Elevating research about Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities

After seven years as a program, Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Utah has new stature as an interdisciplinary research center.

The University of Utah’s Board of Trustees gave final approval to the Center for Pasifika Indigenous Knowledges during its meeting on Tuesday. The Academic Senate signed off on the center in February.

“We are very excited the center has finally been approved and really look forward to Pacific Islands studies at the University of Utah receiving more national attention for the work that we do,” said Maile Arvin, center director and a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar. “We hope that it will become a hub for scholars nationally and internationally who are doing important Pacific Islands studies work.”

The word “Pasifika” is a term historically used by Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand to identify themselves and show solidarity across different Pacific Islander communities.

“We have borrowed it to highlight our local Pacific Islander communities living in Utah and operate in the same spirit of creating coalitions of support,” Arvin said.

Panelists at the March 12 Planting Good Relations Part II event.

Pacific Islander communities include Indigenous peoples of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia who identify as Chamorro, Chuukese, Palauan, Fijian, Papuan, Samoan, Tongan, Tokelauan and Native Hawaiian, among others.

“These relationships between Indigenous peoples and their lands form the basis of what we are calling ‘Indigenous Knowledges,’” Arvin said.

Salt Lake City is home to one of the oldest and largest Pacific Islander populations per capita in the continental U.S., with close to 50,000 Pacific Islanders in the state.

The center will support ethical and critical scholarship by and for Pasifika Indigenous peoples, with particular attention Pacific Islanders living away from their homelands.

Arvin received $1.6 million in grant funding from the Mellon Foundation since 2018 to support program development and then to create the center. The center also receives funding from the U and will seek other support from foundations.

On the near horizon are plans to hire new faculty, add a graduate certificate — there is an existing certificate for undergraduate students — and expand a thriving program of community engagement, which includes such events as the Planting Good Relations lecture series.

For now, the center will continue to share space with the School for Cultural and Social Transformation in Gardner Commons. But Arvin hopes to relocate the center to its own space eventually, giving it higher visibility and room to host events and community gatherings.