The Pacific covers a third of the planet, but there’s poor understanding of the region. Professor Katerina Teaiwa wants to change that.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps not surprising that Professor Katerina Teaiwa became a teacher. Her mum was one. So was her eldest sister. And her cousin. And her auntie. “I valued teaching,” Teaiwa says, “because I had lots of role models around me who taught at different levels: high school, primary school and university. The women in my family, mainly.”  

But when she finished her undergraduate degree at 21, having studied an eclectic mix of subjects including science, ballet and visual arts, Teaiwa wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do next. It was her late sister, Dr Teresia Kieuea Teaiwa, who suggested the Master in Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi. “That was probably one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” Teaiwa says of the degree. 

Teaiwa is of Banaban, I-Kiribati and African American heritage and was born and raised in Fiji. But even growing up in the islands, she says she didn’t learn enough about the Pacific at primary school or high school. 

Studying the Master degree — an interdisciplinary program focused on the Pacific — proved to be eye-opening and empowering. “A few of my university teachers were Pacific Islanders and I had never seen that before,” Teaiwa says.

“Some of them were amazing Pacific women who are leaders in their communities and fighting for the rights of their people. They were really inspiring teachers.”  

Professor Katerina Teaiwa. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Two decades later, the same can be said of Teaiwa, who in February was named the 2021 Australian University Teacher of the Year. Teaiwa, the first Indigenous woman from the Pacific to win the award, was recognised as “a visionary teacher, mentor and leader” and for her contribution to Pacific studies — a field she expanded at The Australian National University when she founded the Pacific studies undergraduate program in 2007. 

In her time at the University, Teaiwa has, among a long list of achievements, further developed the Pacific studies program, engaged Pacific diaspora communities in Australia, convened the Pacific Islands field school and ANU Asia Pacific Week, and become the first Pacific woman to be promoted to professor at ANU.  

In the classroom, Teaiwa admits she has an “unusual” teaching style, shaped by her background as an artist and her tendency to push boundaries and think outside the box. It was a job at the University of Hawaiʻi, which she accepted after completing her PhD at ANU, that Teaiwa says seeded the kind of teacher she ended up becoming.

“I was the creative person who was always just trying to do things differently. I wanted to bring dance and movement and art into what would have normally been a social science or humanities space.”  

Since then, the creative arts have been an integral part of Teaiwa’s research and teaching, as has an educational framework developed by her eldest sister, where students are asked to imagine themselves as a crew of a metaphorical canoe and encouraged to work collaboratively.  

Onboard the metaphorical canoe, Teaiwa and her students study a region that’s home to about 25,000 islands, about 16 million people (including Aotearoa New Zealand but excluding Australia) and geographically accounts for a third of the planet.

“No one can master and understand the whole of the Pacific so you have to frame it as this journey where you will see some things, find some things and understand some things, and then there’s a whole bunch of things you don’t know,” Teaiwa says.

“It makes sense because much of the Pacific was settled through voyaging traditions practised by very skilled Pacific people figuring out how to navigate by the stars and reading the environment to find islands in a very, very vast sea. The only way to find things in the Pacific is to go on a journey.”  

Professor Katerina Teaiwa (far right) with her students. Photo: Supplied

At the heart of Teaiwa’s classes is teaching her students to think critically about the region and how it’s characterised in Australia and globally; representations that often reduce the Pacific to “paradise or crisis”. “It’s about thinking about the Pacific on equal terms, being respectful, mutually respectful, and valuing Pacific ways of knowing, being, doing and living on their own terms,” Teaiwa says.

“You would think, doesn’t everyone do that? Well, actually they don’t, because the research and the discourse about the Pacific has, for decades, reproduced a more colonial, developmentalist vision of the Pacific.”  

Recent events, such as Pacific leaders speaking out about the threat of climate change, and China’s increased engagement in the region, have exposed the disadvantages of not teaching Pacific studies widely in Australia, in contrast to the approach taken to Asian studies, Teaiwa says. It has created a “blindspot” in how Australia engages with the region and it’s now causing problems.

“Without that deeper, interdisciplinary understanding of the Pacific, leaders and policymakers will continue to have quite shallow and thin approaches to the Pacific, which won’t always work. And they’ll still be confused about certain decisions that are made, and certain friendships and alliances that are forged.”  

Professor Katerina Teaiwa (far right) on the ANU Palau Field Studies course. Photo: Supplied

Interest in the region and recognition of the value of Indigenous Pacific knowledges is growing. The number of students enrolling in Pacific studies has increased and countries from the United States to Norway have plans for engagement with the region. “That’s why we have this plethora of ‘Pacific resets’ and ‘Pacific stepups’ and ‘Pacific uplifts’,” Teaiwa says.  

“Everyone’s got their eyes on the Pacific because they’ve realised the ocean really matters. The ocean is regulating the earth’s temperature and the Pacific is the biggest ocean.

“So, if you aren’t engaged in the Pacific, you don’t understand the Pacific, and you don’t understand people who’ve been living in the biggest ocean in the world for thousands of years, then you are seriously missing a lot of knowledge and a potential understanding for solving complex problems and possibly the future existence of the human species.”  

Teaiwa doesn’t particularly enjoy the spotlight — she’s more comfortable being a navigator and wayfinder with her students — but she hopes to use her platform as the University Teacher of the Year to work towards getting Pacific studies into Australian primary and secondary curriculums.

“Because I know at the university level, it’s not going to be enough for what we need, not just in Australia, but in the region more generally. I feel like this is an opportunity to do something good, hopefully, for others and for the field of Pacific studies.”

Top image: Professor Katerina Teaiwa. Photo: Tangyao Zhang/ANU Centre for Learning and Teaching

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