Indigenous Ways of Knowing
“To be ethical is a continuous and relational process. It is not stagnant, nor a checkbox that we as scholars complete by providing an objective product. It is a valued practice in which we must continue to exemplify for ourselves, our families, communities, and each other through an interconnected cycle.” Randizia Crisostomo
Randizia Crisostomo is an Indigenous-Pacific Islander scholar, cultural worker, and educator who recently graduated from the Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program. She has spent her career analyzing the narratives produced by colonial institutions like universities and museums, and implementing projects that honor the histories, knowledge, and practices of Pacific Islanders (PI) and Indigenous communities.
Crisostomo’s commitment to community building and community-based inquiry stems from her lived experience. Born on the island of Guåhan (Guam), Crisostomo was raised to prioritize family and community, and she brings this deeply-held value to her professional and academic work.
Crisostomo’s research journey began as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. As a first-generation student craving a home within the university, Crisostomo wondered how she could bridge between indigenous ways of knowing and her academic education.
Through Holly Barker, a UW faculty member in Anthropology and curator for Oceanic and Asian culture for the Burke Museum, Crisostomo and a small group of PI students began meeting at the museum. The students hailed from a multiplicity of majors, including Nursing, Education, and Anthropology. To create a supportive space for themselves within the university, they looked first for opportunities to connect with their home communities at events where they could provide service.
The students called their group and what they were doing “Research Family.” Research Family captured the relationships of mutual support they were building, as well as the ethos of interdisciplinary and community-based inquiry that informed their activities. It foregrounded the indigenous values of interconnectivity, respect, and reciprocity across university and community spaces.
At the time, the Burke Museum was undergoing a significant shift. For over one hundred years, the Burke has served as Washington’s state museum for natural history and cultural heritage in Pacific Northwest. From 1885 onwards, the museum amassed significant collections that recorded the ongoing interactions between local peoples and ecosystems. In many cases, cultural objects were collected from indigenous peoples and removed from their traditional contexts. Historically, white settlers also expropriated tribal lands, disrupting indigenous lifeways, and creating the need to “preserve” their remains and records in museums.
By the end of the twentieth century, local and global indigenous movements called for museums to restore these cultural legacies. They raised important questions about the practices of collecting, exhibiting, and analyzing. Who has the right to name, possess, and view such objects? Who should narrate or represent their meaning? In what language, and for whom?
Institutions like the Burke have responded with efforts to “decolonize” their practices, in some cases returning objects to their source communities. They have also invited communities to co-interpret and co-curate their collections. Working alongside Barker at the Burke, Crisostomo and members of Research Family extended their community-based modes of inquiry by working with cultural objects from the Burke’s ethnology collection. Bringing these objects back into the community and inviting the memories and stories of family members, they reclaimed the objects and their meanings.
Crisostomo recalls researching about a small rice pouch. Little was known about this object, but her nana-hu biha (grandmother), Josefina Flores Crisostomo, brought it to life. Crisostomo learned that women from the village would weave pouches like this one, called katupats, from coconut leaves, then fill them with uncooked rice for the fishermen to take to sea. Over a long day, the fisherman could dip the pouches into boiling water to make a meal to sustain them. In turn, they would return with resources to sustain the village.
Katupat from the Burke Museum
Through this conversation with her nana-hu biha, the transfer of generational knowledge became a central theme in Crisostomo’s work, as well as a fulfillment of an ancestral value. As her nana-hu biha said:
You are opening up the gate for the rest of the Pacific Islander people and for all the Chamorro children to follow. This is a part of us...that our own people can be leaders of knowledge, because we set the path, just like how my grandparents, my parents, and nana (my aunt) have taught me. Now that they are gone, and I’m here--I am handing my knowledge down to you. All these things, what I’m telling you, and teaching you, all came from my ancestors. It spreads out. If something happens to me, for example, you are going to be the one to carry it on. You’re going to take all of my words, and what I have taught you, and you’re going to teach it to the child out there who are attending school--because you’re going to say, ‘this is what my grandmother has taught me.’ It is a chain, and through that chain, it will never die.
This reciprocal practice of inafa’maolek—gift giving—became central to Crisostomo’s work. In the Cultural Studies program she continued to deepen and thematize it. Her capstone research project, “Inafa’maolek: Ethical, Reciprocal, and Engaging Community Based Participatory Practices,” argues that scholarship needs to embrace these modalities.
Crisostomo worked at the Burke as community outreach coordinator for Oceania and Asia while she completed her master’s degree, helping the museum transition its collections and operations to a dedicated new space which opened to the public in 2019. Now graduated and an adjunct faculty member at Seattle University, Crisostomo is currently teaching a course on “Pasifika Ethics and Storytelling.” She plans to continue her work as a steward of indigenous knowledge and stories by pursuing her doctorate and becoming a professor.