Striving For Indigenization | Travis Chai Andrade ’24 Interviews Anthropology’s New Assistant Professor Ikaika Ramones

Dec. 8, 2023

Striving For Indigenization

Travis Chai Andrade ’24 Interviews Anthropology’s New Assistant Professor Ikaika Ramones

TCA: What brought you to anthropology and how did you decide to pursue an academic career?

IR: Coming from Hawai‘i to Massachusetts for undergraduate studies was a truly major transition for me, especially being a first-generation student. I was an anthropology major at Harvard all the way from undergrad to my PhD at NYU.  Early on in college, I was exposed to the unique anthropological way of thinking and knowing the world. It was a class on social relations taught by the brilliant and inspiring Nicholas Harkness. The course really gave me the critical concepts and methodological tools, like ethnography, to try to make sense of the vast varieties of human experience. I got to “think differently” from other courses I had taken, as it was rooted in people’s actual experiences: it was both people-centered and robust in its comparative capacity. It allowed me to see things that otherwise went overlooked. I saw anthropology as a way to make sense of and change our conditions. In a way, anthropology gave me the space to think and support our community’s dreams and aspirations. I think it was Lakota anthropologist, Beatrice Medicine, who quoted Tewa anthropologist Ed Dozier, in saying that many Native anthropologists “went into anthropology as a means of helping their people.”

Yes, we have to interpret the world in various ways, but “the point is to change it.” That’s the way I see my practice of anthropology. It all comes down to kuleana (relational responsibilities, obligations). I used to teach a place-based Hawaiian culture program during the summer breaks through undergrad and graduate school, and it was always the highlight of my year. The community work and teaching are really important to me. As a Native Hawaiian and as an anthropologist, I have a particular place in the lāhui (a people, nation, gathering), and it’s my responsbility to do my part with the skills, training, and education that I have.

TCA: For your PhD dissertation, you studied the work of Native Hawaiians at the grassroots and larger institutional levels, and are now working on your book manuscript. Can you share a little about your ethnographic work and main findings?

IR: Our people [Native Hawaiians] have experienced an incredible flowering of language revitalization, political activism, the revival of traditional knowledge and practices, and a wide reclamation our lifeways into the 21st century. I really wanted to know: what’s the political economic basis for how we reproduce ourselves as a vibrant Indigenous people? Where does funding and institutional support come from, and how does it afford and constrain different formations of Indigeneity?

I worked with grassroots groups that lead this massive revival effort on the ground, everything from traditional agriculture to political education, from traditional healing to land restoration. I also researched large elite Native Hawaiian organizations that provide funding, support, and attempt to coordinate Native Hawaiian thriving on a large scale.

What I came away with, and what I talk about in my book manuscript, are perspectives and aspects of Indigeneity that are not commonly centered in existing scholarship. Overall, I show how Indigeneity, or Hawaiian-ness itself, is internally contested in the practices of its reproduction. Using a strong autoethnographic voice, and since I come from a working-class family, class analysis figures very prominently to provide a fundamentally different theorization of Indigeneity. I argue for a more dialectical approach to Indigeneity, then providing a class analysis of how we Hawaiians reproduce ourselves as a people. I also write about where the funding for Hawaiian revival comes from, as well as the different economic modes that interact on the ground: grassroots rearticulations of our traditional modes with that of capitalism. I then show how actors navigated these very different economic modes, value systems, and ways of being in the world. Finally, I discuss the contestations of “Hawaiian culture,” attending to how it can politicize or depoliticize.

In a way, I experimentally wrote it as sort of a field manual, providing uniquely anthropological insights that might be useful for actors on the ground. My book title has changed a lot, but I’m gravitating towards Red Dirt: An Anthropological Manual for Indigenous Liberation.

Ikaika Ramone's Lecture talk in March 2023

TCA: How has your experience at Princeton been thus far, and what’s it like as you transition from being a graduate student to a faculty member?

