Interview with Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku

Transcript: 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

So thank you for joining me for this interview for the “How We Remember Oral History Indigenous Archive Project.” So to start off, would you mind stating your name, age and current occupation?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

[Introduces herself in Uchinaaguchi, 00:00:16 – 00:00:24]. My name is Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku. I'm currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, in Santa Cruz. I'm in the history department with a designated emphasis in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. And I am 27 years old.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

So thank you again. So to begin, would you mind telling me your indigenous background, I know you just mentioned it, but a little more about how you grew up.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

[Inaudible 00:00:53 – 00:00:56]. So my ancestors and my family are from the island of Uchina, which is more commonly known as Okinawa Main Island. So we're one of two indigenous groups in the nation state of Japan. I'm diasporic and grew up in San Diego, California, which has a pretty big military population. And thus it has a pretty big Uchina population as well. And a lot of mixed race Uchinanchu people like myself, because our islands host 70% of the US military presence. So there's a lot of contact, but grew up with my obāchan. So my grandmother, and she is from Uchina originally. So I was very lucky, my mom and my grandma tried to get us back to Okinawa as possible. So I grew up going back every couple of years, which is great.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

That's an awesome way to connect with the culture. So on that note, how was Indigeneity part of your life as a child? And how is the history of your community passed on to you?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

It’s a fluctuation to explain. So for me because I'm mixed race. How do I explain it? Because I'm mixed race, like the most. Being mixed is more contentious part of my identity than being Uchinanchu ever was. One of the issues we have with our community, particularly those of us who tend to live in the US diaspora is that (a), no one knows who we are. And (b), even if we say Okinawa, what Okinawa is unless you live in a heavily militarized community, which is familiar, we're looking out for its military strategic position. But a lot of people in our diaspora often either are told to identify as Japanese for expedience, or because they themselves have like grown up and either their family members that they're Japanese just because it's easier. Our islands were forcibly annexed in 1879. So we're a relatively recent “Prefecture of Japan”, but a prefecture nonetheless, at this point. I feel very happy about that sort of our Japanese upbringing, it's difficult because you grew up going to Japanese grocery store, so people are like, “Oh, you're not Japanese?” No. But you go to Japanese grocery store. Yes, they have all of our ingredients. But you speak Japanese, it's because colonialism. But when you're a little kid growing up, that's a much more difficult line to toe. My Okinawa-ness, my Uchina-ness is the most stable part of my identity, because I grew up with my grandma. Because I grew up with my mom. Both of them grew up in Okinawa. My mom moved to the US when she was 16. I knew that was where I was from, it was just how to explain it to others who are not. And I still find it pretty difficult. But I'm sorry, I'm not explaining this very well. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

You're doing great. And I feel like it's also the dilemma of a lot of people of mixed race background or they're kind of diaspora of I am but maybe I'm not, but I sort of like I've got I'm in and out kind of feeling.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So this is part of why I think it helps being a historian. But in the case of being Uchinanchu because we are now Japanese citizens. I don't have dual citizenship. But Uchinanchu born in our islands are not Japanese citizens. You're raised speaking Japanese, it blurs those lines a little bit. Threw down a bagel before this segment.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

We needed the carb motivation to get through the interview.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

