Student Sean Sugai Highlights Oceanic Filipinx Studies With Individualized Course

The inspiration for Sean Sugai’s class came from a phrase on Twitter that caught his eye.

When the fourth-year anthropology and human biology and society student saw the phrase “Oceanic Philippine Studies”, his interest was piqued. The term came from three academics from the University of Hawaii and the University of Minnesota, who lived in Hawaii at some point in their lives and identified as Filipino, as did Sugai.

“They coined the term ‘Oceanic Filipinx Studies’ and I was obsessed with it,” said Sugai, who was born and raised in Hawaii.

Building on scholarship from these professors and his ongoing thesis on Filipinos in Hawaii, Sugai developed the course Asian American Studies 88S: “Oceanic Filipinx Studies.” The one-unit class is offered through the Undergraduate Initiated Education program, which allows students to develop and teach their own lower division courses to other undergraduate students. Sugai’s class covers colonialism in both the Philippines and Hawaii and discusses how Filipinos, as well as other communities in Hawaii, can serve as allies to Native Hawaiians, she added.

As of 2020, Filipinos made up about 16% of Hawaii’s population. Sugai said he feels that the presence of Filipinos in Hawaii offers important opportunities to ally with Native Hawaiians. This includes supporting advocacy efforts on issues like the closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, a Navy storage facility that has leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into Oahu’s groundwater.

“I see that as an opportunity for Filipinos to raise the voices of the natives,” Sugai said. “We (Filipinos) take up a lot of space in Hawaii, but that doesn’t mean we can just ignore native Hawaiians.”

Sugai also said he’s excited to see how students can dispel common misconceptions about Hawaii, which, he added, is often considered a prime vacation spot without regard to native Hawaiian history or culture. He said commercial development and tourism have obscured Native Hawaiian landscapes and historic monuments, such as an old bowling alley in Waikiki built on four stones believed to hold the healing power of past “māhū,” or individuals who held spirits. and both masculine and feminine traits. .

To expose students to as much indigenous studies as possible, Sugai said she has prioritized the inclusion of Native Hawaiian-created articles and videos throughout her class.

“People think there is a deficit. There are not enough native voices,” said Sugai. “There always has to be more, and I want to start there. But, when it comes to learning and educating, they have done the job.”

Sugai said that both the Philippines and Hawaii have experienced US military occupation throughout history, adding that he hopes the class can highlight the shared struggles against militarism for both Filipinos and Native Hawaiians.

“Decolonization is for indigenous peoples, but it doesn’t just have to be… (a) burden for indigenous peoples to theorize or fight for it or contribute to it,” Sugai said.

For Mackenzie Fernandez, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics major who identifies as Filipino, the class provides an opportunity to learn more about her cultural heritage. She said that although she took a Filipino language course at UCLA, her knowledge of Filipino immigration and her presence in Hawaii has been limited to popular entertainment like “Hawaii Five-0,” a television crime drama.

“This has been a great class to learn a little more about my culture,” Fernández said.

Cheyenne Amar, a sophomore physiological sciences major, said the class helped her connect with Hawaii, where she was born and spent her early life. Amar said that although she moved to the continental United States when she was in elementary school, she has tried to stay informed about current events in Hawaii.

He added that he appreciated the class’s discussion of the 100-Meter Telescope, a controversial astronomy project receiving millions of dollars in UC funding that is planned to be built on Mauna Kea, which is considered sacred ground to Native Hawaiians. While Amar herself has spoken out against the telescope as a member of Hui O ʻImiloa, a UCLA student organization that celebrates Hawaiian culture and history, she said the class helped her better understand the years of advocacy that have gone dedicated to opposing the development of the telescope.

“It’s really amazing to see something I’m passionate about also overlap with an academic environment,” Amar said. “Things like this don’t really get talked about a lot in college-level spaces.”

[RELATED: Hawaii Legislature passes bill to establish Mauna Kea oversight board]

Sugai said he hopes to address the misconception that there is a lack of Native Hawaiian-led advocacy and scholarship. He added that the class is intended to illustrate how colonialism has erased key parts of Native Hawaiian history.

At a conference, Sugai said he presented the story of four Tahitian medicine men in Hawaii who were powerful māhū. Sugai explained how European standards for male and female binaries undermined people’s identities and suppressed the cultural understanding of gender held by Native Hawaiians and other communities of color.

Fernández said she enjoyed the lecture as it helped her understand how the history of māhū in Hawaii is connected to the concept of “bakla,” a Tagalog word for people assigned male at birth. and have feminine gestures.

Amar said he is considering returning to Hawaii in the future to work as a family physician and focus on community outreach. He added that with the knowledge he gained from the class, he hopes to inform his future practice while raising awareness of Native Hawaiian history and advocacy for others in the continental US.

“I never want to do anything to disrespect the culture or the people, so it’s a never-ending learning process,” Amar said. “But I hope that while I’m on the mainland, I can help raise awareness because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of everything that’s going on in Hawaii and the many struggles and injustices.”