IR: Truly, it’s been a really wonderful experience because the department, faculty, staff, students, University administration have been so welcoming and supportive. It’s actually very humbling. When I arrived, seeing the intentionality and care that people show, I was amazed because everyone was so genuine. I’ve only been here a couple of months, but the connections in Anthropology and across campus I’ve made so far are incredible, including at the Effron Center for the Study of America, special collections at Firestone Library, and the small yet strong community of Native scholars here. The sense of community is very real, and leads to many encounters and possibilities opening up.

I was talking to one of my friends about the transition to faculty, and she said, “Wow, that’s a really heavy kuleana because people are going to be depending on you. You’re one of the only Hawaiians in an instition like that.” Before I moved here, my family did a little send off, and one of my uncles told me, “When you go out there, you burn rubber boy.” So I’ve been following their advice from day one and hit the ground running. It’s a heavy kuleana as I consider all the things we could build. I'm just excited for all the potentials.

TCA: Anthropology at Princeton has been experiencing exponential growth, with over 90 undergraduate students in the class of 2024 and 2025. The Department was also lauded in a recent external review: “Princeton’s Department of Anthropology is a nationally leading program. We were impressed by the program’s achievements and its collective ability to envision a renewed and transformed discipline for the 21st century.” What do you think sets Princeton's Anthropology apart, and how do you see the Department working towards this “renewed and transformed discipline”?

IR: I think it's our method of ethnography. It's just so intimately human, and attentive to relationality and interconnections, which I think students appreciate, and it’s also the way this Department is envisioning the interface of intellectual work and social change. There’s a creativity and an originality that leads to the nuanced and bold form of Anthropology at Princeton that's really needed given the multifaceted and complexity of our times’ most pressing issues. There’s also the learning arc for our students; it’s really great to see the different tracks that speak to students’ interests: Sociocultural Anthropology; Medical Anthropology; and Law, Politics, and Economics. Most students might not really have known about the discipline of anthropology before getting to college, but the Department here does a great job with our oversubscribed introductory and thematic course offerings, ranging from robotics and artificial intelligence to masculinities and debt, even emotions, violence, and war. The Department seems to be meeting a need for students, who seem keen to understand these dimensions of the human experience with ethnographic groundedness and social theoretical rigor.

The Department listens to and responds to students in an active way. Seeing the sheer brilliance of the students—their theses, JPs, and all the work they do—is mind-boggling. It’s really the students’ curiosity and ingenuity, in addressing issues that deeply matter to them, that’s leading anthropology into new and unexpected directions. Students are pushing boundaries with their socially-meaningful projects, and they thrive because the Department supports them with rigorous social theory and methodological training and deep ethical reflection and they run with it. I think it’s the symbiotic relationship between the incredible students and the support and thoughtfulness of professors, lecturers, and staff that sets this department apart. Everyone isn’t afraid to try bold and impactful new things.

TCA: Last year, you took part in the department’s Indigenizing Academia lecture series, which ultimately led to your current role here. How do you see this initiative and the Department contributing to the burgeoning presence of Indigenous Studies on campus? Why is it important to engage in such work, especially in the field of Anthropology, and what is your vision for the future of Indigenous Studies at Princeton? How is your own work and scholarship contributing to this?

IR: Our society is reckoning with the fact that Indigenous peoples are often overlooked even in conventional forums and discussions of diversity. In many statistics, we’re not even counted, or we’re asterisked as a statisically insignificant blip. The academy is striving for Indigenization, and the Department here is really walking the talk of taking concrete steps to empower and include Indigenous perspectives and voices in material ways that matter. By hiring Native faculty and hosting Native speakers, supporting Native students, and learning from Indigenous knowledges and practices, the Department is substantially grappling with Indigenization. For example, earlier this month (Nov 8), citizens of the Delaware Nation spoke very openly about what mattered to them and we were gathered, faculty and students, to listen. It was the right thing to do, to engage with the people whose land Princeton is on.

