When she’s in the back rooms of the Burke Museum, Randizia Crisostomo enjoys spending time with artifacts from the Pacific Islands. On storage shelves out of public view sit woven bark cloth from Tonga and Samoa, jagged wooden “love sticks” for traditional courtship from Truk Lagoon, a navigation map of the Marshall Islands made of sticks and shells arranged in geometric patterns. Lately, her interest has been captured by outrigger canoes and sling stones from her home island of Guam. But holding any artifact from the Pacific Islands, thinking about its purpose and what materials it’s crafted from, is meaningful for Crisostomo, a graduate student at the University of Washington Bothell who also works as the Burke’s community outreach coordinator for Oceania and Asia.
“They’re more than just objects to me, or like pieces that are sitting here at the museum,” Crisostomo says. “They’re ancestors, they’re voices of the community, and they’re also stories that can be shared with everyone around you. It kind of brings to life why I’m here.”
When she says “here,” Crisostomo means her dream job, reaching out to the cultural communities represented in the Burke’s collections to consult with them about how they want to engage with the museum’s collection. But she also means “here” as a member of Research Family, an informal group of Pacific Islander students at the UW who have been meeting at the museum for the past four years to research their cultures and work on projects that lead them out of campus to serve local Pacific Islander communities.
Crisostomo was hired as the Burke Museum prepares to transport its entire collection to a new building in 2019. As well as more galleries, the new Burke will make its objects even more accessible to the living communities they come from, according to Andrea Godinez, Burke spokesperson: “The objects are really meant to be brought back to the community in as many ways as possible.”
It’s Crisostomo’s job to meet with local Pacific Islander and Asian community members to hear their stories, and open the museum to them however they need. It might mean, for example, facilitating a ceremony with indigenous Tao people from Taiwan with one of their sacred canoes stored at the Burke. “It’s more than just a job for me,” Crisostomo says. “I feel like it’s my way of giving back.”
Crisostomo’s next dream career is to become a professor. One of her inspirations is Holly Barker, a UW anthropology professor who started the Research Family group in 2013, which Crisostomo joined that same year when she was a sophomore.
Research Family is, among other things, a place for Pacific Islander students to connect their cultures and communities with the academic world, to generate knowledge that can help their communities, and to get mentorship in academia and future grad school, according to Barker.
Barker created Research Family soon after she joined the Burke Museum as half-time curator of the Oceanic and Asian collections.
Barker’s Ph.D focused on the devastating effects of nuclear weapons testing on people living in the Marshall Islands. Before academia, she spent 15 years working as Senior Advisor to the Ambassador of the Marshall Islands to the United States. Now, she splits her time between teaching Anthropology at UW and curator at the Burke.
Over the years Barker has invited students with backgrounds from Samoa, Tokelau, Fiji, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Hawai’i, Yap, and the Marshall Islands to join Research Family. “We call it family because we operate as a family,” Barker says. “Being part of a community, a family, a network…it’s a source of strength for them.”
Every week, the students in Research Family meet on the bottom floor of the Burke. They’ll talk about Pacific Islander issues, like the disproportionate rates of incarceration, health disparities, education access, the negative effects of militarism and tourism in their islands, or climate change. Even if they’re from far-flung islands, says Crisostomo, the students learn from each other. “A lot of us do suffer from the same disparity or the same type of oppression, but in a significant way to where we can each talk about it from our own standpoint,” she says.
The students also work on their own research projects, usually ones that take them off campus into local Pacific Islander communities; in the past they’ve gone to to Auburn for a day to work with the mayor’s office on health disparities, or to Salem, Oregon to meet with the Marshallese community there and mentor high schoolers. Or they’ll invite Pacific Islander community members, elders and family members to visit campus and share their experiences.
“What’s most rewarding is seeing how they take ownership of their education when it’s connected to who they are as people, because it becomes very personal for them,” says Barker. “They want to continue to work with their communities in the future…There’s always that desire to give back.”
In November, Research Family member Tita Alefaio stood by a display in the lobby of the Burke along with her classmates from Barker’s course on Micronesia, Nakea Ridders and Tulili Tuiteleleapaga-Howard. They were explaining to anyone who would listen about how Spongebob is connected to the largest nuclear weapons test the U.S. military ever conducted, a bomb it detonated on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands that was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The secret nuclear test, called Castle Bravo, was just the peak of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1962, but it had devastating consequences for Marshallese people, including many who live in Washington state. This month, the state Senate passed legislation that would help citizens of Palau, The Marshall Islands, and Micronesia — many of whom were affected by nuclear testing but who don’t qualify for Medicaid here — pay for healthcare premiums.
