Conference report: Indigenous Histories of Encounters in Asia-Pacific

Organised by Pacific Circle Secretary Sebestian Kroupa (University of Cambridge) and Stephanie Mawson (ICS, Universidade de Lisboa), the hybrid conference ‘Indigenous Histories of Encounters in Asia-Pacific’ was held at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge on 19 and 20 June 2023. With keynote addresses from Michael T. Carson (University of Guam) and Lynette Russell (Monash University) alongside papers of incredible chronological, geographical, and methodological breadth, the conference was an exceptional gathering. A real meeting of the minds, ‘Indigenous Histories’ generated two stimulating days of insightful and engaged conversation, within a warm, collegial atmosphere. 

In their opening remarks, Kroupa and Mawson framed the event with focal questions – the overarching concern being to consider how we can place Indigenous peoples at the heart of historical narrative. These questions were raised on the four opening slides:

– What does it mean to write Indigenous-centred history?
– Is it possible to write histories that centre Indigenous perspectives, marginalising the perspectives of Europeans?
– Can Indigenous people become more than allies, intermediaries, or guides of Europeans?
– How can we deconstruct the supposed conceptual binary between Western and Indigenous?
– How do we overcome the dense colonial rhetoric of historical sources and the way this rhetoric occludes, erases, and silences Indigenous voices?
–  How would this change the methodologies and historical evidence that we use as historians? 
– How would such an approach shape our narratives? What role does interdisciplinarity play?
– What is the place of Indigenous in writing histories of the world?
– What does Indigenous mean as a historical and analytical category?
– What would comparisons of Indigeneity look like across different spatial and temporal contexts?
– What happens when we choose to place Indigenous communities as the central drivers of historical change?
– How can we write historical narratives in which Indigenous communities feel represented?
– What would less ethnocentric and more inclusive models of history look like? 
– What would be the impact of such histories on land rights and the place of Indigenous communities in the modern world?

Considering Ifugao as ‘pericolonial space’, Mawson described the Cordillera Mountains in northern Luzon as sites of Indigenous power, continuity, and persistence; sites of Indigenous connections hitherto hidden by the discipline’s focus on European exploration. Mawson’s work, celebrated with the conference launch of Incomplete Conquests: The Limits of Spanish Empire in the Seventeenth-Century Philippines (Cornell University Press, 2023), maintains a sustained emphasis on Indigenous dynamism, rejecting and undoing narratives of stasis/stagnation/timelessness by instead investigating how the legacies of multiple imperialisms impose disconnection and disunity on peoples who were previously connected. 

Speaking for myself, highlights included Edyta Roszko’s (Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen) ‘Connecting Social, Ecological, and Temporal in Vernacular Hydrologies of Vietnamese Islands’, which complicated the nexus between land and sea by considering freshwater flows within the Champa kingdom; and Coll Thrush’s (University of British Columbia) ‘Everything That Comes Ashore Is Mine: Shipwrecks and Sovereignties in the Graveyard of the Pacific’, an exciting early encounter with Thrush’s forthcoming book. In ‘Blind Spots of Early Post-Second World War Transnational Indigenous Encounters in the Asia Pacific’, Michael J. Hathaway (Simon Fraser University) and Scott Harrison (Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada) explored travel-based connections between the Ainu and the People’s Republic of China from 1972-1984, a fascinating look at how these Indigenous delegations fostered critical shifts in perspective, strategic decision-making, and relationship building. 

In a powerful paper, Tess Schwalger (University of Hawaii Manoa) addressed ‘Divinity, Political Turmoil, and Nation Building: Samoan Women in Power’. Explaining the concept of feagaiga, the oppositional (albeit pacific) relationship between brother and sister, Schwalger showed how Sāmoan oral traditions demonstrate egalitarian communities, gender roles and relations. And in ‘Kealakekua Bay Three Ways: An Oceanic Microhistory’, Jeremiah Garsha (University College Dublin) ‘un-Cooked’ Kealakekua Bay in three stages, taking (i) a European view; (ii) an autochthonous view; and (iii) a sea-bottom-up or fish-eye view of the bay. Many found this terra aqueous lens, or non-human animal view, attractive. Questions flowed throughout all the panels, raising important discussions over non-binary gender, the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate, the stickiness of narrative, and the very meaning of ‘Indigenous’. 

Mike Carson’s keynote, ‘Indigenous Voices in Archaeology and Ancient History of the Asia-Pacific Region’ (video recording), was wonderfully thoughtful. Grounded in fieldwork and teaching, Carson paid close attention to the disciplinary biases stemming from imperial and colonial conditions, and how we might overcome these biases. Prompting us all to consider material objects (archaeology) as objective evidence, Carson further asks how these sources can be examined, evaluated, or redirected toward different interpretations. And what questions are relevant for understanding and representing the past? 

Lynette Russell’s keynote, ‘Indigenous Australian Encounters, Island Southeast Asia and Beyond’, was characteristically phenomenal, taking the audience to historical, political, and ethical places one often doesn’t dare hope for from a conference. 

First, Russell took us deeper into the (sometimes cursory) acknowledgement of Land, which now customarily commences most public events in Australia. Honouring the unceded lands of Naarm, now known as Melbourne, Russell emphasised that every step you take is following in the steps of the ancestors. That, Russell emphasised, is what she likes people to hear when she makes an acknowledgement of Country. Reminding the audience that there are over 600 different communities or clans in Australia, speaking more than 260 languages, Russell pushes back against the tendency to homogenise these dynamic, heterogeneous peoples into an umbrella term, whether ‘the Aborigines’ or ‘Indigenous people’. Accordingly, Russell prefers to speak, research, and write about specific communities. 

Second, Russell shared some of the research from her ARC-funded project, ‘Global Encounters & First Nations Peoples, 1000 Years of Australian History’, an interdisciplinary, multilingual project examining one thousand years of dynamic encounters between Australia’s Indigenous peoples and voyagers from the sea. Stressing ‘so much that is wrong’ with the orthodox portrait of pre-contact Australia (here meaning pre-European contact), Russell explained that in sketching First Nations Australians as isolated, it pictures them as incapable of interacting with other parts of the world. This is simply not true. Looking at both Indigenous knowledge traditions and archival evidence, ‘Global Encounters’ is unearthing significant evidence of interactions and encounters with peoples from other parts of the world. Her lecture issued provocations as to how we can take these encounters as and into global history. 

Finally, Russell addressed the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which, if passed, will amend the Constitution so that Indigenous peoples appear, constitutionally. She closed her wide-ranging address by playing two music videos that powerfully share political and historical content. (Both of these, ‘Bayini‘ and ‘Bagi-La-m Bargan’, are available on YouTube.)

Some closing comments by Russell speak directly to the framing questions and concerns of the conference, and are worth further reflection and implementation:

“How do we write Indigenous history? By listening, by involving Indigenous peoples at every step; it’s a partnership. That partnership involves thinking outside the traditional boundaries of your discipline. Partnerships don’t just stop at the fieldwork, or the collection of data, they continue on into the writing.”

“To really turn the narrative of Australian history on its head, you need to get outside the academy.” 

With many thanks to the organisers, speakers, and all participants, I look forward to the next conference of this calibre. 

Emma Gattey