularly troublesome bit for students, but lately the “indigenous” part prompts just as many questions.

I am an interested observer of developing conversations, and the voices I want to hear from, and defer to, are those from people who can make a claim to indigeneity in the Pacific. It will be interesting to see how discussions develop between Pacific peoples with differing ideas of how, where and if claims of indigeneity can or should be made, or even the applicability of that specific term. My colleague Emalani Case explores some of these differing interpretations in her forthcoming book Everything Ancient Was Once New (2021). She offers the example of how she claims indigeneity in and to Hawai‘i, but as a Kanaka Māoli woman, resists making claims that imply indigeneity in and to Aotearoa. This, for her, is a way of honoring and respecting the people of the land (tangata whenua) where she currently resides. Her interpretation and careful deployment of the concept of indigeneity differs from Pacific scholars who invoke a broader indigenous-to-the-region framing, wherein someone descended from any group of Pacific peoples pre-dating European contact claims a more generalized indigeneity to the Pacific region (or Oceania, or Moana). I can see how both interpretations arise out of anticolonial, liberatory impulses and genealogies of thought (the influence of Hau‘ofa’s iconic work is evident in the latter), and anticipate that productive and respectful talanoa between the varying perspectives will continue to occur—potentially finding its way into the pages of The Contemporary Pacific. 

I get particularly excited by work which moves beyond generalized invocations of “indigeneity” to more deeply explore Pacific people’s specific (Indigenous) ways of conceptualizing relationships with place, and with each other. The Contemporary Pacific has long provided a forum for this work, and we’ve regularly assigned pieces by scholars such as David Welchman Gegeo (2001), Tevita Ka‘ili (2005), and Sailiemanu Lilomaiava-Doktor (2009) in our courses. Our PhD student Emma Ngakuraevaru Powell is a fantastic emerging scholar building upon such literature to explore Cook Islands Māori relationships to places and people through the concept of ‘akapapa‘anga (Royal Society New Zealand 2020). Her forthcoming thesis includes a chapter reflecting on relationships between Cook Islands Māori and New Zealand Māori—a genealogy of connection that long predates the Treaty of Waitangi and the advent of the Realm of New Zealand, but is now complexly impacted by the overlay of these modern colonial creations. Hopefully we will see her work in TCP, and elsewhere, in the not too distant future.

MG: A special issue of The Contemporary Pacific (TCP 13-2; 2001) was dedicated to the intellectual mana‘o [ideas] that resulted from the symposium “Native Pacific Cultural Studies on the Edge,” held on 11 and 12 February 2000 at the University of California at Santa Cruz in which you participated. Twenty years later, how would you reflect on that conversation and the crisscrossing avenues between Pacific Island Studies, Cultural Studies and Native Studies?

AKH: I was midway through my first year at HistCon when Native Pacific Cultural Studies on the Edge (NPCSotE) took place. My contribution to the symposium was as part of a roundtable of junior scholars. I talked about my work on Samoan hip hop and referenced a couple passages from Albert Wendt’s writing to open up questions about the potential for both collaboration and conflict that attends Pacific uptakes of Black popular culture. All this to say, I was an engaged but fairly minor participant; I would love to hear responses to this question from co-convenors/special issue editors Vicente M. Diaz and J Kēhaulani Kauanui!

My sense is that, twenty years on, tensions endure between various conceptualizations of “edges” and “centers” in the field of Pacific Studies (or Native Pacific Cultural Studies, or Critical Pacific Studies, or Cultural Studies for Oceania, etc) that were canvassed at that symposium. One comment I’d make about NPCSotE is that one of the most eloquent critiques of the symposium’s rhetoric of “the edge”—and an implied presumption that the diaspora was where real edginess could be found—was made from the podium at the conference itself. That was Teresia’s presentation, which was rendered in the 2001 special issue as the innovative two-column article “L(o)osing the Edge.” Thus, both the conference as it transpired and the special issue that resulted from it contain these generative tensions that, I think, resist attempts to paint NPCSotE as a sort of totalizing hegemon of Pacific Studies critical thought. I’d add to that my sense that there are plenty of scholars who consider themselves to be doing Pacific studies who are unaware of or unconcerned with the whole HistCon-influenced intellectual genealogy. This seems particularly the case in New Zealand, where a lot of Pacific-related research emanates from the fields of education, health, or development studies. They have their own centers. While our VUW Pacific Studies program assigns writing from the NPCSotE special issue, paired with seminars that attempt to unpack the intellectual and institutional histories of the fields that the symposium triangulated between, this is in part to illustrate—to lay bare—the intellectual genealogies that shaped Teresia and I and thus the specific genealogy of our program at VUW (this hearkens back to my initial remark that themes of intellectual genealogy and kinship recur in our program). 

