- Native Pacific Studies and the Illinois Debacle:Indigeneity at the Edge of Nationalist Belongings and the Limits of Signification
Though I have now spent over half of my academic career in public research institutions in the United States Midwest—in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan and, presently, in American Indian Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois—the bulk of what I research and write about still draws from and continues to be informed principally by indigenous concerns and material in my home island of Guam, in the Marianas, and in the Central Carolines, in Micronesia.1 Primarily concerned with questions about the historical relationalities between indigenous and colonial subjectivity, politics, and cultural survival, I have eked out about as nonnormative a career as is possible in mainstream academe trying to negotiate a number of tensions and challenges, such as the not always clear lines between what is in fact indigenous and what colonial or, relatedly, on when and how much to address questions of indigenous protocols and concerns versus academic canons and imperatives, particularly when the relationship between indigenous cultural depth and geographic or discursive reach gets implanted deeply in or reaches deftly across academic terrain. Add to these particular challenges the task of navigating the proximities and distances between Oceania and the US heartland, and one cannot fault me for also spending just as much time figuring out how much time to play while at work, and how much on working while at play.2 While I have earned a measure of respectability and esteem in my field of Native Pacific studies, enough at least to be trusted to help articulate it to a broader comparative and global form of native studies, as we are trying to do in American Indian Studies and more generally in a wonderful new space called Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, it has also been abundantly clear that as far as mainstream academe goes, at least on what many American Indians call Turtle Island, I feel that I am getting increasingly marginal and increasingly [End Page 597] disreputable. This may be a good thing for natives who feel that there is a fundamental incommensurability between native and academic cultures, but recent events at my present institution concerning the infamous undermining of Steven Salaita’s hire in my department have also foregrounded just how easy it is for native scholars like myself to forget how comfortable some of us have become in the belly of the beast even though, in fact, most of us tend to occupy the least respected and less prestigious chambers or orifices of the creature. For what happened to Steven, and to American Indian Studies, in the context of the last five hundred years is really just the same-old same-old.
My task for this forum is to query the prospects of doing one form of Native Pacific studies—one that centers on the nexus of cultural survival and vernacular flourish for political and analytical purposes—in the context of a new conjuncture in the American academy today, one that features vigorous pushback against a campaign to boycott Israeli universities out of political solidarity with Palestine and in the name of academic freedom.
This essay has two parts. The first traces the contours of that new conjuncture as it plays out more specifically in “ground zero,” which is how we in American Indian Studies (AIS) at the University of Illinois have come to refer to our environment after trying to hire Steven Salaita. Hiring him, and the larger goal of building critical indigenous studies through comparative, global frames, may well be lost causes, at least at Illinois.
The second part queries more specifically the extent to which my current book project on traditional voyaging in the Pacific can work and play in the new moment. The two parts of my essay are routed through critical reflections over the Illinois debacle provided by my colleagues in AIS, namely, our director, Robert Warrior, and Jodi Byrd, who cochaired the Salaita search with me and who was the interim director who negotiated with Salaita. In recent campus teach...