To get to your indigeneity question, I tend to disaggregate my childhood identity and my current identity. My childhood identity, I knew I was Uchinanchu, your family’s from Okinawa, we go back to Okinawa, we don't go to Japan, we go to Okinawa. The military is all in Okinawa. Your friends, even if they're not Uchinanchu. More of my friends in high school, just because of the nature of living in a military community, their parents that stationed in my islands, like in Okinawa, so friends of mine growing up would have would live there for longer than I'd ever been there, which was a really interesting sort of thing to grapple with, I think as I get older. I lived with my mom and my grandmother, my mom was mixed as well, my grandfather was a marine. But because I only lived with my mom and my grandma, both of whom were Uchinanchu, raised on island moved here. Like I said, my mom was 16. They either forgot or they didn't really think it was worth mentioning that me and my younger sister are also white. And I grew up seeing my dad, every other weekend, but it was more so to hang out with my sisters and not to talk about white pride or white identity. So I grew up with a very clear track of how I identified. It was like, “Oh, I'm Uchinanchu American, I'm Okinawan American.” And when I got to college, I was placed in a residential college that was primarily Asian and Asian American, which I felt very at home with. And then that's when I realized that people didn't read me that way. And I was like, “Wait, my mom is from Uchina. My mom is from Okinawa,” and that is really eye opening for me, because finally being out of the military community, none of my peers knew what Okinawa was. So that's how I needed to really learn how to explain it. This is Japan which everyone knows what Japan is. Everyone loves sushi. And I'm like, “No, you need to know that they're also colonizers”. So there's that aspect and then as I've gotten older, there's our word Uchinanchu is people from, island of Okinawa, so Uchina is the name of our island and we're the original peoples from that place, our ancestors are all from Uchina on that side. And it really being Uchinanchu to the phraseology of it explains like you're not only to the land, but that the land is an island in the middle of the sea. So our origin stories are connected to the dugong, which are kind of like manatees. And the God’s rode over on manatees from the land, cross the sea, we can't see. And so as I got older, we don't have a word for indigenous in Uchinanchu like most indigenous peoples don't. I always just knew I was Uchinanchu. When I started paying more intently to my identity, I got told I was indigenous by a Native American elder and I was like, “What?” He was giving a discussion in my Okinawan history class which [Japanese 00:09:51 – 00:09:53]. I went to go think and afterwards, because I felt like very touched but I didn't. I wasn't identifying as “big I” indigenous at the time. I was like, “Oh, I’m Uchinanchu, we’re different”. And then I went to go thank him. And he had been stationed on Okinawa during the Vietnam War. He's I think White Mountain Apache. He was like, Okinawa is Indian country and I was like, “What?” So that sort of got me thinking about it. And around this time, I was considering grad school, going into grad school. And I knew that there was anti-indigenous slurs that were hurled at Okinawans still in Japan. But I didn't want to identify as that slur, obviously. So that felt kind of wrong. And then I saw a newspaper article from a newspaper back in DQ, which is the island chain of which Okinawa is the largest island, about Oyakawa, Shinako, going and talking at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues, and I was like, “Maybe people do think this.” And I've since learned, the reason we don't tend to at least in Japanese identify as the definition of indigenous, which is senjūmin-zoku because the Japanese word for indigenous was at the turn of the century, going into the 1900s. The term was created as a way for Japanese anthropologists to describe and explain the people Japan had colonized. So I would never say like “Watashi wa senjūmin-zokudesu.” Which if you turn it into English be like I am an Indigenous person. The two just are not the same. So when I'm speaking in Japanese, I'll say, I'm an indigenous person, like the two are not the same. So when I’m speaking into Japanese, I’ll say, “I’m Uchinanchu,” and then I'll try to explain it. I don't like using senjūmin-zokudesu. And when I'm speaking in English, I very much feel indigenous, as much as I have learned and collaborated and become friends with other indigenous peoples, especially Island people. I'm like, this is what it is. It’s a roundabout. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

It's such a great discussion. And it's really interesting, like the different terminology and what it means and the impact of it. I know in Latin America, even the term indigenous isn't always a useful umbrella term or isn't something that they want to identify with, because it was such a marginalizing term. So how we kind of rectify that in the record is really interesting.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

In Japan, it's still an exclusionary term. It's very dated. People don't often opt into senjūmin-zoku because of all of its historical baggage. It doesn’t have much acquired in English. It's not like a prideful label yet. You say you're Uchinanchu, you say you’re Shimon-Chu, but that is seen as something very different than saying you are “Indigenous” in Japanese. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

It's really interesting. 

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So the diaspora, in this case, is actually informing a lot of this conversation about using the word indigenous. Many of us here identify as indigenous peoples, and that's because of our interactions, not only with Native American and First Nations peoples, but a lot of our community lives in Hawaii. So the conversations with Kanakamala people, as well as what we learn in K-12, either about Native American or First Nations peoples, adds a lot more depth. And in Japan, where the national curriculum doesn't talk about us, or the idea or the other indigenous group at all.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

I feel like it's so important to touch on education, because I recently spoke to someone who's tomorrow from Guam, and he was talking about the role of education and how it shapes your understanding of your indigeneity, your identity, and just how important that is. So is there a specific memory from your childhood that sticks out to you? It can be good or it can be bad, any memory you have? 

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

About?

