With recent announcements of Native Americans eligible to have their UC tuition waived beginning this fall, and adding Native Hawaiians to the heritage month that historically honored Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we checked in with Assistant Professor Tiara Na’puti in the Department of Global and International Studies to help break down these massive identity groups and their cultures. Broadcasting from the island of Guam, Na’puti shares about her work with Indigenous populations in the Pacific Islands and how that translates to better understanding of global indigeneity.
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From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Sheri Ledbetter. And you’re listening to the UCI podcast. Thank you for joining me for this episode today. I’m speaking with Tiara Na’puti, an assistant professor in the department of global and international studies. UCI is an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander serving institution also referred to by the acronym AANAPISI. We want to explore what that means for these communities. Joining us from the island nation of Guam. Professor Na’puti has a boots on the ground perspective as well as brings her own expertise to understanding the uniqueness of these populations. Tiara, thank you for joining me today.
Thank you for having me. Buenas yan Håfa Adai. That is a greeting in the Chamoru language from Guåhan (Guam).
Oh, great! Well, let’s just start with what’s in front of you here. What are you currently working on in Guam?
Yeah, so, well, first of all, I just wanna say that Guam as it’s called an English – Guåhan is its name in the indigenous language here. It is a Pacific island. It’s not yet a nation. It is designated as an unincorporated territory of the United States. And one of the reasons I’m here is because I received a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, which allowed me to pursue a project that I proposed to be in residence here in Guam for the academic year, working in collaboration with an organization called Independent Guåhan, which is actually a community group committed to educating the public about the benefits and freedoms of sovereignty and self-determination. And so those complicated issues of not quite being a nation, but being labeled as an unincorporated territory of the United States are things that we’re working on in collaboration together. And then my project specifically is also getting into those issues of self-governance, but also the issues related to that, that are pressing in this region, which are of course climate change and culture and indigenous issues that relate to sustainability for the future. So, focusing on those urgent challenges and thinking about the political status for the island is basically what I’m working on right now, here with these groups.
Wow, that’s great! That’s very specific, very focused – and particularly with the climate change. I can’t wait to hear more about it. I wanted to start also with the AANAPISI populations a little bit, and most recently native Hawaiians have been added to the official heritage month celebrating, also Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. And, I wanted to ask you what your work shows about these different groups and how their needs are perhaps different from each other and also from other population groups.
Yes. Well, I hope that the listeners have a chance to learn a little bit more outside of my comments that I might share here, because I’m not an expert on this particular designation of groups of people. But I do wanna say that even in mentioning them, listing them out Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander – that’s quite diverse, and it’s quite complex cause, these populations, if we think about any one of them in that classification, there are really massive identity groups with disparate histories, but also a lot of connections. So, I think it’s important for listeners and others to think about how this classification isn’t really a monolith. It’s really complicated. I did some of my own research to remind myself that if we took it to the issue of the heritage month, right, that was actually established in the 1970s.
And it was actually related a lot to California, I think because it was originally about honoring the Japanese immigrants who arrived in the 1800s, and Chinese laborers. And then later it was a law that was established by the U.S. government to have an honoring month in, in May. And I know it’s much more important or it’s just as important outside of that particular timeline – doesn’t have to just be May. But I think the inclusion in 2021 of Native Hawaiians is another example of ways that the Pacific Islander part is important to separate out. And, on the one hand, my primary research agenda does not focus on population studies or demographics in that kind of way. I’m actually working with my community as a Chamorro Indigenous person, which is the classification that we have as Pacific Islanders from a very particular region.
The Mariana Islands region has Guam or Guåhan as one of the islands in the archipelago. So, I break that down to say that that’s just one subset of what is considered Pacific Islanders specifically for the Indigenous people. But if we even just think about Pacific Islanders as a category or even Native Hawaiians, right? Then I’m just reminded that the Pacific Ocean is this massive part of the earth’s surface. It’s one third of the entire planet. It covers the deepest measured part of the planet, which is the Marianas Trench that’s right out outside of Guam here. It’s this vast body of water, but that a lot of people move and migrate. There are Indigenous languages, there’s thousands and thousands of islands. And at the same time, a lot of people, myself included, have this experience of movement and migration from different generations and different reasons to not be living in the home islands.
