By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)
"As a Southeast Asianist, to be received in the way that I have been received at UCLA, not only in terms of students and faculty being interested in Southeast Asia…but also to have genuine institutional support and overwhelming departmental support…it’s been really, really wonderful," says Professor Oona Paredes. The anthropologist, who recently joined the department of Asian languages and cultures and faculty advisory committee for the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, brings an important repertoire of work that centers on Indigenous peoples. Her research to date has focused on the Higaunon, one of the many indigenous Lumad ethnic minority groups of Mindanao.
A personal journey
Even as a child in the Philippines, Paredes was curious about peoples who dressed differently and followed different customs. When she was preparing to attend graduate school, she visited the ancestral land of the T’boli people in Mindanao and was surprised by the response of her family members.
"One of my uncles said, 'Why are you bothering with people in that other province, when we have ethnic minorities in our home province (Misamis Oriental, Mindanao)?'" she recalls. "That woke me up to how little I actually knew about where I was from and who I grew up with."
Paredes comes from a family of mixed ancestry. She characterizes herself as the "genetic representation of all the different peoples that have been in the Philippines, including Chinese, Spanish, and American, but also indigenous."
Yet she says even the term "Indigenous Peoples" has been adopted from the west. "It’s a political designation," she points out. Settler colonialism led to many forms of displacement and oppression in Southeast Asia, but colonial displacement did not constitute the whole picture, since many peoples are indigenous to the region. As Paredes explains, "The people doing the displacing are also indigenous to the region…You have this problem where everybody is indigenous, but only some people are designated Indigenous Peoples."
Grappling with these tensions makes Paredes mindful of collaborating with the communities she studies throughout all phases of the research process, from initial design to feedback before publishing. "I’m deliberately making sure as best I can that my research on Higaunon culture, politics and history is not about me," she says. "It’s about them."
An emotional and intellectual journey
Indigenous communities in the Philippines, she explains, have been romanticized and co-opted as a symbol of cultural purity and national identity. They are seen as somehow representing a less complicated precolonial period, even though they also experienced colonialism, she points out. Their marginalization has continued, even intensified, under post-colonial Filipino rule.
Teaching in the United States, where there is a diverse ethnic mix and distinct Indigenous history, Paredes has found that Filipino-American students’ reaction to this politicized history of indigeneity in the Philippines is deeply personal. "A lot needs to be unpacked," she says. "It’s like talking about your family and finding out you’re adopted." She describes this unpacking as both an emotional and intellectual journey, one that decenters the self. It is a harsh reckoning in terms of the fallacies in one’s ethnic identity and heritage. "I went through the same thing that I watch Filipinos and Filipino Americans go through when I talk about Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines," she shares.
While Paredes empathizes with her students, she pushes for the study of Indigenous Peoples because good scholarship on the Philippines is impossible without that understanding. All Indigenous Peoples share long histories of marginalization and oppression, she emphasizes.
"If they’re marginalized, they tend to be neglected in other areas, because if they don’t matter politically or if the people in power don’t see them as mattering politically, then why bother studying them?" she asks. "It’s only when they’re exoticized or romanticized that they become part of any national conversation."
From reframing indigenous studies to reframing pedagogy
Paredes’ passion to reframe Indigenous studies for her students and her willingness to pursue self-reflection are also evident in her transition to remote instruction. "How do we look at teaching remotely as a completely different pedagogy, a new way of learning?" she asks.
The anthropologist is now exploring how she can expand her curriculum even if instruction returns to the classroom. "It’s something that I’m now actively thinking about that I never would have thought about before," she says. For example, she is excited about the possibility of virtual guest lectures with people all over the world, as well as using pre-recorded field visits in her classes.
"I guess hope is contagious," she comments. "The possibilities are endless, if you’re willing to think about possibilities."