Photo for An archaeologist committed to community...

The historic rice terraces of Ifugao. The mountainous province of the Philippines has been the site of UCLA professor Stephen Acabado's research for the past decade. (Photo provided by Professor Acabado.)

Stephen Acabado, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, engages local communities in archaeological research and local educational initiatives. He also works to build transnational networks that link scholars across the region.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications


UCLA International Institute, October 22, 2021 — “They were not happy when I shared the findings of my investigations,” said Stephen Acabado of local residents’ reaction to his research in the mountainous Ifugao province of the Philippines.

An anthropological archaeologist, Acabado is the new director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, an associate professor of anthropology and member of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. He has spent almost a decade conducting research in the highlands of Ifugao, beginning with a major project that sought to date the region’s historic rice terraces.

Whereas most people in the region believed the terraces were at least 2,000 years old, Acabado’s research revealed that they had been created roughly 300–400 years ago by lowlanders who fled up to the mountains to escape Spanish colonization.

These findings directly contradicted dominant narratives about the Ifugao, reinforced by the Philippine education curricula: that they were isolated from the colonized world and thus represent the pejorative term, “original Filipinos.”

The scholar’s first book, “Antiquity, Archaeological Processes and Highland Adaptation: The Ifugao Rice Terraces” (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015) documents that lowland settlers moved into the mountains in Ifugao to consolidate their political and economic resources and avoid Spanish rule. “If they had stayed in the lowlands, they would have been colonized within two or three years because of the fragmented nature of Philippine polities at the time,” he said.

Rice became an item of conspicuous consumption there, with wealthy landowners regularly hosting feasts and rituals that celebrated the rice lifecycle to bind their communities together. “Based on the data we have so far, we don’t see that kind of activity in the lowlands,” said Acabado.


Engaging indigenous communities in research and education

Acabado grew up in the Bicol region of the island of Luzon, earned a B.A. in anthropology from the University of the Philippines (Quezon City) and completed his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Hawai’i. After teaching at the University of Guam for three years, he joined the UCLA faculty in 2013.

Stephen Acabado, director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. (Photo provided by Professor Acabado.) “I’m Filipino, but I wasn’t a local, and here I was telling people in Ifugao that their identity was based on flawed historical narratives,” he said about his encounters with residents.

“When I found the dates of the terraces were really young, compared to what they’d been told, and those findings impinged on the identity of locals — I made it a point to work with the communities. We know that histories can be written and interpreted in landscapes, so we’re working directly with communities to help interpret their histories.”

Discussions with residents about the dating of the terraces eventually sparked the idea for a community heritage gallery that would serve as a venue for community discussions of heritage and heritage conservation. The gallery eventually became the Indigenous Peoples’ Education Center in Ifugao and received support from the National Geographic Society and the Whiting Foundation in 2018. The establishment of the heritage gallery was community-led, spurred by residents’ motivation to learn more about their history.

Community members also began to help with Acabado's research projects. In fact, their participation has allowed him to continue his current project — a comparison of the responses of lowland and highland communities in Bicol to the arrival of the Spanish — during the pandemic.

Over time, Acabado has become committed to using his research findings to help decolonize the teaching of Philippine history. The education system remains rooted in the curriculum and colonial ideology of the 1900s, when the United States took over the country.

“Because of the colonial foundation of our identity as Filipinos, and of our education system, people in the region are trained to study the rebellions of the lowlands, but in the broader historical narratives, they are neglected,” explained the UCLA professor.

Since 2015, Acabado and the Indigenous Peoples’ Education Center in Ifugao have been working with K–12 Filipino educators and community elders to develop educational modules on the region’s history. His second book, “Indigenous Archaeology in the Philippines: Decolonizing Ifugao History” (University of Arizona, forthcoming 2022, with Marlon Martin) documents this work.


Building collaborative research and educational networks

Local outreach, education and collaborative research are an integral part of Acabado’s life as a scholar. In addition to his work in Ifugao, he has been collaborating with colleagues in Taiwan, Professors Da-wei Kuan and Hungyu Ru, both of whom work with various Taiwan Indigenous peoples, since 2015. Kuan and Ru regularly visit Ifugao and the education center with groups of Indigenous Taiwanese, and Ifugao delegations visit Taiwan in return (of late, most of this collaboration has been online).

Their collaboration helped lead to the creation of the Center for Taiwan-Philippines Indigenous Knowledge, Local Knowledge and Sustainable Studies (CTPILS) at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, and contributed to comparative conferences on indigenous heritage in Taiwan and the Philippines (including one at UCLA in 2018).