And so, to get at that question of what are the kinds of needs and what are also, I think you asked, what are the ways that they maybe have different and similar requirements or needs? I think it’s just really important to remember the needs are to understand them as unique subsets, right? As people with very rich and enduring histories, in the case of Guam it’s thousands and thousands of years with various ways of thinking about how our Indigenous life ways have continued, but also how colonial powers and other nation states have really controlled our capabilities for hundreds of years, as well. So, as big as the Pacific Ocean is, that sort of that largest geographical feature on the planet, right? It’s exciting to think about all these vibrant complex histories, but it’s also really important to recognize that that we have a lot to learn.
And, if we can hold onto these disparate histories that maybe have some connections and overlaps even just for Pacific Islanders or just for Native Hawaiians as part of those groups that would be considered Pacific Islanders, that’s a lot. So, I hope that’s exciting to people, because I do think that we have an opportunity, especially situated in Orange County and also in Los Angeles County, because I know the population of Pacific Islanders has been booming in those areas, particularly in Los Angeles County. And San Diego County has long been one of those other areas in Southern California that has a lot of Pacific Islanders. But, I think just recognizing that there’s so much to learn even just about one of those groups. And, I can only speak about what’s happening here in the Marianas or what’s happening with the Chamorro populations that live in places like Southern California and just that alone, that’s a lot to cover.
It sure is. And, I appreciate you breaking that down and also sharing the background a little bit because more or less what you’ve stated is the heritage month began with a way to honor these population groups, and they really are massive and within each one are so many factions that deserve their own attention is what I’m hearing.
Yes. And I think from an educational standpoint, it’s also something I had to go and dig and find and search and to learn about things from not just other disciplines, but also to find voices and to find perspectives from people coming from my community. And I think that’s really great, but it’s not something that’s a core part of most curriculum to learn much about, at least from the U.S. nation state perspective. And I grew up in public education in the U.S., continental U.S. And so, it’s very different in different parts. There are pockets. There are certainly a number of institutional opportunities, higher education to learn about Pacific Islander populations, but it’s not a core, common facet of the curriculum. And so, what I’m really thinking through is how the, the grouping can sometimes be a detriment because it, we sort of forget, like it’s exciting to celebrate.
Like I said, I know it’s more than just a month in May or something like that throughout the year, but it’s also something that ends up perpetuating stereotypes, right? Like here in Guam, a lot of people, if they know anything about Guam, they think it’s a military base. That’s one of the stereotypes it’s considered, right? Like it’s considered a tourist destination, mostly for like destination weddings for people coming from Japan, Korea. There’s a lot of history too, in terms of military use and testing and training and things without our consent. And so, I think that understanding even just a subset of the history of any one of these populations considered Pacific is, and particularly Indigenous Pacific Islanders or Native Hawaiian as a classification, that’s an important piece as well, because those histories really do influence what’s happening today and and they certainly carry into our future.
Right. Wow. I appreciate you explaining that. That’s fascinating! And that really was interesting with the Pacific Islander background that you have. I wonder if we could switch gears a little bit and talk about the Native American population, particularly given the recent news that the University of California will now waive tuition for Native American students beginning as soon as this fall. And, I understand you’re a member of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and I just wanted to see what you could share with us about how we can meet the specific needs of this population – what your research and background shows for that?
Sure. Well, I’ll say first that organization you mentioned – Native American Indigenous Studies Association or NAISA, some people pronounce it “NASA” – it’s, it’s a national or global professional organization. And so just to bring it kind of more locally to UCI, I’m also a part of the Native American and Indigenous Faculty and Staff Association at UCI, which is I think is important to note because that’s been around for much longer than myself. I’m a relatively new faculty member at UCI, but other folks have built a strong network that focuses on maintaining and improving the situation of support for current students that are indigenous students, Native American students, and really to also another component of this is to address engagement with local tribal communities in Southern California. So, that’s probably a topic for another podcast, but I was thinking of the institutional land acknowledgement, for example, recognizing our presence as a UCI campus on the ancestral shared territory of the Acjachemen and the Tongva people that still hold cultural, spiritual, physical ties to the land where we live and where we work.
And so if we think about that, that’s a service that we really should provide as a campus community, not just in name, but also in deed, in action. And so, the exciting thing about having tuition waived for this population is that I think that it will hopefully expand our capacities to really also follow that up with service to those students when they come to campus. So, it’s not just bringing them here with tuition support, but it’s also then enriching and helping them thrive because we value them just as we value any of our other student populations. But I do know that in fall 2021, UCI had that largest number of incoming American Indian first year students of any UC campus. Wow. Yeah. And my understanding is that 40% of all the incoming American Indian students in the UC system actually enrolled at UCI this past fall.
