Photo for Decolonization, education and “slow archaeology”

The Agta Artists Group of Buhi, Camarines Sur (Philippines) present sculptural works to filmmaker Kristian Cordero during a bookshop community outreach event in 2020. (Photo credit: K. Cordero.) The Agta community of Bicol will join two other Indigenous communities in a new CSEAS project to strengthen Indigenous community networks in the Western Pacific.

“Decolonization is not just about highlighting flawed historical narratives, it's also about redress... It's economic, it's political and, of course, it's educational,” says CSEAS Director Stephen Acabado.

UCLA International Institute, December 6, 2022 Stephen Acabado, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) and associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, received a $200,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation in November 2022 for a project to strengthen Indigenous community networks in the Western Pacific.

The grant, received in November 2022, is a complement to a much larger project funded by the Luce Foundation, the Program for Early Modern Southeast Asia (PEMSEA), currently being implemented by CSEAS and multiple academic partners. PEMSEA supports interdisciplinary research, together with related student training, on the transformative period of environmental and social change that occurred from the 1300s through the mid-1800s in the region.

The Ifugao (Kiangan, Philippines) and Tayal (Sqoyaw, Taiwan) Indigenous communities are already involved in PEMSEA-funded archaeological research projects. Both the UCLA professor and his colleagues in PEMSEA’s transnational academic network are committed to community-involved research. In fact, the scholars have facilitated visits by Indigenous representatives of the two communities to one another’s sites to learn about their respective activities.

The community networks grant will expand current efforts begun by the Ifugao and Tayal peoples to document their indigenous heritage, with a focus on practices, knowledge and history related to modern-day climate change. The project will enhance existing collaboration between them and add a third Indigenous group to the mix: the Agta of Bicol (Philippines). It will culminate in a global Indigeneity conference for Indigenous peoples throughout the Western Pacific and Australasia, cosponsored by the Indigenous Studies Program of the University of the Philippines-Baguio.

UCLA anthropological archaeologist  Stephen Acabado. (Photo provided by Professor Acabado.) Acabado, who has been working with the Ifugao for over a decade, and with the Tayal for about half that time, considers the decolonization of knowledge to be part of his work as a scholar. He has consequently worked with the Indigenous communities whom he studies to develop instructional materials on their history and heritage that can be integrated into national and local educational curricula.

We recently interviewed Acabado about the new grant and how it relates to decolonization.

Tell us about new Luce Foundation grant.

This grant is essentially seed funding to help us initiate grassroots collaboration and then try to get support from various entities — including governments and universities — to make it sustainable. We’re now collaborating with the National Chengchi University (NCCU-Taiwan) the University of New England in Australia. Professor Da-wie Kuan of NCCU has been instrumental in the establishment of the Center for Taiwan-Philippines Indigenous Knowledge, Local Knowledge and Sustainable Studies, with generous support from the Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology.

Tayal-Sqoyaw Village, Taiwan. (Photo: Professor Da-wie Kuan.)

We are anchoring our activities on the Ifugao and Tayal communities because we have established really strong relationships with those groups. But we are adding a new component with the Agta.

The Agta are very diverse and can be found all over the Philippines. They are probably the most marginalized Indigenous group in the country: they have been resettled and assimilated, so they have lost a lot of their Indigenous knowledge. For now, we’re working with the Agta community in Bicol to develop a film on how they are creating new types of Indigenous knowledge through artwork. (Acabado previously created an animated film about his research findings on the history of rice terraces in Ifugao.)

In this next step of the engagement, funding from the Luce Foundation will support them to initially work on their own individual knowledge systems, then work with other communities to exchange ideas and document successful knowledge systems.

How does this work relate to decolonization?

These groups all share the same experience of pervasive colonialism. Colonial education, access to resources and resource extraction are still being felt by these indigenous groups. When their national curriculum talks about history, they’re not included in the narrative.

At least in Ifugao, we now have the Indigenous Peoples Education Center where teachers, community members and students learn about their history. In Taiwan, the Tayal Indigenous community was resettled in Sqoyaw by the Japanese in the early 1900s, but they still know where their original villages are located. Those villages will be the focus of archaeological investigations, in collaboration with the local Tayal community. The Tayal also lost a lot of their history because the Japanese, and then the Han Chinese in Taiwan, dominated their societies.

Exhibits in the Ifugao Indigenous Peoples Education Center in Kiangan, Philippines. (Photo: Ifugao IPED Center.)

What’s your job as a scholar in this process?

The challenge for academics is how we can initially create a space in which communities are invested. Because if there’s no investment, and there’s no realization of what’s in it for them, it will be hard to engage them in a research project.

When I initially provided archaeological information and historical data that the rice terraces in Ifugao were not 2,000–3,000 years old, but several hundred years old, it was hard for the community to accept this information. But when we started to look at community stories and link those stories, or oral history, with what we were finding archaeologically, we saw a shift in the community elders’ perspective because many community stories supported the younger dating.

I call this work “slow archaeology.” It takes a long time to develop involvement with a community. Publications will be very slow because it’s a different kind of engagement. The communities that we work with control a lot of the research direction and they ask us questions that they want answered. This makes it a truly collaborative and meaningful research direction.

My hope is to contribute to mainstreaming this kind of bottom-up approach to knowledge production; at the very least, to create a meaningful archaeological practice where knowledge production is collaborative.

How did the social entrepreneurship activities begin?

This was the idea of my collaborator in Ifugao, Marlon Martín [co-author of “Indigenous Archaeology in the Philippines: Decolonizing Ifugao History,” 2022], but it was also motivated by our almost daily discussion of how to maintain and sustain our programs in the Ifugao region.

In Ifugao, it started with community buy-in to the research program because people realized that they were able to better understand their culture and history — and that it was different from what they had learned in school.

The community now does their own research and there is a strong connection with the heritage conservation programs that they are implementing. But there won’t be any sustainable conservation programs if there is no income coming in. So they are using the Indigenous People’s Education Center as a space to produce textiles and sell the products either online or at the Ifugao Nation shop in the town center. Without textile production, the center will probably not be successful because there’s no support from the government.

So decolonization is not just about highlighting flawed historical narratives, it’s also about redress, about facilitating these communities’ access to the market, helping create opportunities to market their culture’s products in order for them to support heritage conservation programs. It’s economic, it’s political and, of course, it’s educational.

Would you say decolonization requires a long-term view?

Yes. People use the term “decolonization,” but they really don’t understand what it means on the ground. We are building practices and networks to sustain bottom-up knowledge production over time.

Given the contemporary problems that indigenous peoples face, I don’t think that changing the historical narrative is most important to them because it doesn’t put food on the table or protect their lands.

But changing that narrative is the first step, and we work with these communities to open up opportunities to reclaim their heritage and even earn income from it. And facilitating the integration of their knowledge and history into national educational curricula will contribute to a shared understanding of that heritage.

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Published: Tuesday, December 6, 2022