From time to time, the newsletter profiles former student to see where their interests in Pacific Islands studies have led them. In September,
the editor talked to artist, curator, and contributing writer to Pacific Magazine Margo Vitarelli (CPIS MA, 1985).
LH: How did you first become interested in enrolling in the Pacific Islands Studies MA program at UH Ma¯noa?
MV: I was living and working in Palau at the Palau Department of Education as a curriculum writer and illustrator in the late 1970s when I first heard of the Center
for Pacific Islands Studies. The idea that there was a center that focused on studies of the Pacific immediately interested me. Years before, as an undergraduate in anthropology at UH, I had sought out and enjoyed those classes that were Pacific related. I had some great classes, all taught by Pacific experts in their fields: cultural anthropology (Leonard Mason), dance of the Pacific (Adrienne Kaeppler), literature
of the Pacific (A Grove Day), and ethnobotany (Beatrice Krauss). This taste of the Pacific in the classroom whetted my appetite for more. As a child growing up in Palau, where my father was working as an educational administrator, I did not consider Micronesia or the Pacific as something to be studied. It was just home, a place where real people lived, worked, and played, and resolved their daily problems. I grew up seeing things from an Islander’s perspective, eating local food, speaking the local language, and embracing an Island lifestyle. But of course having been raised by American parents I also grew up with an awareness of my own culture. Seeing the world through bicultural eyes always made me want to understand these worlds better and try to make sense of these contrasting cultures, each with its own logic. Studying the Pacific sometimes helps make sense of these
cross-cultural questions. It gave me the opportunity to take a step back and analyze Pacific issues from an organized academic standpoint, after having lived it and taken it for granted. While growing up in the Islands I think I became a student of Pacific cultures without even realizing it. I always enjoyed learning the dances, observing the crafts people, and recording the legends. So when I later discovered that you could actually get a master’s degree doing something as fascinating as reading and writing about the Pacific I was definitely attracted to the idea. To be in a program whose entire focus was anything and everything about the Pacific Islands seemed almost too good to be true. You cannot live in the microcosm of a Pacific Island community without recognizing problems and challenges, and it follows that you develop the desire to contribute or help out in some way. Living in small communities seems to foster a sense of caring and you actually sometimes have the power to make positive changes. I think people living in the Pacific are motivated to seek out new perspectives that might enable them to find solutions for problems, whether it be in areas of education, environment, cultural preservation, or economic development. I felt that CPIS might provide a stimulating atmosphere for learning and possibly gaining an understanding of Pacific problems and possible ways to solve them.
LH: What kinds of activities have you been involved with since you graduated, and, as an artist, how have you been able to combine your interest in the Pacific with other interests?
MV: Since I graduated from CPIS, I have gravitated toward working in culture and the arts and education. My interests in art, economic development, cultural preservation, and anthropology are all interrelated. I ran the arts program at the Northern Marianas College in Saipan and then did teacher training in Palau and the Marianas. After that I taught at Palau Community College and then organized an art program at the Belau National Museum. Museums are great
educational institutions, using their collections to create interesting exhibits and to relay culture, history, and ideas to the public in an entertaining format. I am a great supporter of museums—places that teach visually, without exams and
grades! The Pacific has a lot to offer the world in terms of an approach to living, the natural environment, their art forms and beliefs. It is important to preserve what is unique about the Pacific for future generations to know, appreciate, and
learn from. In my various roles, whether it be teaching art, working with teachers, helping local artists develop their talents, or creating an exhibit, I always feel motivated by helping people realize the value of what they have, so that it
is not lost, and at the same time, moving ahead to have a better life in our modern world. Right now I am working at the Ma¯noa Heritage Center. It is a cultural site as well as a living museum. It includes a native plant garden that surrounds an ancient Hawaiian heiau. It is a small site nestled up in Ma¯noa Valley, which offers daily tours that relate the history and culture of Hawai‘i.
LH: How did your MA work and other Pacific experiences prepare you for the positions you have had?
MV: Having lived mostly in Micronesia, my experiences at
CPIS broadened my vision to include the rest of the Pacific and allowed me to see the similarities as well as differences between Island groups. Looking beyond the “American Pacific” region made me acutely aware of the influences that colonial powers have had and continue to have on the Pacific. While at CPIS, I was very fortunate to have taken part in a remarkable two-month project, whereby I visited the University of the South Pacific centers in Kiribati, Fiji, Sa¯moa, and Tonga and assisted in various projects relating to cultural preservation, art, and education. Travel is always a great education in itself, but I must say that my studies at CPIS were an excellent preparation for my encounters in each Island group. CPIS classes are varied and give you the opportunity to analyze issues, think, discuss, and then, ultimately, write. I definitely got a lot of needed practice writing at CPIS,
painful as it sometimes may have been. The ability to write is something that is useful in any position, and I have found the writing skills I acquired at CPIS essential to every job I have held. One reason I enjoyed my studies and did well is because of the tone of the CPIS program set by then-director Bob Kiste. He was open, accessible, informal, and yet professional at the same time. He was excited about what he
was doing, and his excitement was contagious. He was interested in every one of the CPIS students and what they were involved in. He created a great environment for learning and the exchange of ideas.
LH: What have been the most rewarding aspects of your Pacific activities?
MV: Development of the arts in the Pacific—art, music, dance, theatre, and literature—is a very celebratory kind of venture. Helping people express themselves through the arts is rewarding and fun as well. Observing as Pacific Island
artists find their own voice is definitely exciting. For example, many Pacific Island artists are using their own history, traditions, and cultural change as the theme while using contemporary means and technology, such as film, books, theatre, and digital art, to communicate. Inspiring young people in the Islands to develop their artistic skills is also enjoyable. When Pacific Island schools adopt Western-style curriculums, they often omit the arts. Art, oral traditions, and craft were an important part of Pacific cultures. Research has proven that art in the schools helps children learn, motivates them, and provides an avenue for success. I must put in a plug here for festivals. When Pacific groups gather to perform, show their art, play their music, it is a wonderful noncompetitive atmosphere of sharing. Festivals are a way to promote the arts; make the arts, as a cottage industry, a profitable venture; and aid in the efforts to promote creativity, self-expression, and the communication of ideas. Festivals are definitely worthwhile gatherings that are educational and deserve our support.