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By MIKE McINALLY
For David G. Lewis, it frees up time for his groundbreaking work on Oregon Native American history. For Patricia Fifita, it’s reaching “the pinnacle of the academic pathway.” For Luhui Whitebear, it offers ways to honor her mentors by connecting with today’s Indigenous students at Oregon State University.
The three, all of whom have long connections with OSU, recently earned tenure-track appointments as assistant professors in the School of Language, Culture and Society, part of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. The so-called “cluster hire” allows the school to proceed with plans to launch a minor in Indigenous Studies; OSU's Curriculum Council approved those plans in early May.
And, said Susan Bernardin, the director of the School of Language, Culture and Society, that’s just the start: The hire of the three could help pave the way for an Indigenous Studies major at OSU.
“This is not where we stop,” Bernardin said in a recent interview. “This is where we start.”
Bernardin came to OSU in 2017. She was attracted to the School of Language, Culture and Society post at OSU in part because she saw the school as “an unfinished story” – and one with immense potential.
“There’s extraordinary work happening” within the school, she said. “We have a school with very different programs … but what connects them all is community as a core value and a desire to work across difference and to engage in transformative teaching and research within an equity framework.”
One of Bernardin’s top priorities at OSU has been to create an Indigenous Studies program within the School of Language, Culture and Society.
But without adequate resources in the ranks of the school’s faculty, offering even a minor in Indigenous Studies would be impossible. Before the cluster hire, the school had only two tenured professors who specialize in Indigenous Studies (Natchee Barnd and Qwo Li Driskill) -- along with Bernardin herself -- and the teaching commitments of the two professors precluded their full attention to the area.
So the cluster hire, Bernardin said, was intended in part to create a “critical mass” to pave the way for the Indigenous Studies minor – and to take a crucial step toward eventually creating a major.
Universities and other institutions of higher learning use cluster hires to bring in faculty members with shared or overlapping areas of research or teaching expertise. Cluster hires have become a favored practice of universities to enhance the representation of minorities or other underrepresented groups on faculties.
In addition to helping create a critical mass to build an Indigenous Studies program, a cluster hire has another advantage, Bernardin said: “You’re also trying to create a cohort that can support each other and build community.”
For a predominantly white institution like OSU, a cluster hire also sends a message throughout campus about the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity. And Bernardin said that message is meant to be heard outside campus as well: “To me, it’s long-overdue and yet very urgent for Oregon State University to demonstrate its responsibility to the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon and to the Indigenous people who call the Pacific Northwest home.”
The three faculty members who are part of the cluster hire each bring a distinctive set of strengths to OSU and the School of Language, Culture and Society:
The three say the appointment to assistant professor gives them the space to pursue new research, not to mention the opportunity to serve as mentors to students of color – in some cases, repaying the debt to someone who reached out a hand to them years ago.
For Fifita, whose work has included examining how Tongan women suffering from cancer navigate that country’s medical system, the appointment provides additional clout to pursue grant money for other community-based research projects. “It’s very helpful to be able to have the institutional backing and support to carry out larger research projects,” she said.
For Lewis, who regularly blogs about Indigenous history on his website, Quartux: A Journal of Critical Indigenous Anthropology, the appointment gives him an opportunity to branch out beyond basic Indigenous studies: “I can actually jump in on the next level of what we need to understand about the environment, what we need to do to recover,” which could lead to “a higher understanding about our peoples and our cultures.”
Whitebear is excited about the opportunity to publish more of her scholarly work – and one of the reasons why dates to her days as a student at OSU, when she frequently struggled to find work by Indigenous scholars related to her research.
“I was like, ‘We need to do something about this,’” Whitebear said, “so for me to be able to publish is also helping to support future scholars.”
All three faculty members say they’re encouraged by the cluster hire – but they all emphasize that the process shouldn’t stop there.
“This shouldn’t be viewed as, ‘OK, we’re done,’” Whitebear said. “We need more Indigenous faculty across multiple disciplines.”
That’s a point that Lewis emphasizes as well, pointing to work he’s been doing with faculty members in OSU’s College of Forestry as an example. “Native knowledge about our environment has meaning,” he said, “and we need to bring that into our collective knowledge.”
Fifita said the cluster hire “sent a really strong message that (Indigenous) histories and knowledge are valued and that they should be prioritized.”
And that Indigenous knowledge shouldn’t be confined to an Indigenous Studies program, Bernardin said. “I think Oregon State needs to prioritize Indigenous excellence across the university. … It is long overdue. My hope is this is the beginning of a transformative era for Oregon State in its history as a land-grant institution.”
