ReConnecting a Community to its Long-Lost Roots
By Alyssa Caldito
Growing up Filipino American in a suburb about 30 minutes from Ann Arbor, I never imagined that the University of Michigan would be home to such a wealth of Philippine artifacts, from weapons and instruments to textiles and ceramics. I first became aware of the existence of these collections when Professor Deirdre dela Cruz spoke to the Filipino American Student Association (FASA), a campus organization that I am an active member of. Like many other Filipinx Americans*, it was hard not to feel a sense of rage: I wanted to know more about the collections so that I could do something about them. How were these collections here? Who took them from their native lands? Why did these precious artifacts have to be stolen? While repatriation is the most immediate reaction from many people, due to the number of ethnolinguistic and cultural groups represented in the collections and the more profound political context surrounding them, repatriation is not always the best answer. So then, what can be done?
After joining the ReConnect/ReCollect project and the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA) as a museum assistant, I knew that although I was limited in my knowledge of anthropological archaeology (as a prospective public health major, I had never studied this material or anything regarding museums), I had lots of knowledge both on the history of the Philippines and the breadth of the Filipino-American community today, thanks to my experiences as a Filipino American who had grown up in the Philippines and was active in several Filipino American organizations.
* Filipinx: an umbrella term used to describe gender nonconforming individuals of Philippine descent. Although there are many disputes around the use of the term Filipinx, in this blog I use Filipinx to describe greater communities, and I refer to individuals by their preferred terminology (Filipina/o/x, Pino/a/xy).
The University of Michigan’s History in the Philippines
The University of Michigan has a long and complicated history with the Philippines, as I would learn during my time at the UMMAA and with the ReConnect/ReCollect Project. My first encounter with the “Michigan Men” in the Philippines was with the Carl Guthe collection, one of the major collections of Philippine artifacts in the UMMAA. Looking through his field notes, I saw that many of the items that he collected, although valuable for anthropological research on trade in East and Southeast Asia and for research on Philippine culture, were stolen from indigenous burial grounds. According to the Philippines and the University of Michigan website, he assumed these burial grounds and pre-colonial practices to be abandoned, yet both showed evidence of their usage. Guthe also primarily relied on the labor of local Filipinos to obtain most of his items, not the work of his own team.
Another of these so-called Michigan Men that traveled to the Philippines from the US was Joseph Beale Steere, an ornithologist that traveled to both South America and the Philippines collecting specimens to be studied at the University of Michigan. His view of the Philippine people was that they were “incapable of civilization” (de la Cruz et. al, 2019) often referring to them as “Philippine Indians.” And yet, while the University was causing harm to indigenous communities all over the Philippines, it was also hosting young, rich Filipino students called pensionados were being sent to the University of Michigan as early as 1936. Even now, the University of Michigan has a robust Filipinx student population, being home to the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) at the U-M Ann Arbor as well as a talented set of Filipinx faculty and a Filipino language program. As a university, how do we address the complicated relationship between the harm U-M affiliates have done to the Philippine people while also acknowledging U-M’s participation in the Filipinx American community of today?
The Importance of Digital Accessibility of the Collections
Making a website was the best way for me to utilize my existing skills to create a meaningful product. So I created one. From personal experience, I know Filipinx Americans to be one of the most patriotic diasporic groups, yet very few Filipinxs in Michigan are aware of the Philippine Collections at U-M. How would the community react to this information? Would there be joy from representation, or collective anger at the existence of the collections and their historical implications?
The only way to find out was to make the collections more accessible so as to facilitate community conversations around the existence of the collections. Yet, from the thousands of items in the collections, how could we be sure of what items would be of interest to these community members? What did they want to see? These were questions I struggled with as I created the website.
Learning About the Community
I am an active member of FASA, as well as a member of the larger Filipinx American community of Southeast Michigan. I’ve met members from many other Filipinx student associations, such as Wayne State University’s Filipino Student Society (FIL-SOC), Michigan State University’s Pilipino American Student Society (PASS), and Oakland University’s Filipino American Students of Oakland University (FASOU). I also grew up being surrounded by other Filipinx Americans, through family friends and involvement in local Asian American organizations.
