Center for Pacific Island Studies

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Pacific Islanders inhabit a vast oceanic realm encompassing fully one-third of the surface of the earth. Although accounting for only a tiny fraction of the global population, the region contains close to a quarter of the world’s languages. The Islands are also home to some of the most ancient and some of the most recent human settlements. Oceania is thus characterized by enormous ecological and cultural diversity; a human history rich in epic ritual, travel, narrative, and innovation; and pressing contemporary issues that command the interest and expertise of scholars, artists, and intellectuals in many different areas of inquiry.

Colonized by European powers relatively late in global terms, the Pacific Islands were also among the last to be decolonized. Since the early 1960s the process of decolonization has created nine independent countries and a further five entities that are self-governing but retain a relationship of “free association” with a former colonial power. Decolonization terminated the direct control of Island entities by outside powers, but it did not restore to Pacific Islanders the level of control over their lives that had existed prior to colonization. One of the ironies of our time is that political power was restored to colonized peoples just when the significance of the sovereign nation-state was declining in the face of unprecedented levels of global interdependence.

As a result of intense political and economic transformations, large numbers of Pacific people have moved away from their home islands to inhabit a diaspora spanning the globe, from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to Europe and North America. There are also large communities of Pacific peoples living on other islands where they are not indigenous, creating further cultural diversity in an already complex region.

In the manner of their ancestors, Pacific peoples today have adopted a number of creative survival strategies in the face of rapid cultural, social, political, and economic changes. Among these are abilities to navigate multiple worlds that might include both Christian and indigenous spiritual practices, western and indigenous lifestyles, and western and “traditional” political and economic structures, while still maintaining a commitment to family and community relations. Educators, writers, artists, writers, and performers in both the Islands and the diaspora have also become expert at foregrounding cultural values while weaving together popular and ancient concepts and media.

In the opinions of some scholars, artists, investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and journalists, the Pacific appears to epitomize an extreme double condition—paradise with postcolonial political and economic chaos. While discourses on tourism reliance, failed states, economic aid, and dependency abound, any simplistic approach to this complex region misses the diverse range of everyday practices that inspire and sustain the lives of those in and connected to Oceania. While addressing the challenges that shape social, economic, and political life across the region, the center’s approach to Pacific Islands studies is directly informed by an attention to creative practices and the diverse histories that shape them.

 

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