The cluster hire is just the first step in that transformation, she said. “There has to be a lot of intentionality and I think (the hires) should be part of a long-term vision for where you want to be” as a land-grant university. “I think it’s more helpful to say, ‘What kind of community do you want to be a part of?’ Who’s in these spaces? And it’s not just racial diversity, it’s LGBTQ folks, it’s folks with disabilities, it’s thinking about inclusivity not in a superficial way but really doing that deep-tissue work of who’s centered in those spaces and who’s absent and why are they absent.”
Bernardin adds another important reason why OSU should offer a program in Indigenous Studies: It’s a red-hot academic field of study.
“Yes, the reparative aspect is really important, the institutional responsibility is also important, but Indigenous Studies is this absolutely extraordinary flourishing field. It’s cutting-edge. It’s a field in its own right that should be offered at our institution.”
And the potential such a program offers could create a ripple effect that could shape not just OSU, but communities beyond the campus borders, including the Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. That’s why Bernardin likes to call the cluster hire a “catalytic” hire – it’s a step that helps to put other initiatives into motion.
It’s a move, she said, “that inspires, that excites and helps folks see that we mean it and we want to build this. … This is absolutely critical to the future we want to envision for ourselves in the College of Liberal Arts and for our students and faculty and for our communities.”
Academic credentials: Ph.D., medical anthropology, University of Hawaii; master’s, medical anthropology, University of Hawaii; bachelor’s, cultural anthropology and botany, Brigham Young University. She is the first Tongan and Pacific Islander at Oregon State University to hold a tenure-track position.
Family: She has one son. She is the seventh of eight children. Her parents are Ika and Susan Fifita. Ika Fifita worked at OSU for more than 35 years and currently volunteers as the unofficial “football ambassador” for the OSU Beavers team, reaching out to student-athletes, especially those from the Pacific Islands.
Recently read: “As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance,” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and "The Properties of Perpetual Light" by Julian Aguon.
Hobbies: “I love gardening – well, it’s part hobby and part research career. I really enjoy working with medicinal plants and traditional healing. And I like to do traditional crafting, like weaving leis and making traditional costumes and dance costumes. … And I also love travel. I would love to visit India and Papua New Guinea.”
Why anthropology? “I’ve felt like anthropology was a path that made sense for where I wanted to go in my academic career and what I was passionate about. … My older sister first introduced me to anthropology when she was an undergraduate. Then in high school I started working with a natural healer and with natural medicine as an apprentice and I was really interested in how people within particular cultures connected to the land and their relationships with the land and with plants and healing. And so when I started as an undergrad, anthropology opened this space for me to go work with people and, in particular, within my own culture to really explore the histories, the cultural practices and traditions of my own ancestry. The experience I gained through this discipline helped grow my identity as an Indigenous anthologist and interdisciplinary scholar.“
Her doctoral project: Inspired by her mother’s experience with breast cancer treatment “and how it was such a collective effort to support her through her cancer journey,” Fifita wondered what the illness experience and journey was like for women in Tonga. “How would one with cancer, a woman, navigate the barriers of obtaining appropriate care through an impoverished medical system and then a system that is based on biomedical care, but then again without the financial resources? You have a lot of women who continue to use their traditional practices and traditional healing and support systems to help them navigate that journey. I wanted to document what that experience was like. Through this, I hoped to draw attention to the historical, global, and local inequalities that shape health inequities in Tonga and the broader Pacific Islands.”
Diversity in anthropology: “I’d say there is an underrepresentation of people of color in higher ed in general, but in anthropology, there’s so few. And then to narrow it down even further, it was really hard for me to find Pacific Islanders who were in my field of study. … So I did have to do some hunting (for mentors) and strategic networking” as she pursued her degrees. As an Indigenous anthropologist, I think it is incredibly important that Indigenous voices, histories and stories are centered in these spaces.” Now, she wants to return that favor for other students: “It’s very helpful to be able to have the institutional backing and support to carry out larger research projects and also to mentor, to do research mentoring with students, I think that’s really important. I would not be where I am today without my mentors and the opportunities I had to do hands-on research.”
One other goal: Her father, Ika Fifita, made a point of reaching out for decades to support Pacific Islander students at OSU, and now she wants to carry on that work: “There’s been a long history of Pacific Islanders who have come to Oregon State and have made a home here. … What I’m hoping for in my work and in my position is to really think strategically and carefully about the needs of the Pacific Islander students who are here, building community around ways to really support them and their identities. … A big part of me coming back to Oregon State is to carry on my dad’s legacy.”
DAVID G. LEWIS
Academic credentials: Ph.D. and Master’s, anthropology, University of Oregon; Bachelor’s, humanities, University of Oregon; Associate, humanities, Santa Rosa Junior College.
Family: A spouse and two adult children.
Recently read: “There There,” the acclaimed novel by Tommy Orange about Native Americans living in present-day Oakland.