I chose first to dive deeper into my personal experiences, being the target audience of outreach for a project like ReConnect/ReCollect. I had learned very little about the Philippine-American War in school, although I knew that it caused the deaths of many of my forefathers. I also knew that the years that some of the UMMAA artifacts were collected coincided with this war, and I was attracted to items collected during this time. The item that most caught my attention was a Philippine flag that was slightly altered to contain revolutionary language and symbols. I had never seen a flag like this in my life, and I wanted to learn more about it and its connection to Philippine history.
I also talked to family and friends about their projects and thoughts. Most of them didn’t think as deeply about the harm done from the collections and were more interested in looking at items from their ancestral homelands. FASA, which is made up of a majority of second generation Filipinx Americans, were just excited to see other things that were from the Philippines, and wanted to see more of the collections. They were also fascinated by the history of the collections, especially being students of the university who had never been notified of the presence of these artifacts. Meanwhile, lots of older, first generation Filipinx Americans were less interested in history, but were interested in looking at items that were from the same regions of the Philippines as them. Regardless, everyone that I spoke to had a deep desire to go to the collections, but not everyone could necessarily do so or knew how to do so. Therefore, I wanted to showcase some of these items on the website so that my community and others could learn about them. I chose to write about items that were from different regions of the Philippines, from the southern islands of Visayas and Mindanao to the greater Cordillera region far in northern Luzon. I also organized the website by ethnolinguistic group so as to let Filipinx Americans more easily find information about their own ethnolinguistic backgrounds and the items have similar cultural origins.
An Unfamiliar Field
Taking on the role of a museum assistant contained a huge learning curve for me. Learning how to navigate the world of archives was even trickier: many items had incomplete histories, many of which I had to piece together myself. The flag was one of these items. Not a single database search I did could find any similar flag. In fact, I never did get an answer on who made the flag and why, but after finding out that the flag was collected by an American constabulary during the Philippine-American War, and knowing the major symbolism behind the original Philippine flag, I was able to make an inference about its purpose and design.
For me, working with the collections involved lots of research that didn’t necessarily always give answers, lots of educated guesses, and lots of emotional moments. Finding answers to my questions was often rewarding for me, but it also sometimes uncovered histories of harm that I wasn’t always prepared for. It was often hard to work with the collections, knowing that many were most likely stolen from their motherlands or obtained via exploitation of indigenous people. I wanted to write so much about the collectors and the harms that they did to the Philippines and its people, but from speaking to the people on the ReConnect/ReCollect team and from the UMMAA, I learned of the importance of centering the object and its history over the collector. After all, if I focused on the collector and its harms, I would not be able to tell the rich history of each of these objects as much as I did. From working on them and uncovering these stories, I felt a deeper connection to and understanding of the people who came before me.
Through the website created from my work, I hope that these objects can reconnect with the communities from which they came from in a way that they have never been able to before. I also hope that these same people can complete the stories of these objects, giving them a new life.
Presenting Our Findings
The website I created is just one way that the ReConnect/ReCollect project has spread word of the collections. Over the summer, an artists' residency was able to shed light on the collections in a new, nonacademic way.
As the artists toured the collections, they talked about their personal connections to some of these items, the majority of which they had never seen before but whose cultures and histories were deeply intertwined. My favorite experience from this residency was when Janna Añonuevo Langholz, an interdisciplinary artist, was able to connect with a small model house that was found deep in the collections, similar to one that her grandfather would have built. That experience and many others reaffirmed to me that the collections have meaning to people and that they should be shared with the public so that they can create the same connections that Janna was able to create.
Over the summer, the ReConnect/ReCollect also visited the Kalayaan Picnic, put on by the Filipino American Council of Community Organizations (FILAMCCO). It was my first time attending the picnic, and I was surprised by the number of Filipinx Americans who had come together for this celebration. I was able to see and talk to many community members and watch them interact with the collections while talking to me and the other ReConnect team members. Many of them expressed interest in someday visiting these collections and seeing them for themselves.
The website that I made and the work that I have done with the ReConnect/ReCollect team are just small steps towards reconnecting these items with their communities, but I hope that continued endeavors from ReConnect/ReCollect and beyond will help to usher in new conversations around the collections. Until then, the community is waiting.
I invite you to visit the website and comment: Philippine Collections at UMMAA.
You might also want to visit the ReConnect/ReCollect website.
De la Cruz, Deirdre, et al. “‘Michigan Men’ in the Philippines.” The Philippines and the University of Michigan, 1870-1935, The University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, https://philippines.michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/s/exhibit/page/michigan-men-in-the-philippines.