An interview with Jessica Pasisi
Our guest this week is Jessica Pasisi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Waikato, Aotearoa New Zealand. Jess recently completed her doctoral research around climate change and its impacts on Niuean women. Her thesis, Kitiaga mo fakamahani e hikihikiaga matagi he tau fifine Niue: tau pūhala he tau hiapo: Niue women’s perspectives and experiences of climate change: A hiapo approach, brings together experiences and perceptions of climate change from twelve tau Tagata Niue women, drawing attention to the role that Indigenous knowledge, language, and cultural practice can play in fighting climate change. Jessica has since received Health Research Council funding to undertake research on how tau Tagata Niue in New Zealand understand health and happiness. Of Tagata Niue descent herself, Jessica hopes her research will build a platform to broaden the conversation among academics, researchers, and consultants working on climate change in the Pacific and recognize the agency of Pacific people at a grassroots level. She plans to convert her research into a book and to continue working with Niue communities in Aotearoa and Niue.
Hello, Jessica, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in Pacific peoples’ experiences of climate change, and what methodological or conceptual frameworks you deploy in your research?
Fakaalofa lahi atu mo fakaaue lahi mahaki, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this space.
When I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I very quickly became interested in climate change and sustainability . It wasn’t until I was part-way through a year of lecturing in Shanghai that I really felt the push to learn about my Dad’s homeland of Niue. I finished up in China a little desperate to find a way of learning more about the Niue side of my family and thinking that the best entry-point was a PhD.
Looking back, I realise there were SO many other ways I could have got there, but at the time it seemed like a great idea. Climate change was a hot topic and I was interested to learn about what impacts it would have for people back home. I definitely went in with a lot of expectations and preconceptions of what I would find. I was ready for climate change refugees, thinly veiled panic, and people who lived, breathed, and ate climate change adaptation and mitigation all day, every day. Well, I didn’t find any of that. Instead, I learned how to be patient, how to earn and wait for stories. I learnt the importance of just being in a place so that people would get to know me, not just as that research lady, but as a daughter of Mutalau Ululauta Matahefonua, belonging to Ben Pasisi (my Dad), of the Pasisi family - yes, the ones in Alofi are my cousins.
From the people I got to talk to and spend time with, I found that climate change stories were interwoven into the fabric of daily life. It can be normal to talk about how good it is to eat Vi (a kind of Niue pear), a village climate change plan, and how you can cook an egg in the microwave all in the same breath. And I fell in love with this way of talking and thinking about climate change. It was from these stories that I also knew I needed a methodological framework that would make sense to the specificity of the Niue context, attend to a gender-specific focus, and uphold and practice Niue cultural values. That’s where the hiapo methodology was born and how it came to shape the entirety of my final thesis.
Your doctoral research highlights the central role that Indigenous knowledge, language, and cultural practice can play in countering climate change. What recurring motifs did you identify in the narratives and practices of the twelve Niuean women you worked with as part of this research, and how do they compare or contrast to current colonial representations of climate change?
One of the recurring themes that came up was the sharing of intergenerational knowledge. It’s such an important aspect of how we understand the environments around us. For me, it was really clear across all of the narratives that even when speaking individually, we mark time and space with memories shared (or even unshared but observed) in relation to the people around us. Getting to write some of these familial experiences that connect to but don’t necessarily centre climate change is something I hadn’t seen in the field I was working in (Management Communication). Even beyond that, there seemed to be domains of climate change where certain people, organisations, and even countries existed that were outside the worlds and realities of people living in the islands. There isn’t a shortage of “case-studies” that use an island nation or other group of Indigenous people to highlight or exemplify some concept, warning, strategy or other proposition. But these narratives neglect how island people, cultures, languages are boundary-spanning; they are networks and connections that dynamically shift and change both within and beyond any particular geographic site. It’s in listening to peoples’ narratives (in places they know and call home) that it is possible to learn and see the seeds and fruits of Indigenous knowledge-sharing in ways that bring different dimensions to something like climate change.
You recently received funding from the Health Research Council to investigate the health and wellbeing of tau Tagata Niue in Aotearoa New Zealand. Could you tell us how this project relates to your earlier and ongoing work on climate change, and how Niuean understandings of health and wellbeing are shaped by their relations to the more-than-human world?
Yes, I’ve been fortunate to get funding from Health Research Council New Zealand to
keep doing research work with the Niue community. My climate change research in
Niue taught me that there is a real and pressing need to create spaces that are
generative for Niue people and knowledge in creative, literary, and all other ways.
Understanding the physical environments around us is one way of engaging with
climate change, but there’s also a need to re-establish relationships to knowledge,
identity, culture, and language that provide tools that grapple with what it means to
be a Niue person experiencing a world where climate change is a reality alongside
many other challenges. HRC funding has given me an opportunity to think about these
things and try different angles/perspectives from where conversations might start or take place.
Being a Niue researcher makes a difference and already I’m moving into spaces where I get to learn and share alongside my community in ways that open more doors for future researchers, writers, and others who want to creatively engage in these spaces. I’m learning more and more about the ways Niue people engage with and are influenced by the more-than-human world. Niue people can be very particular about aspects of the environment, tapu spaces and practices, and the gatekeeping of specific knowledge, but writing these histories and herstories ourselves is something I’m hoping to encourage more of through this project.
Your scholarship sits at the intersections of Communication Studies and Pacific Studies. What opportunities and challenges have you faced in working in an inter-disciplinary space, and how has an inter-disciplinary approach shaped your public engagement as an applied scholar?
In my PhD thesis, I really struggled with Communication Studies. It felt like more of a wrestle rather than a friendly intersection where Communication Studies and Pacific Studies met and exchanged pleasantries. Some of that was personal - being a brown person in a largely white space can be a jarring experience. In some ways, it felt like I cried about it in my thesis, then got mad about it, and then just told Communication Studies they should do better. But it wasn’t all bad. Perhaps a counter-intuitive benefit of Communication Studies is that there’s a blurriness to the edges of thinking really specifically about how something is communicated, who does the communicating, and who gets to decide whether it is listened to or made visible. To think about climate change in the Pacific, it helps to use lenses that make sense to the Indigenous people of the Pacific. For me, Communication Studies couldn’t create or support the specificity of an Indigenous Niue lens in the way that Pacific Studies could. Pacific Studies makes visible so much more of the nuances that I experienced and learned as an Indigenous researcher and gave me a lot more confidence to be specific rather than generalize or compare.
Finally, Jessica, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I feel like I’m still learning what more-than-human worlds can mean in my research.
For scholars coming into this space, I think we have to be willing to do a lot more
listening, spend more time outside, and be a bit more patient. Be open to ignoring
or throwing out methods, theories, and concepts. Don’t get stuck in approaches or
thinking that require proof or evidence, or relegate something as ‘cultural belief’ when
it doesn’t fit a prescribed understanding. Be willing to open the door for someone else
to do the work – particularly in Indigenous spaces.
"It’s in listening to peoples’ narratives (in places they know and call home) that it is possible to learn and see the seeds and fruits of Indigenous knowledge sharing in ways that bring different dimensions to something like climate change."
"Be willing to open the door for someone else to do the work – particularly in Indigenous spaces."