Hobbies: “My hobby nowadays is just reading Native histories … but when I was a lot younger, I used to ride bikes a lot more. I still ride in the summertime, mountain bikes out on the trails, road bikes. … I used to do judo a lot, things like that. I think I’m a little bit beyond that (now).”
Telling the history: “I’m finding, and I have found, for twenty-something years now, that much of the Native story of Oregon has not really been well-told,” Lewis said. “Historians and others are reticent to include a Native perspective in the stories about Oregon. And so I’ve been delving into that and then getting a good idea about what the story should be by doing really broad research in multiple areas.” Lewis also has carved out a niche serving as a consultant to various entities wanting to learn more about Oregon Native history: In 2021, for example, he worked with the Salem Art Association to curate an exhibit, “Native Salem,” that addressed the history and culture of the original Kalapuyans at Chemeketa Village, the original Native peoples of what became Salem.
Read him online: Lewis posts essays about Native history in Oregon on his website, Quartux: A Journal of Critical Indigenous Anthropology. “I have over 470 essays on there now; they’re short essays and they address all the tribes of western Oregon and tribes in other places too. It’s now a huge body of work. It’s a bigger animal than I am. And I keep on finding new stuff. … I get over 100,000 visitors a year on that site.”
Another take on international studies: Lewis started taking classes in international studies in college, “and then I began realizing that our tribal experience really is kind of international studies of the domestic nature – tribes live on reservations that were separate from the white populations outside. So in my studies, I traveled to New Zealand, Australia and I met Indigenous people in those areas and I realized that the biggest impact that people could make with their people is to work on understanding the silences. … I learned about Native perspectives and how (in New Zealand and Australia) they have a little more active presence in their societies, and we have almost nothing here. So I’m like, ‘Where are the Native people? Where is the Native art? Where are the Native place names?’” That prompted him to switch to studying anthropology.
Life as an adjunct: Lewis has been working at OSU since 2017, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was working four different jobs at for different institutions – OSU, Lane Community College in Eugene, Portland Community College and Portland State University. He’d teach classes on different days, and set up his schedule so that, for example, on one day, he’d teach at PCC in the morning and then PSU in the afternoon. The next day, he would teach during the day at OSU and in the evening at LCC. “It was crazy,” he said. “I was constantly traveling.” But there was an upside, aside from the money: “It does keep you on track. You have to be organized, you have to stay on a schedule, you can’t relax a lot. But I think I established a pretty good process” – and still managed to find time to work on his research.
Academic credentials: Ph.D. in Women, Gender and Sexual Studies, Oregon State University; Master’s in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a focus on Women, Gender and Sexual Studies, Ethnic Studies and Queer Studies, Oregon State University; Bachelor’s degrees in Ethnic Studies and Anthropology.
Family: Three children.
Recently read: “There There,” by Tommy Orange; Whitebear’s students may find themselves reading the novel in the future: “I think some of the books that I end up using academically I like reading anyway.”
Hobbies: “I like writing poetry. And going hiking with my kids.”
Active in the community: Whitebear serves as co-vice chair of the Corvallis School Board and maintains a high profile in Corvallis. Recently, for example, she participated in a talkback session alongside Dr. Natchee Barnd and Gail Woodside after a Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company production of Larissa FastHorse’s satirical “The Thanksgiving Play.” The give-and-take of the talkback was rewarding, she said: “I like working in collaboration more than (being) alone, that kind of representation in the community. That way, it’s not like I’m the only voice they’re hearing.”
Active on campus: Whitebear is the center director of the OSU Kaku-Ixt Mana Ina Haws, a center for Indigenous students. She also works with OSU’s munk-skukum Indigenous Living-Learning Community, which provides a cohort model in residence halls for Indigenous students. “We’ve seen some expansive growth in the community where it’s at capacity” this year, she said. As part of that effort, she teaches the Intro to Native Studies class: “On the first day of class, one of the students in there told me that they had texted a former teacher because I was only the second Native person they’ve ever had as a teacher.”
A research goal: "One of the areas that I'm really passionate about is California Indigenous histories, especially in the Mission regions. That's where my people are from. And there's not a ton of material that's written by Indigenous California people. There's some, it's growing. But there's still a gap area."
Keep an eye out for her: Some of Whitebear’s desire to serve as a mentor to Indigenous students may date to one of her earliest university experiences. She started her initial studies at OSU during winter term, so she missed the introductory activities that come with fall term. During a Native Studies class her first term, Whitebear recalled, professor Kurt Peters was taking the roll, got to Whitebear’s name, stopped, tapped his notepad, and said: “Jack Forbes told me to keep an eye out for you.” Forbes was a well-known Native educator who died in 2011; he and Peters were friends. That moment, Whitebear said, helped to show her the importance of “community and what looking out for each other means.”