And so, if we let that kind of like marinate in our minds for a moment, that is pretty impressive. And then what are we gonna do to make sure that they graduate? Right? Cause they find the mentors and the support that they’re not dealing with. The kinds of things that I mentioned before about being that sort of; I felt like a fish out of water as a first generation college student, trying to find out about what classes could I take that address issues in Oceania or the Pacific, or issues facing my community. And, and there’s just not that much scaled up across the curriculum. And so, I think indigenous students, just like I was talking before about these other classifications, indigenous students, Indigenous peoples, we are incredibly diverse, right? Our backgrounds might be rural.
They might be urban. They might come from domestic or international places. Our native student population might come from federally recognized tribal communities or unrecognized tribal groups. And all of that to say is because of that, we have an opportunity to really address the equally diverse needs of those students, and that requires culturally responsive and engaged faculty and staff. And I’m really grateful to be part of that group of faculty and staff that have come before me. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say one of the things that we really need to think about is how both in the past and now, UCI has had a commitment to support Native American students. But as a new faculty member, I’ve been kind of learning about the context of that.
And I do think that the native community has a lot of power in the sense that people power and as that people power grows through undergraduates coming in, or these opportunities with tuition support, we really need to make sure we’re matching that to get those students through their program at UCI, whatever those programs are, have strong mentorship, have the institutional resources, and those kinds of things to really help them on the institutional level. And I wanted to say, the other thing I’ll point out is that celebration, right? This is a time of, I hope celebration for a lot of people in 2022, or just as things are kind of moving forward with the campus changes and stuff around the global pandemic, which is that ceremony is coming up to honor the native and Indigenous graduates.
And I know we have a lot of cultural ceremonies at UCI, but one of them in particular is to focus on that population. And so that’s another example of small, but important institutional ways that UCI can support our students, but also ways that we might think kind of broadly about how can continue and maintain an active space for the native community, maybe an actual institutional training and understanding around land acknowledgement to not leave native students or any of our students behind. But because they’re so underrepresented, oftentimes I think this opportunity to have tuition support really can help us move into a different kind of future for Indigenous students in higher education. That would just be amazing.
Right. Yeah. And I looked into the background data of enrollment of the Native American students, or American Indian, and it has historically been fairly low, in the single or double digits. So it’s exciting to be able to grow this population and also to meet their needs and see them through as successful as can be. And also probably break down some of the stereotypes, like you had mentioned earlier with some of the Pacific Islander. I wanted to also talk to you about your, you recently received the UCI Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award. Congratulations on that. And, if you could just take a moment to tell us about that award and how you’re applying it to your research. I’d love to know more.
Sure, thank you for that. This award is really unique and exciting. The Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Award is being used for me to put toward my research projects and my work. And, as I mentioned, as a Chamorro, as a Pacific Islander, I’m certainly influenced personally by the commitments we have to place. A lot of my research is with my community and, and place based, right now, of course, here in Guåhan. But my project generally is to use this award to deepen relationships, to contribute to inclusive excellence. You know, we have this pillar of inclusive excellence called great partners, and by realizing what kind of connects us, I think that’s one way we can think about really embodying this idea of great partners. So, for me, that’s kind of about water.
And so, an extension of my work in the Mariana islands using that inclusive excellence award is to focus on those issues as they relate to California, as they relate to the populations in Orange County, as they relate to our campus community. Because in terms of say, just one component of the militarization that’s happening here in the Mariana islands is being brought about by the U.S. military. And we know that the U.S. military is heavily funded, right? We also know, at least from my research, that it has a huge impact on the environment. So ,the military’s impact on the environment is something that I think a lot of people in California and UCI can really understand, even if you don’t know much about where I’m at. The military’s impact on the environment also impacts climate change.
So, when we’re talking about water and of course in California, we also think about fire, right? Some of those things, I’m just really thrilled to bring some of those pieces of that work with the Chancellor’s award to support partnership with local organizations that not only serve our Pacific Islander community, we also are indigenous communities in the area, to really deepen those connections with UCI. I think UCI is well positioned to be doing that kind of stuff. And then also just to bring more attention, to bring more light. So, if this wasn’t an audio venue, I would be showing you maps of the connection. Cause there’s also a lot of connections between some of these military projects that are underway in the Marianas to Hawaii, to Southern California.
