Hau'ofa's Hope Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania 2009 Distinguished Lecture

By Clifford, James | Oceania, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Hau'ofa's Hope Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania 2009 Distinguished Lecture


Clifford, James, Oceania


The editors of Oceania are pleased to be able to publish this year's ASAO distinguished lecture. It is the first of what will be a yearly occurrence.

I am grateful for the invitation to address the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) as its Distinguished Lecturer--especially since my relation to Pacific scholarship has always been rather unprofessional, or at least spotty. I like to think of myself as an amateur--in a sense that comes through best in the French amateur: one who loves. Someone who cultivates a study or art from taste or attraction rather than professionally. (I pass over another meaning, more prominent in the English language dictionaries: 'a person who does something more or less unskillfully.') So I address you as a non-specialist, amateur of the Pacific--a fellow-traveler perhaps, in that vast space.

But while I may not have much new to say, for this audience, about Island Pacific societies or histories, I may be able to suggest ways that the region and some of its distinctive problems and theorists have been generative for thinking about broad issues: the nature and diversity of indigeneity today, scale-making in various globalizing socio-cultural processes, the inventive dynamism of tradition, and the question of what might be called differential historicities. By that I mean ways of telling large scale stories about where we--always a contested pronoun-have come from and are going, separately and together. Preparing this talk has made me realize how much of what I find most useful for thinking through our current utopic/dystopic moment has come from the Pacific--from a uniquely rich scholarly fusion of ethnography with history, and from inspirational scholars, writers, activists and students--some, but not all of whom, I'll be able to mention tonight.

So I offer this address in a spirit of gratitude. But also, I confess, with a certain irritation. When I was contacted about doing the lecture, I thought: 'Ah ASAO. An exotic locale. Preferably in Hawaii, or at least Southern California--somewhere near a beach with warm water.' Well, I hope foggy Santa Cruz seems exotic enough to you at least.

Lacking my usual excuse--that a trip away from home would be too disruptive in the midst of a hectic academic term--I yielded to my election. But I said that I couldn't, for lack of time, come up with something really appropriate to the Pacific, so I would need to speak from my current research on indigenous heritage politics in Alaska. No doubt the general issues would resonate.

And then--seduced by that liquid and expansive word 'Oceania' in the name ASAO--it seemed to me that my current Alaska work was, after all, in the Pacific. It's centered on people and histories on and around Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, facing south toward Hawaii. And if Highland New Guinea can be part of Oceania, why not Kodiak--its people having lived for so long with and from the Ocean, its currents, storms, drifting and swimming creatures?

I recalled the Kodiak area's devastating 20th Century volcanic eruptions and earthquakes along the "'ring of fire." Geologically, it's a very Pacific place ... however far North ... Others have questioned how 'the Pacific' or 'Oceania' got reduced to the South Pacific (and well before James Michener's Tales ...)--how a 'tropical' region was identified where the waters could only be warm. The ocean is both cold and warm, of course. Birds, so prominent in Greg Dening's Beach Crossings (and how he will be missed....) follow the summer over vast distances from North to South and back again. You may recall how the golden plover's migrations connect Alaska with Hawaii and the Marquesas in this vision of a Pacific history of crossings--times and places (Dening 2004).

Speaking of history: Alaska, of course, has its share of the Captain Cook epic. And its coastal tribes were important players in the intercultural political-economy of the North Pacific and China, an Oceanic story brilliantly mapped by Marshall Sahlins in his 1988 essay, 'Cosmologies of Capitalism' (Sahlins 2000). …

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