Downstairs in the Pacific Islander exhibit at the Burke, taking a break from showing museum patrons their project, Alefaio, a medical anthropology and global health major with family from Samoa and Tokelau, pointed to a wooden statue that two alumni of Research Family helped research for the exhibit. It’s a Canoe House Post from the Solomon Islands representing a shark goddess, and students Suliana Aho and Latulitea Aho provided essential knowledge about Solomonese culture about the object for the Burke’s Ethnology team. “It’s pretty awesome – I’m hoping I can do something like this,” Alefaio said.
For Alefaio, who grew up in a family “assimilated to the American culture,” the most rewarding thing about being part of Research Family is connecting with her cultural heritage. “There’s this battle between identity and education,” Alefaio said. “Sometimes those two just don’t go with each other.” She once struggled with the thought that exploring her identity just wasn’t as important as getting her education. But Research Family helped her with “realizing that who I am does matter and it can tie into my education, and I can do something with it when I graduate.”
Alefaio appeared in a video Research Family students made responding to the Disney film Moana. The video explains that the animated film draws on Polynesian mythology and culture, but “told from a Western perspective.” So Research Family members found objects in the Burke to show the real versions of Polynesian culture, to educate people and share the message that Polynesian culture is thriving. The students explain concepts like the art of navigation in Polynesia, outrigger canoes, shark-tooth weapons, a Samoan ceremonial headdress.
Alefaio is in the video showing a real version of a headdress like the one the animated character Moana wears. “My mom saw the video that we made and she started crying,” Alefaio said. “She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re actually interested in your culture, you’re learning.’”
Being in Research Family has inspired Alefaio to ask her grandmother and parents for their stories.
“This is a really big university and we’re not given much space that’s dedicated to just us,” Alefaio said.
Pacific Islanders are the smallest ethnic minority among students at the UW. In winter 2018, according to the UW’s records, there were 410 Pacific Islander students out of 44,611 in the student body.
“That can be really isolating and daunting knowing that there numerically aren’t that many people who look like you on campus, and not that many people understand the struggles of being so far away from home,” says Daniele Meñez, a Research Family alumna who served as the UW’s first ever Pacific Islander (and first Filipina) president of the student body, the Associated Students of the UW (ASUW), during 2016 and 2017 academic year, after serving as director of the Pacific Island Student Commission in her junior year. Meñez was born in the Philippines and grew up in the U.S. territory of Guam from the age of four. The first time she came to the U.S. mainland was when she flew to Seattle for college.
It was a hard adjustment. Most of her classmates hadn’t heard of her home island. She joined Research Family during her senior year, coinciding with a high-pressure, tumultuous term as president of the UW student body that, as she recounted in an article for Psychology Today titled No, I’m Not ‘Good,’ put a strain on her mental health.
“Research Family definitely helped me feel more at home at UW,” says Meñez. It was a “refreshing” environment, “a really crucial space… to come together as a family of Pacific Islanders who are all very passionate about our community.”
In mid-January, Barker and six students met in the back of the Burke on a grey, drizzly afternoon for the second meeting of 2018. The meeting started with check-ins about how people are doing, moved on to discussing future projects and planning for a Micronesia Night, and how the group might be able to help a struggling Pacific Islander student new to campus. There was a conversation about Marshallese students being needlessly put in ESL classes, and how to help Pacific Islanders struggling in high school. Members brainstormed a possible future summer camp at the museum for young Pacific Islander students to see objects from their cultures.
Research Family member Natalie Bruecher shared updates about her project working with men incarcerated at Stafford Creek Correctional Center who are organizing a Pacific Islander studies curriculum. Brucher read a letter from a pen-pal from prison who wrote to say he was inspired by Research Family and the work it’s doing.
For Crisostomo and others, sometimes separated from their families by thousands of miles, Research Family is a home away from home. Now a mentor to other students in Research Family, it’s rewarding for her whenever more Pacific Islander students show interest in joining and representing themselves in the university. “I’m just happy whenever I see a new face,” she says.