New Theme Study Uplifts Asian American and Pacific Islander History

By Special Contributor posted 09-11-2018 14:05


By Amy Guay

Few would categorize preservation as disruption. The act of safeguarding structures that have been around for decades or centuries sooner implies the maintenance of an existing environment, while bulldozers are used to upend the status quo. 

But “Finding a Path Forward,” the newest theme study from the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) Program, posits that preservation can—and should—be a disruptive force. The 400-page study, five years in the making, was published in May 2018. It centers Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) sites and stories throughout 18 essays edited and introduced by Dr. Franklin Odo, reimagining historical places to challenge norms so ingrained that they are largely invisible—chief among them the concept of America as empire. “Finding a Path Forward” joins the 2013 American Latino Heritage Theme Study and the 2016 LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study as the NHL Program’s most recent guidebook for inclusive preservation. 


Putting contemporary norms in their historic context can galvanize change. When the subject is marginalized communities in the American empire, that strategy becomes all the more radical. The first essay of the collection is Gary Y. Okihiro’s “Imperialism and Migration,” a fitting transition from Odo’s introduction, which is a rebuke of the colonial structures that continue to affect AAPI communities. The second essay, Amy Stillman’s “A Sea of Islands: Early Foundations and Mobilities of Pacific Islanders,” continues the progressive approach to place-based history, excavating specifically the heritage of Pacific Islanders, folks too often overlooked by the AAPI community that claims them. Leading off the compilation together, these essays send a strong message to those who might be tempted to accept familiar narratives at the expense of telling the full story.

“We were worried that that kind of perspective might put publication in jeopardy with this administration in particular,” said Odo. “The story generally goes: We have made mistakes. They’re one-off incidents. Slavery. Indian genocide. War against Mexico. African American incarceration. Treatment of Native Hawai’ians. Taking over of Guam. Colonization of the Philippines. They’re treated as discrete, unfortunate things that happened rather than as building blocks for what we became.” 

“The theme study intends to say, ‘So what happens when we try to posit all these things using AAPIs as an example?’ That’s part of our DNA. These incidents are not isolated and distinct; they’re part of a pattern,” Odo explains. 

Though he declined to select a favorite essay, Odo said he would recommend everyone read the essays focusing on Pacific Islander history, including Davianna Pōmaika'i McGregor’s “Sites of Resistance to Imperialism” and “Pacific Islanders in the U.S. and their Heritage: Making Visible the Visibly Absent” by Kelly G. Marsh and Tiara R. Na’puti. Both essays advocate for a careful and considered study of Pacific Islanders and their cultures. McGregor also dissects the contradictions inherent in the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, especially as it relates to assigning significance to sites. 

“We need to be able to have people explore these stories, bring them into the mainstream and do so without exclusively looking at scholarship. That was the main point of this theme study,” said Odo. 

The 100-foot-tall Peace Pagoda, designed by Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi and presented to San Francisco by sister city Osaka in 1968, stands at the entrance to Japantown. Learn more in "The Architectural Legacy of Japanese America." | Credit: Photo by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The People Behind the Study

In 2013 then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar tapped Odo to head up an advisory group of Asian American studies scholars. Odo and Alexandra Lord, chief of the NHL Program, recruited those scholars with the help of National Park Service (NPS) staff lead Barbara Wyatt.

Odo’s extensive work in the field of Asian American studies, specifically his time curating exhibits and programs at the Smithsonian, helped him tackle familiar challenges. 

“The Smithsonian gave me a sense of how much work there is to do, especially on the East Coast and in traditional cultural heritage areas, which have been largely white or led by folks who have been in charge for decades. Or millennia! It feels like millennia” he explained. 

Stephanie Toothman then Keeper of the National Register and associate director for cultural resources, partnerships, and science at the NPS, credits Rhea Suh, then assistant secretary for policy management and budget, with initiating “Finding a Path Forward” after seeing the positive results of the Latino heritage theme study. Toothman encouraged Suh to include Pacific Islander history. 

For Toothman, a long-time champion of AAPI causes on the West Coast whose achievements include the designation of Tule Lake as a National Historic Landmark and Minidoka as a National Historic Site, acknowledging people’s experiences is the first step toward healing and reconciliation. “I finished a Ph.D. in American Civilization without knowing about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II,” she said. “That shouldn’t happen.” 

“We’re part of a bigger movement,” said Toothman. "We’re recognizing—whether it be women, or Asian Americans, or the LGBT community—that these people are here, they’ve contributed to who we are as a nation, they represent strength in diversity and a multicultural perspective. We need a more complete story.” 

This lele, or platform, is used for the Makahiki ceremonies that were revived on the island of Kaho'olawe in 1981. This landscape once had two large targets made of tires painted white for ship-to-shore shelling during naval training exercises. Learn more in "Sites of Resistance to Imperialism." | Credit: Photo by University of Hawaii Museum Consortium licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Kathy Ko Chin, one of the theme study’s biggest supporters, is the president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, a former member of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the former board chair of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. From working toward the station’s 1997 National Historic Landmark designation to reopening the historic barracks there in 2009, Ko Chin learned firsthand the challenges and rewards of historic preservation. 

“I know from direct experience that, without the theme study, it is a hard, hard, hard road to hoe to get some kind of designation,” said Ko Chin. “For Angel Island Immigration Station, we tried [to apply for designation] three times, we had nothing backing us like a theme study. My continued hope is that the theme study does create the first step in the path for many, many more sites of API cultural and historic significance to get either on the register or ultimately get landmark designation.” 

Widespread Inspiration

Odo sees the theme study as a guiding light for inclusive historic preservation, a source of motivation for everyone from local preservationists to those working on Capitol Hill. 

“I hope that the theme study brings widespread inspiration for for scholars, community activists and leaders, and students all over to really begin to think about what their neighborhood region incorporates in terms of Asian American Pacific Islander presence and experience. Look at those places and sites. See what stories they have and what meanings they have to illuminate American history, your local history, and our history as a people.”

Odo finds inspiration in Michelle Magalong’s ​​​​​​​networking-based Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP) and would love to “scale up” the revolutionary model Magalong spearheaded. Ultimately, though, the theme study is about elevating and making known the rich history of AAPI communities. 

“You never see Guam on the front page of The Washington Post,” said Odo. “It seems to me from K–12 you learn some of the same things over and over again. It gets sort of boring. Why can’t we introduce some new kinds of stories? Make it a little bit livelier. Like Guam!” 

Amy Guay is the summer 2018 Asian and Pacific Islander American Editorial intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Special thanks to Barbara Wyatt, Franklin Odo, Stephanie Toothman, and Kathy Ko Chin for their time and generosity.

Editor's note: APIAHiP will be holding its conference in San Francisco this November, directly before PastForward 2018.