Literal construction and buildup of military installations and training and testing grounds that we don’t yet know, but we have very strong suspicion and early, preliminary evidence to suggest that it’ll be very toxic. It’ll have an impact on our water supply. It’ll have an impact on future generations’ access to clean water. And, and so those are some of the things I know that probably sounds like a lot
Yeah. And I wanna talk about that in a second, but I appreciate you sharing more about your Inclusive Excellence Award, because I think what you’re working on is probably not on the radar of a lot of people who are in maybe perhaps the same or related fields of you. It is very specific too, talking about the military several times and those kinds of impacts. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the outcome of that. But speaking of fall, I’d like to hear what, when you return, back to UCI this fall, what will you be teaching?
Thanks for that question because I’m really excited. I’ll be teaching in the fall quarter. I’ll be teaching a new undergraduate course. I work in the department of global and international studies and we have a new undergraduate course called global indigeneity. I think the number is 146, but it’s an undergraduate class that I’ll be teaching. So, if there’s any listeners out there or folks that think they might know someone who wants to enroll in that class so that’s global indigeneity in the fall quarter. And then in the winter quarter, I will be teaching a graduate seminar in our new Ph.D. program in the department. And that graduate seminar is called theories from the global south. So, both of those are in the department of global and international studies, and it’s totally in line with my research interests and expertise. But I’m really excited to get in the classroom again and to be learning with the students that I have, cause I learn so much from them. And, so I think it’ll be a really good way to share what I’ve been working on, but also learn about what’s happening in their lives and, and on the lens of where we’re gonna be conjoining. So,
And you said, what was the first one?
That’s a new class, you said?
Yes, it’s brand new. We proposed it, my colleague professor Sarah Whitt and I worked on a course proposal for that and it got approved. And so this will be the first time it’s being taught at UCI. And I think it’s just gonna be really value added to the curriculum. We’re already building out in global and international studies as a somewhat new department. I’m excited to have that class on the books, so to speak myself and my other colleagues that are trained in the area of indigenous studies and other disciplines are well-suited to be teaching that class. And so I think it’ll be a useful one for our undergrads as well.
Yeah. Congratulations on that. I’m glad we had a second to talk about it, too. That sounds really interesting. I’m looking forward to having you back on campus this fall. Let’s end with a fun question. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Thank you for that. Right now, what I’m enjoying most about my job is that it has given me the privilege and the opportunity to be in my homeland to do my work. This is just a wellspring of, I guess I could say, blessings and privileges, and a lot of work behind the scenes too, to do something like apply for a fellowship and that kind of thing. But years ago, when I started out on my academic journey, like I mentioned before, I’m a first-generation college student. And so, I kind of had these dreams what could potentially, what could higher education allow me to do? And the encouragement of my family and my community, and now I’m living it out. I feel like I’m living it out. I’m working with Independent Guåhan, which is a really amazing organization of folks who have just been tirelessly working for years and years under different organizations, different community efforts, but to really educate people in a powerful way about the issues of political status for places like an unincorporated territory, why we have to think about, self-determination, why we have to ask critical questions, you know, the things that you learn in school.
But I love that my job lets me continue to think about those things and to strategize and to work with community in a good way and to be in good relation with people. I’m kind of hard pressed to think of like a fun thing that’s related to that. I suppose, is that I get to come up with creative projects. So. one example s Independent Guåhan has an artreach effort and they’re planning murals to paint this summer and every year we also do a live concert. It’s been on Zoom or TV broadcast these last couple years, but we’re really hoping to be able to put it on in person this summer.
It’s called Songs of Freedom. And it’s just an opportunity for again, people to learn from each other, but to also have those critical conversations, like I was saying, of course, that’s part of my job to think about those things, but to also to be in community with each other and to be in connection. And, and I guess that kind of all ties back to what I was saying earlier about that pillar of good relations and good connections, is that it’s about those relationships that you build. And one thing about my job that I get to do is I constantly get to learn and learn from others, learn with others and be in community with folks. So can’t complain about that. I also really love right now, my fun part of my job is thinking about what’s going on in the Marianas. And that means thinking differently, literally from a Pacific perspective, right? So I think that’s something that is really fun for me, too.
That’s awesome. Thanks so much for sharing that. I think that perspective will be such a value add too, for the students when you come back, Professor Na’puti. Thank you for speaking with me today and best wishes for success for the remainder of your research focus in Guam
Si Yu’os Ma’åse’ [thank you]
The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California. Irvine. I’m Sheri Ledbetter. Thank you for listening.