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Relating to your indigeneity. So I know some people talk about time they spent with their grandparents or like a trip they took that really just stuck out to them.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

I think the first time I realized that our traditions are different than Japanese traditions was when I was a kid. We had gone back to Uchina for Shichigwachi, which when you translate into Japanese is Obon. Obon tends to be more known in the US. And we were talking to Uchina, for Obon, for Shichigwachi. And I was asked, I was talking to a friend of mine who was an exchange student. She wasn't an exchange student, but she was from Japan. She went to my high school, her dad worked at or managed the Mitsubishi factory across the border in Tijuana. I grew up about four miles away from the border. So she was Japanese. So I was texting her. And I was like, “Happy Obon” because I was in Okinawa. And we were gearing up for a bunch. She was like “it's not Obon.” And I'm like, “Yeah it is.” She’s just like, “No”. So I went, and I was like, “Obachan, I feel so confused.” Like, my friend is in Osaka. She's saying it's not Obon. And yet everything here is closed. The yeasar is walking down the street at night playing in the ancestral. Like we went to the ocean, we went to say hi to the ancestors, how can it not be Obon? I'm seeing it. I'm seeing it right. And for the first time, my obachan was like, that's because Japan is on the solar calendar and we follow tradition. So we follow the lunar calendar. Because in Ryukyu, our histories are so intrinsically tied to the tribute relationship that the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was the country before we were colonized by Japan, the tributary system, and the relationship we had with China follows the lunar calendar, as well as our fishing techniques and our Fishermen villages are so tied to the moon's influence over the ocean, that we can't not follow the lunar calendar. But that must have been when I was in middle school, I think. And I was like, “Oh, that's new. Wow.” And it wasn't my first Shichigwachi or anything. Like we'd gone back for Shichigwachi before, we have Shichigwachi festivals in the US in our diaspora communities. But I had never really realized that, not only are the traditions and the practice is very specific to Uchina. But also just like the time, which when you translate it into Japanese, Obon is the same word, the characters are the same. Practically it's the same celebration, and could not be more different. So I think that's the memory that stuck out to me the most.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

That would be mind-blowing. Also, for a kid just to be like, “Oh, this is so…”

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

Because growing up, I mentioned that there was a lot of Japanese transplants down in Tijuana, when I was growing up. And so we had people, kids of my age would come to our school for a year, two years, five years, from Japan. And they'd have a translator go around with them for the first few years. And because I also spoke some Japanese, we sat at the same table as these kids from Japan, many of whom became my friend. And I would talk to them. And I would translator, and I never really understood prior to that Shichigwachi moment, why the translator would always be like, “Oh, you're from Okinawa.” Like without fail, every translator that they brought in would always be like, “You're from there.” And I was like, “Yes”. And I didn't think much of it until after sort of that moment that I was like, it's quite different. That's sort of why the translators always act kinda be shocked. It wasn't overt racism, which I feel very happy about. I've seen Anti-Uchinanchu racism, particularly when I'm in Japan, but this was not that. It was more so just like these translators in their own heads making the differentiation, the distinction. I didn't really have not the ability, but really the push to make that distinction myself. I knew that I wasn’t Japanese. I knew I was from Okinawa, but I spoke Japanese. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

And then, on that line then, so how did your relationship, your identity with your indigenous heritage change as he grew into a teenager, and then eventually an adult?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

