The Hokuleʻa and other voyaging canoes dock at Magic Island, Hawaii. [Image: Daniel Ramirez / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

Universities See Increase in Pacific Island Studies Programs

Pacific Island Studies is the interdisciplinary study of the Pacific region (Oceania) across the sciences and humanities. Notably, it draws heavily from the disciplines of history and anthropology. It seeks to develop critical understandings of the economic, social, political, cultural, and historic factors that influence island societies and regional activity. Pacific Island Studies has three driving rationales: cultural reclamation, modernization and development, and geopolitical considerations. The discipline emerged out of American and Australian government needs to gather information about the region to inform strategic decisions related to militarization, geopolitics, and the Cold War.

Pacific Island Studies is closely linked to other fields of study, including Pacific Islander Studies, Pacific Rim Studies, and Critical Oceania Studies. Pacific Islander (Pasifika) Studies focuses on the histories and issues of concern to Pacific Islanders, both in their homelands and in the global diaspora. Pacific Rim Studies is an area studies program that focuses on the history, geopolitics, economics, and culture of Oceania and its continental borders. Critical Oceania Studies uses community-based and academic scholarship to engage in a critical analysis of Pacific Island peoples and cultures in the diaspora. These programs were inaugurated at universities in Australia, Fiji, Hawaiʻi, and New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. The Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is the epicenter of the discipline in the United States.

Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, and Tongan communities established themselves on the US West Coast in the 1800s and today are joined by newer diaspora groups from the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. Pacific Islanders make up less than 1% U.S. population, but the community is rapidly growing. All 50 states saw growth in their Pacific Islander populations since the 2010 census, and 12 states saw their populations more than double.

Recognizing the importance of Oceania’s diaspora communities, the field of Pacific Island Studies and its cognates are rapidly expanding in colleges and universities along the West Coast. The University of Oregon established its Pacific Island Studies program committee in 1987, offering individualized plans of study related to the Pacific Islands and their cultures. In 2018, the University of Washington introduced a minor in Oceania and Pacific Studies. The University of Utah established the Pacific Island Studies Initiative in 2015 to serve its Pasifika students and in 2019 introduced a Pacific Island Studies certificate. Several universities in the California State University system and Midwestern states offer minors in Critical Oceania Studies and Asian-Pacific Studies.

The growth in Pacific Island Studies programs in universities in the continental United States demonstrates the increasing interest and importance of the field of study by students and academics. These programs help students from Pacific Island diaspora communities connect with their heritage and peers, and introduce the region and its significance to students not from Oceania. Interest in Pacific Island Studies is likely to grow as the Pacific is increasingly a theatre for great power competition between the U.S. and China.



Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies.