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Scholars aim to redefine community-engaged fieldwork in Asia Pacific

A webinar series focused on indigenous heritage and knowledge in Asia Pacific interrogates anthropological work through a critical, interdisciplinary lens to push for community engagement and collaboration.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Breaking the binary

"This is a really important moment to rethink research and question why you can still plan an excavation without involving communities with a stake in this research, people with a claim to these lands and these pasts," began Danilyn Rutherford, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

In the first panel of the webinar series "Future of Anthropology: Indigenous Peoples, Heritage and Landscape in the Asia Pacific: Knowledge Co-Production, Policy Change, and Empowerment" on September 16, 2020, scholars and researchers gathered to discuss the importance of critical approaches to community engaged research. 
Sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, UCLA Asia Pacific Center and UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, this series seeks to reframe fieldwork as an act of social justice and break the dichotomy of the researcher and the researched. 

This ten-panel webinar series is cosponsored by the University of New England First Peoples Rights and Law Centre, National Cheng-chi University Center for Taiwan-Philippines Indigenous Knowledge, Local Knowledge and Sustainable Studies (CTPILS).

The series is co-hosted by UCLA Department of Anthropology, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, UCLA Asia Pacific Center, University of Hawai'i-Mānoa Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo), Ifugao State University and Partido State University.

Digging with the people

This conversation, moderated by Miriam T. Stark, professor of anthropology at University of Hawai’i in Mānoa, detailed major themes of the webinar series which focused on a bottom-up approach to research and a reframing of communities as stakeholders in explorations of heritage and archeology in Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific.

"Engagement is more than participation. You have to think about your contribution to the community and what your research can do," said
Da-Wei Kuan, professor of ethnology at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. "You must have long term considerations and a commitment to mutual benefits."

Marlon Martin, an Ifugao and head of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement in the Philippines, said Ifugaos are one of the most studied groups in the Asia Pacific region and are repeatedly the object of research. When UCLA professor of anthropology Stephen Acabado 
originally approached Martin with a project proposal to establish the Ifugao Archaeological Project, Martin assumed that he was another academic seeking to study the Ifugao people. However, after a bit of conversation, Martin saw that Acabado's community-centered research will be different.

"It took us a while to consider this project because we have to present to our elders. The decision was unanimous but with reservations. When the research started, we realized that as members of the community, we were doing something not just for the researcher but for ourselves," remembered Martin. "It was our first time participating in actual archeological digs even though we’ve heard of many other researchers doing the same in our mountains."

Martin brought students and other community members to visit the archeological sites. After each step, Acabado, Martin, and the team would present initial findings and artifacts to the community, which invoked community memory and actively involved the Ifugaos.

Respecting the community as they are

"I don’t think as anthropologists we can rely on this idea of neutrality as much as we have in the past, in terms of the history of racism, colonialism and injustice in our own field," stated Kelli Swazey, anthropologist and creator of short film Our Land is the Sea/Air Tanahku. "We have to consider how these concepts of heritage, culture and landscape intersect with forms of discrimination, oppression and inequity."

Coming in as a white Western scholar with a prestigious Indonesian university sponsorship, Swazey was deeply aware of her privileges and insisted on involving the communities throughout the planning process. Over the course of 10 years, her team built trusting, long-term relationships with community members and made sure that the final film was accessible to the community as a resource they can use however they wished. She presented community tensions as they were rather than giving a simplified, homogenous view of the people. For Swazey, power dynamics in anthropology, whether it be within academia and state systems or among the people themselves, are important to consider and reflect upon.

"There are going to be differential power dynamics with every community you come across," said Kahlil Apuzen-Ito, a soil scientist and project director with the Foundation for Agrarian Reform Cooperatives (FARMCOOP) in Mindanao.

Apuzen-Ito advises researchers to be respectful of the community’s time to process their own situations and respect their decisions even if they do not align with your interests. In her own work, she collaborates with a core team of indigenous tribal elders and members, farmworkers and other practitioners who work in similar fields to ensure a diverse array of perspectives and voices.

Martin believes that it is ultimately up to the community how to make use of archeological findings. Often, indigenous knowledges are not valued or included in textbooks or popular discourse unless they are scientifically or archeologically supported.

"Indigenous peoples have traditional knowledge and histories but we have to use 'scientific findings' to justify our indigenous knowledge. I don’t even know why we have to do that," Martin said. He wants people to remember, "Indigenous peoples are not trapped in the past. We are active participants in the modern world and we also make use of scientific discoveries and new findings."



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Published: Friday, September 18, 2020