To articulate possibilities for a “Native Pacific Cultural Studies,” Vince and Kēhaulani triangulated between the intellectual genealogies and political imperatives of the existing fields of native studies, cultural studies and Pacific studies. From native studies, they wanted to retain a focus on “the persistence of deep native ‘roots’” (2001, 318), including the privileging of indigenous knowledges and attachments to land and sea, and redress of historical injustices, without resorting to reductive depictions of flattened, essentialized native subjects. From the Birmingham School of cultural studies and allied discourses they drew inspiration for alternative depictions of Pacific peoples as dynamic, mobile, and always situated within shifting fields of power and knowledge, while simultaneously rejecting British Cultural Studies’ antagonism to (or ignorance of) discourses of indigeneity that meant that it could only get you so far in theorizing the Pacific. Their elaboration of the Pacific studies point of their triangle speaks to the institutional history of the field as it arose out of post-war area studies while also pointing to its ongoing capacity for “mobility.” Readers get the sense of a field in flux that has not assuredly arrived at a new iteration of itself yet. (This is something I usually need to clarify with our students, because the “Pacific studies” of our VUW program is more akin to Kauanui and Diaz’s triangulated “Native Pacific Cultural Studies”—with some additional Teresia-mandated caveats—than the “Pacific studies” triangle point elaborated in their special issue introduction).

This brings me to my final point, which is my sense that each of the fields Vince and Kēhaulani discussed as points in their triangulatory exercise have continued to shift. “Pacific studies”—at least as it manifested at CPIS—had already been transforming throughout the 1990s, diverging from the “pragmatic rationale” of its area studies origins to increasingly engage politicized calls for indigenous empowerment while also becoming infused with lashings of cultural studies and other critical theory literature (Wesley-Smith 1995). Since NPCSotE, intellectual trajectories within native/indigenous studies have readily engaged with the types of critical theory debated around seminar tables at HistCon. It is not incidental that NPCSotE co-convenor Kēhaulani Kauanui was subsequently involved in the formation of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), and Vicente Diaz and other HistCon alumni (both Pacific and native North American) have served on NAISA’s executive or board. Thus, while in 2001 Vince and Kēhaulani discussed “native studies” as one of several compass points that they triangulated a new field from, they have both since been a part of shifting conversations within native/indigenous studies itself.

Teresia tended to draw firm-sounding distinctions between native studies, which for her signaled a focus on a single ethnicity/culture/nation and an attendant risk of ethnocentrism, and Pacific studies, which must maintain a broader regional scope and commitment (2001, 2010). This was not an indictment of native studies projects—Teresia had many close personal and professional ties with scholars in Māori Studies, Hawaiian Studies, Native American/American Indian Studies, Chamorro Studies, etc—but rather her attempt to specify “the intellectual contours of Pacific studies” (Wesley-Smith 2016, 153).  However, evolving critical trajectories in native/indigenous studies, such as attention to transindigeneity, have prompted Alice Te Punga Somerville to respectfully offer a “gentle nudge” to such binarisms (2018). Newer Pacific studies institutional formations, such as the Pacific and Indigenous Studies program that Alice is building at University of Waikato, or the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative that Hokulani Aikau, Maile Arvin and colleagues are growing at University of Utah, are engaging in their own triangulations as they draw from the imperatives and critical literatures of Pacific studies, Native/Indigenous studies, and a range of other fields. A further new program, Critical Pacific Islands and Oceania Studies at San Francisco State, draws some similar points of inspiration while ensuring it centers the legacies of local community advocacy and organizing that are part of its pedigree in the College of Ethnic Studies. The point to take from all of this is (with a nod to the brilliant interlude on Yaasin Bey/Mos Def’s 1999 album Black on Both Sides) that these fields are what we make of them: they are going wherever the scholars invested in them are taking them. 

MG: As Terence Wesley-Smith put it in his 2016 retrospective piece on the field of Pacific Island Studies: Teresia Teaiwa “has done more than anyone else to advance our understanding of the intellectual contours of Pacific studies over the last two decades and, perhaps more important, to enhance pedagogical practice in this dynamic field” (Wesley-Smith 2016; 153). Her last article published posthumously in TCP “Charting Pacific (Studies) Waters: Evidence of Teaching and Learning” (Teaiwa 2017) is a reflection of her teaching experience at Victoria University of Wellington. What was it like to work with her? And, we wonder if you could offer reflections on the experience working to build up the program of Pacific Studies?

AKH: Since her untimely passing in 2017, much has been published in tribute to Teresia and her extraordinary labor and legacy in so many spheres. She was an incredible scholar, artist, activist, colleague, teacher, friend, daughter, sister, mother, wife—an inspiration to those blessed to be personally touched by her immense care and charisma, but also to many, many others who’ve only known her through her work. When she hired me to join her young Pacific Studies program in 2002, she changed the course of my life. For fifteen years I was her closest colleague and compatriot in growing VUW Pacific Studies—for a third of that time her only colleague in the program—and it’s daunting to try to convey what that experience was like. Suffice it to say, this will only be a partial glimpse, alongside the other glimpses and references woven throughout the rest of my responses.

