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Indigenous sovereignty in storytelling and identity-making

Indigenous sovereignty in storytelling and identity-making

The seventh panel in the webinar series "Indigenous Peoples, Heritage and Landscape in the Asia Pacific" navigates the tensions and obstacles in exploring Indigenous knowledge, identity, and empowerment.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Systems of Knowledge

"When the United Nations gets to define what indigeneity is, when UNESCO gets to define what a World Heritage site is, it’s a double-edged sword. We are being recognized and this brings resources to the community. At the same time, we have to play it on their terms, on their systems of knowledge," Margaret Palaghicon Von Rotz, a first-year law student at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said. "The whole point of being Indigenous is we do not subscribe to those same systems of knowledge."

Schools and formal learning can be very empowering, but also disempowering at the same time, Andrea Ragragio, instructor at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao and Ph.D. student at Leiden University, added. Families will aspire to send their children to receive a "proper" education, but there are questions left unaddressed about the passing on of Indigenous histories and knowledge. There are unresolved debates about who that education was made for and what identities are made invisible through the formation of educational curriculum, Ragragio explained.

Moderated by Justin Dunnavant, Academic Pathways Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University's Spatial Analysis Research Laboratory, the panel on October 28, 2020 discussed what indigeneity means and explored identity and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples through the lens of scholars, anthropologists and storytellers.

The panel is part of a webinar series that seeks to redefine community-engaged fieldwork in Asia Pacific.

Diaspora and Tourism: Complicating Indigeneity

"It’s a political identity and political marker," Palaghicon Von Rotz added. "My understanding of indigeneity is connecting to land, which is complicated when you’re in the diaspora because you’re not physically connected to the land."

How do you reconstruct homeland abroad? How do you define indigeneity as separate from the land?

"One of the things that define Indigenous people across the globe is alienation from the land," Oona Paredes, Assistant Professor in Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, mentioned. Paredes also brought up communities of Indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia who are sea-based or migratory to complicate the idea of a home being tied to ancestral land and elaborate on the challenges that Indigenous people face in trying to reclaim their history.

Tourism also complicates how a community can sustain their heritage. Eulalie Dulnuan, Assistant Professor at the Ifugao State University, shared about the tensions between wanting to invite people into the community and the need to protect the village, especially when the village becomes an "open air museum."

Indigenous Sovereignty Over Stories

When Sayun Simung, a documentary filmmaker from Huanshan Sqoyaw Tayal Tribe, screened her film on her indigenous community in Taiwan, an elder encouraged her to continue engaging with traditional cultures and to go into the natural world.

"When I make films, I want to practice. I don’t want to read or just listen," Simung elaborated. "I want to feel and get into the community."

When she spoke about her filming experience in the Sqoyaw community, she was visibly moved remembering the journey of capturing this Indigenous history and connecting with her elders through exploring spirituality in the forests and climbing Mt. Sqoyaw.  

Paredes, upon seeing this reaction from Simung, responded, "It’s existential work. It’s about herself and thinking about who she is. That’s the most empowering thing an individual can do."

Despite growing up in the Philippines as a native of Misamis Oriental province in Mindanao, Paredes added that the ultimate goal is having indigenous people do ethnography of and for themselves.

"I hope to help in that process as an outside researcher, but the goal is for people to really own their own narrative. No matter what kind of research we do, we really are just outsiders looking in," Paredes concluded. "This isn’t an academic research exercise, because if you’re an indigenous researcher especially in your own community, this is about your identity, your own sense of self."

To watch the full panel:

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Published: Friday, November 6, 2020