After years of academic research across the Pacific Islands in ethnobotany, medical and environmental anthropology, Patricia Fifita now teaches ethnic studies at OSU, using her unique academic experience to connect with students.

Patricia Fifita

Patricia Fifita

By Gabriella Grinbergs CLA Student Writer - May 31 , 2024

Patricia Fifita, assistant professor in ethnic studies, has been a part of the liberal arts faculty at OSU since 2018, and joined the ethnic studies faculty as a tenure-track professor in 2021 as a part of the Indigenous Studies cluster hire. Fifita uses her extensive experience in Indigenous and Pacific Islander studies, medical and environmental anthropology, and ethnobotany to build a safe space for Indigenous histories and stories to be shared.

Fifita began her academic career at Brigham Young University in Utah, where she earned a bachelor of arts in cultural anthropology with minors in botany and international development. An apprenticeship in Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom, proved to be “a life changing experience” as she studied under an ethnobotanist who examined Tongan women’s use of limu, or seaweed, in Vava‘u, Tonga.

This was Fifita’s first time visiting Tonga, specifically her father’s village, after being born and raised in diaspora. Her connection to her work on a personal and cultural level, one which she describes as “empowering and eye-opening,” pushed her to continue on this academic path in traditional ecological knowledge and medicinal plants.

She felt drawn towards working in a field related to health and healing on a personal level, but “didn’t know how that would play out with an academic pathway” before her undergraduate studies. She mentioned working with traditional healers in her youth and hearing stories about her lineage’s connection to healing.

“It was just the way things unfolded for me,” Fifita stated. “I  followed that path and I am very grateful for it.”

From there, she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in medical anthropology from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Focusing specifically on medical anthropology in graduate school provided a bridge between her studies in ethnobotany, her interests in cultural usage of plants, and her Polynesian home.

“One thing I really find useful in my academic work, it fosters a certain level of interdisciplinarity,” said Fifita. “The methodologies (of anthropology are) really useful for the type of work I like to do, which is more community-based.”

Her doctoral research included a study in Tonga where she examined Tongan women’s experiences with cancer, after her mother was also diagnosed. Fifita focused on the experience of the disease as an embodiment of inequality , reflecting on wider social and political problems which contribute to systemic healthcare disparities in Tongan hospitals and local clinics.

Fifita’s experience with environmental anthropology was present throughout her graduate studies. This further manifested in her postdoctoral research as she continued her field work on climate change and food insecurity in Hawaii, Guam, Northern Marianas, and the Federated States of Micronesia before taking a position at OSU.

In nearly five years at OSU, Fifita has developed and taught the inaugural course in Pacific Islands Studies, co-developed the Indigenous studies minor in the College of Liberal Arts, and contributed to the development of the Marine Studies major. She continues to teach various courses in ethnic studies and anthropology,  grounding her courses in a  social justice and equity-centered framework.

Fifita’s current research focuses on coastal restoration in Anahola, Kauai. Supported by a grant from the Lenfest Ocean Program, Fifita plans to conduct an indigenous-led land restorative justice project, incorporating traditional knowledge of the Anahola community, to guide the (re)envisioning and restoration of ancestral relationships with the Anahola coastal zones.

“For me, as an Indigenous person, especially as someone working within my own communities, there is an applied component that I feel an obligation and responsibility to do with my work,” she explained.

Fifita moved back to Oregon after her postdoctoral research study, feeling she needed to be with her parents in Corvallis, when the opportunity to work at OSU arose. She expressed her delight at all the work that has been done to build the Indigenous Studies minor, saying she “never dreamed” there would be this space at OSU to focus on developing a critical Pacific Islander studies program. This excitement comes especially with experiencing the marginalization and omission of Indigenous histories in the K through 12 U.S. education system.

“It’s often a really emotional thing for Pacific Islander students who are often feeling very alone or homesick, to be an anchor to support them and also honor who they are in an institution that doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of space for those identities –  I think for me, that’s what gets me out of bed to teach every time I have the opportunity,” Fifita stated.

Another significant area of the safe space Fifita has helped build at OSU is the Reciprocity Garden, a student-run collaborative and coordinated by Charlotte Epps, dedicated to sowing and harvesting culturally significant plants as a way to provide BIPOC students and faculty a way to connect with their cultural identity.

She incorporates the garden into classes she teaches, including Food and Ethnic Identity: Decolonizing Our Food and Body (ES/FCSJ 464/564) by allowing students the opportunity to interact with the garden, “to reinforce a sense of home or connection wherever (Indigenous students) have been dispersed to,” Fifita said. For her, one of these is Taro – a root vegetable significant to Tongan and other Pacific Islander communities. Fifita is also growing harakeke, or New Zealand flax, for future weaving projects.

Fifita, throughout her academic and professional careers, particularly in her work at OSU, found motivation in wanting to remain a constant support to her parents.

Coming back to Oregon after working and living in the Pacific for nearly twenty years felt like a “full circle moment”, she described, and owes many of the opportunities to complete her work to her father, Ika Fifita. He retired from OSU after over 30 years of service, working with BIPOC students through culturally based organizations, athletics, and multiple social justice causes. Since retirement, he now volunteers as a Football Ambassador and continues to support students by regularly attending OSU sporting events, Fifita shared.

“His goal was to create a sense of home and belonging, especially for Pacific Islander students, faculty, and staff who felt far away from their island communities,” she added. “I am really happy that I have the opportunity to honor his legacy.”