All of this goes hand in hand with the geneolgy of the Department’s and University’s history. Professor Alfonso Ortiz was a Native Anthropologist right here, and organized the first convocation of Native scholars at Princeton in 1970. Many mark that event as the beginning of Native American Studies as a contemporary discipline. The Alfonso Ortiz archives live here, and it really tells a story of robust Indigenous activism, scholarship, advocacy and pedagogy. The Department is taking this history as a major resource to help build Indigenous Studies in a way that holds the University accountable to its past, crossroads, and creative potentials. My own work asks tough questions about what we really mean by Indigenizing, by rethinking what we think we know or don't ask. The Department creates the space for that nuance to not only emerge, but to be put into practice be it in the in the classroom or in interdisciplinary research initiatives. I’ve been so impressed with the intentionality that the Department as a whole puts into honoring the sovereignty of Indigenous knowledge, knowledge production, and producers.

I see a bright future for Native American and Indigenous Studies at Princeton. It’s a real model of how to do things in a robust, ethical, and honest way because of this genealogical and interdisciplinary and public-facing approach. There are many different ways you can build Indigenous Studies... and I believe that Princeton is on track to creating something truly unique that can enhance academic and teaching excellence. As a Native Hawaiian, our genealogical stories are of the utmost importance: they tell us where we're coming from, where we're going, our place in the world, but most importantly, they tell us about our responsibilities and relations as we do those things. So that's why I think this genealogical approach of looking to the history of the department feels right to me.

Ikaika Ramones giving introduction

TCA: As you begin to settle into your position here and prepare for next semester, what classes do you plan to teach next semester and why do you think these are important topics for students to study? Looking beyond next semester, what courses do you hope to teach or develop in the future and how do you see yourself contributing to the undergraduate curriculum, the Department, and the Princeton community more broadly?

IR: The undergraduate course I’ll be teaching next semester is a critical introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies. One major point for me is that Indigeneity is relevant to many fields and research interests. Oftentimes people think it's this confined, specialized area, but it's incredibly important to so many fields of inquiry, from climate to economics, from law to life sciences. If you think about it—Indigenous peoples and our knowledge—that's thousands of years of research and development, but at the same time, we can't repeat extraction and colonial ownership over that knowledge. Native American and Indigenous Studies gets to the heart of larger questions pressing our society and our planet. In this course, we'll be looking genaologically at how Native American and Indigenous Studies came together and some of its key conceptual and methodological tenets. I want to draw on anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz’s archives here at Princeton to gauge how he combined advocacy with really rigorous anthropological scholarship and student support. I’m also teaching a graduate seminar on anti-colonial/de-colonial theory and practice, which is really learning from people on the ground, who engage in visions for a better future for their communities and environments: theory derived from the practice of trying to rethink the political and create positive social change.

Looking beyond next semester, I'm really passionate about community-led research, and working with networks of Native communities and scholars. In the future, I hope to teach on community organizing from an anthropological perspective because a lot of my work is on social movements and institutions. I’m also excited to teach on media, labor, education, and political economy, and ethnographic theorizing. Ultimately, I want to think of how we learn and how we’re taught in our Indigenous communities at home, and bring that approach here, because there’s such a deep respect for practice and knowledge both there and here. You know the saying, “ma ka hana ka ‘ike,” or, “in the work, there is knowledge.” I want to bring that approach to knowledge and people in all that I teach here.

TCA: Thinking back to your time as an undergraduate and the experiences you’ve had thus far, what advice do you have for first-years and sophomores as they begin to chose their concentrations, especially for those considering anthropology? What advice do you have for juniors and seniors as they embark on their Independent work and start thinking of their post-Princeton journeys?

IR: I would say to experiment and enjoy this very special time that you have to learn. Use the privilege of this earlier time to bracket worrying about careers and to learn what you're drawn to, because that's often where you learn the most. And of course, strive to find your own voice as a person and budding scholar so that can shine through in your independent work. Finding your voice, reflecting on your values and responsibilities, and carving out a creative place with others away from home is what will ground you as a thinker. And use that voice to approach with passion and creativity whatever question or problem moves you and draws you in. I found that once you have a sense of your voice and clarity about your values, writing gets easier and even enjoyable. My practice of anthropology is about change on the ground, and that’s what keeps me going.

Ikaika Ramones