Three aspects of Teresia’s work that I find myself reflecting on frequently are her approach to pedagogy and program development, her approach to documentation, and her approach to leadership. The posthumous article you’ve referenced, “Charting Pacific (Studies) Waters” (Teaiwa 2017), gives a sense of the first aspect. Teresia was relentlessly reflexive about her teaching and the effectiveness of our program design. She was constantly tweaking! For instance, for the entire sixteen years she taught it, I don’t think she was ever satisfied with her 200-level core course, despite numerous reconfigurations. Her desire to do and be better as an educator drove her to take on additional work, such as completing her Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Learning and Teaching while working full-time, and informed her various pedagogical innovations, such as our program’s beloved “Akamai” artistic assessment option. She was also, as your question alludes, committed to researching and documenting her own teaching development. Emalani Case and I have both been shaped by Teresia’s model of relentlessly reflexive pedagogy and her commitment to pedagogical research, which leads me to an anecdote from the year after Teresia passed, when our program was up for external review. In the course of the review, two esteemed members of the review panel, Terence Wesley-Smith and Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, expressed their concern that reverence for Teresia’s legacy would translate into us enshrining her courses just as she’d left them. They were worried that we’d be afraid to make any adjustments. I have to confess that Emalani and I really chuckled at that, because they needn’t have worried: those of us who worked closely with Teresia know that upholding her legacy entails not being satisfied with courses how they are, and always striving to do better through research and innovation!

In addition to publishing about her pedagogy, Teresia’s commitment to documenting work in our program took many other forms. In various ways she made it clear that it wasn’t just about doing good work; it was about ensuring others knew we were doing good work. I think she was always intensely conscious of the potential for ignorance about what we do in Pacific Studies—from other parts of our university, from various communities beyond our institution. For example, in the first six years of our program we had a Pacific Studies Board of Studies in place. Members of the board were drawn from a range of VUW schools as well as general staff in positions of relevance. They served in an important advisory capacity in the early years of the program—as Teresia learned the ins and outs of our institution—but I believe part of Teresia’s motive was also to ensure wider knowledge about, and buy-in, to the work of Pacific Studies across the university. In a complementary vein, Teresia crafted student assessment options that showcased students’ work to their/our wider off-campus communities (see Teaiwa 2017; Teaiwa and Henderson 2009). Teresia was always building bridges: she had a strong sense that our ability to survive relied on broader communities valuing us. Teresia’s documentary impulse also manifested in her enthusiastic embrace of social media. She moved early on to create a Facebook group page for our program (years before our university started pulling together a social media strategy) and prolifically documented every event, every guest, every success that occurred. Teresia’s arms-length group selfie skill is legendary! I am personally far less comfortable with social media, and neither Emalani nor I are quite as prolific as Tere was in posting to our program’s page, but we do our best to uphold that part of Teresia’s documentary impulse and to channel her generous, thoughtful, encouraging and celebratory tone when we do post (you can find us here: 

Teresia’s approach to leadership is the final aspect I’d like to highlight. Teresia was so instrumental, and so effective, in building people. By that I mean she worked ceaselessly to build the opportunities of those around her and took genuine pleasure in the growth and accomplishments of others, whether these were students, colleagues, or friends. She often worked behind the scenes on behalf of others and demurred from taking credit in their successes. She was always strategizing for the future, and extraordinarily productive professionally, but rarely if ever intent on enhancing her individual career: rather, she was always working on behalf of larger collectivities (our program, or the field of Pacific Studies more broadly, or Pacific feminisms, for instance). Not only was Tere not threatened by the achievements of those around her, she actively worked to facilitate and enhance them. I find myself reflecting on these aspects of Teresia’s leadership often. There are so many aspects of Teresia that no one could ever emulate, but that quality, that commitment to and pleasure in facilitating opportunities for others, is something I can aspire to.

The first volume of Teresia’s collected works, Sweat and Saltwater, compiled by Katerina M. Teaiwa, Terence Wesley-Smith and myself, will be published by UH Press in 2021.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on Teresia, and on other formative influences on my life and work. Mahalo! 


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  April K Henderson is a senior lecturer in Pacific studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Her multisited research often involves tracking the movements of people, things, and ideas in, through, and beyond the Pacific, as well as contextualizing the aspirations of Pacific peoples who move or are moved by mobile media. For years, this work has focused on aspects of hip hop music, dance, and visual art; a more recent project follows a quite different thing—virgin coconut oil—from Pacific nations to metropolitan consumers, illuminating the beliefs, hopes, and investments in the product at either end of the supply chain.

An MA candidate in Pacific Islands Studies at UHM's Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Mililani Ganivet has served as an editorial intern with The Contemporary Pacific since spring 2019. Sustained by the Pacific Ocean and hailing from Taravao, Tahiti in French Polynesia, Mililani's research interests include the histories and legacies of nuclear tests in French Polynesia and in wider Oceania. Mililani proposed the idea of this interview series to the TCP Board and was instrumental in seeing it launched.