More recently, the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies received a $740,000 grant from the Luce Foundation in late June 2021 to support the Program for Early Modern Southeast Asia (PEMSEA), which focuses on the early modern period in Southeast Asia.

PEMSEA aims to create a network of archaeologists working on Southeast Asia’s early modern period (ca. 1400–1830 CE), particularly on the topic of environmental change. The program helps facilitate travel and scholarly exchanges (especially within Asia), supports undergraduate and graduate training through participation in field research in the region and provides a venue for collaboration among Southeast Asia–based archaeologists.

“The component of inter-country experience is still limited for Southeast Asians,” said Acabado. “Even though it’s actually cheaper than, say, traveling to the U.S., it’s just that we don’t have these kinds of opportunities in the region.”

In August, Acabado launched PEMSEA’s first activity, a series of eight virtual workshops entitled, “Historicizing Disaster Risk Management: The Ecology of Mt. Isarog and its Environs.”

The series illustrates the far-reaching network that PEMSEA seeks to create. The workshops are co-sponsored by Asia-based partners Partido State University, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and CTPILS of National Chengchi University, together with UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Cotsen Institute, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the department of anthropology.

The anthropology professor has a long history in building such networks. As a graduate student, he helped manage the Luce Asian Archaeology Program at the University of Hawai’i, which funded early career archaeologists from East and Southeast Asia to strengthen their research skills through collaborative fieldwork in an East or Southeast Asian country.

More recently, he helped organized a CSEAS webinar series in 2020–21 that gathered interdisciplinary scholars and researchers from the U.S. and Southeast Asia to share critical approaches to community-engaged research.

Another view of Ifugao's rice terraces. (Photo provided by Professor Acabado.)

Acabado is also collaborating with a UCLA student association on a community outreach project. Operating through the UCLA Community Programs Office, the Samahang Pilipino Advancing Community Empowerment (SPACE) Program offers peer tutoring and advising primarily to students of Filipino heritage.

Since Spring 2016, the SPACE Program Internship has offered Filipino students at UCLA a four-credit course that is split between ethnic studies classes taught by Samahang student members (Acabado serves as curriculum faculty advisor) and an in-person internship (online during the pandemic) that pairs Bruins with students at a local community college and two high schools, often helping them with their UCLA applications. Interns frequently go on to become officers in the student association and facilitators themselves.

“[Professor Acabado] has been very supportive. It’s nice to have someone who is Filipino and knows Filipino culture and has done a lot of community organizing. He always encouraged us to try to improve the program and include current events and other components,” said Alexia Macahilas (UCLA 2021), co-facilitator for SPACE ethnic studies classes in 2020–21.

Arlo Benedict Alegre (UCLA 2021), the other student facilitator for 2020–21, concurred. “We did the work independently, but whenever we needed help or guidance or suggestions, we could always just come to him. Even though he’s a professor, he still finds knowledge to be collective — he feels like he always has something to learn, even from students,” he said. Alegre is now working with Acabado on a research project that examines the impact of heritage education.

“Anecdotally, students whom I’ve spoken with who are part of the program say that they have seen dramatic increases in their GPAs after they have completed their internships,” observed Acabado.

Looking ahead at CSEAS

“I want the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) to work more with other centers at the International Institute, including with the Asia Pacific Center on Pacific Rim issues, as well with the Asian American studies department and the Asian American Studies Center of UCLA,” he said.

“There should be stronger connections between our programs because Americans of Southeast Asian heritage still have roots in their homelands.”

Another major goal, said Acabado, “is to bring Southeast Asian communities in Los Angeles to campus and to CSEAS, and to bring CSEAS to their communities for outreach programs.” To that end, he is already working on an exhibit with the Fowler Museum and looking ahead toward other outreach initiatives.

The CSEAS director is also working on a program for community heritage education, “using the same strategy I used in Ifugao: working with K–12 teachers, after-school programs and local nonprofits to develop modules on Southeast Asia for heritage students, depending on their country of origin.”

As part of that effort, he is developing a new four-credit course for the UCLA Community Programs Office that will institutionalize his know-how in community engagement. The course will prepare Southeast Asian heritage students at UCLA to go into their own local communities to develop heritage education projects.

“There have been a lot of studies that suggest that immigrant youths are more likely to succeed in life if they are secure in their ethnic identity,” he related. “There are also studies that show immigrant children who are familiar with the parents’ history and culture have lower rates of suicide.”

See Daily Bruin article on Professor Acabado's work with indigenous communities in the Philippines.

This article was originally published on October 22, 2021, and updated on January 19, 2022.

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Published: Friday, October 22, 2021