When I was a teenager, I was more preoccupied with being Asian than with being Uchinanchu. Because we are an indigenous group from Asia. I didn't know many Native American folks where I was growing up. And I also grew up in a majority minority community. So a lot of people were mixed race. So the assumption it was never that, the first assumption you make about people was never thought that they were Caucasian. If you saw someone who looked like me, what you do first, like almost as a rule as you speak to them in Spanish, and then to figure out if they're from, at least Filipino, and then if they're not from those parts of Mexico, or they don't speak to you in Spanish back then you're like, “Oh, you're probably military kid. So you're probably white in some type of Asian.” And that was the vast majority of white passing folks where I grew up. Like, for me, all of my friends in high school were either Filipino, or mixed Filipino. And so because I'm definitely pass as white, I was more concerned and preoccupied with fitting in with my Filipino American friends. When I got to college, and I moved outside of, or when I moved to Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz is the whitest place I've ever lived. The university is 25% white, and I was shocked. I didn't know that there's white people on West Coast. They left me. I was like, Oh, white people are an East Coast thing” for movies. I was shocked when I got to Santa Cruz. And that people were reading me as White was also painful for a while. Because it felt like at least when I was back home, I went to big high school but these are people I grew up with my whole life. So you know the contacts and so like, even if we're someone who has meeting for the first time, our assumption was never going to be that I was white, it's probably just more complicated than that. It was not the case when I went to college. So suddenly, all this comfort I had of people giving me not the benefit of the doubt, but people just doing this mix that are complicated, and that was totally stripped away. But it's when I started to play with changing my name, so my legal name is Alexyss McClellan. I look very Caucasian. I was born looking very Caucasian. So my name originally was supposed to be Miyuki, which is a Japanese language name meaning like beautiful white snow, which is hilarious because Okinawa is a tropical island but my mom and my great grandmother's Japanese name was Miyuki as well. When I was born, they had this name all picked out and I looked too white then my mom and my dad who were still married at the time, were like, we can't name her Miyuki. That's just mean. And so they had to come up with a new name, which is Alexyss. And then they've saved Miyuki and so that's my little sister's name, that’s much more. So I didn't have like a name going into college that was readable as Uchinanchu or Asian in any type of way. Throughout college, I dabbled with using my last name, hyphenated McClellan, hyphen Oshiro which is my grandmother's legal maiden name, it's my clan name. It's my family's fam, or it's my family name back in Uchina. And I never trained because something felt kind of, honestly, I was probably lazy and I'm like putting too much weight for why I didn’t at the time. It's like 20. But when I took an Okinawan history class, when I took Japanese Empire classes, which I'm so grateful UC Santa Cruz offered. I took those classes, that's when I realized that our language was banned one, was banned by the Japanese, and that all of our last names were changed so that you read the Chinese characters in the Japanese language. And if the characters for Oshiro or Ufugusuku, it's a two character name, it's pretty easy. So the first character is big, and the second character is castle. We're also from near the capital.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Yeah, it make sense.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So the Chinese characters are big castle. When you read it in Uchinaguchi, in our language, it's Ufu, which means big, Gusuku, which means castle. And so when you read it in Japanese, though, the name that it was required to be read as after colonization was Oshiro. After I learned that, that process had happened, I was like, “Oh, I can't possibly be an Oshiro and like it feels incorrect to have this knowledge to know better now, and not try to decolonize my name, which is why I unapologetically McClellan-Ufugusuku now.” So that was one very tangible change that came out of it. It also has the benefit of when people see my name, they have to ask, what it's from now, because it's so uncommon. So then it allows me to go into my spiel about Okinawa.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Which is so helpful. And I think it's also again, another mixed race sort of dilemma. I know my own parents were like, we can't give her a first name that is not going to be able to be pronounced by. Like, we're living in the United States, who's going to be able to pronounce a name like this. And just another interesting conversation to have but also love that just like reclaim that yourself. I think that's so awesome.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

It's really hard to understate the extent to which my watch on my grandma raised me. My parents gave me to grandma, when my mom was done with maternity leave. And I lived pretty exclusively with her until I was seven. So then she lived with me, my sister and my mom until I was 18, still lives with my mom. So if I didn't live with her, I probably would not have such a connection being Uchinanchu.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

So I think my next question was, what are some indigenous practices or practices from your heritage do you practice today?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So it's funny you asked, yesterday was the last night of Shichigwachi for this year. Which might be why that Obon story is on my mind, but still have it up. I'll explain first. So we're an ancestor of generational culture in addition to, I think in English you call animus culture. So we believe that rocks are God, the ocean God, animals have Gods souls, in addition to being we think our ancestors are gods as well. So Shichigwachi is specifically, it's a three day celebration during the seventh month of the lunar calendar every year. And it is three days in which you welcome the ancestors back to the corporeal realm and you feed them, you play the music like [Japanese 00:29:38] music and then you have a big feast on the last day and you send them home. You don't do any cleaning during Shichigwachi. Because it's got it the ancestors long journey. And in Okinawa culture, traditionally, we have what are called [Japanese 00:30:03]. So they're plaques that have your ancestors' names inscribed on them. And that plaque is, most often in the possession of the oldest son in a family. So in the diaspora, (a) I have no brothers and (b) I'm the daughter of an Uchinanchu daughter, who's a daughter of an Uchinanchu daughter. I don't have [Japanese 00:30:35] in my hand. But what I do instead is I have photos of our ancestors, and those who are choosing to celebrate. So have them up right now.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Oh wow, that's so beautiful.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So you can't see very well. But this low key is the hardest thing to get here. And we have very specific incense that we use. So on the box facilities like Ryukyu stuff style incense, or Okinawa style incense. And incense sticks are usually like one stick, ours are sticks and they're all round.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Oh wow, I bet they smell good though. 

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So that's specific for Shichigwachi. So that is one of the things that I uphold sort of in my more spiritually acclaimed life, but traditional practices, there is some wiggle room that has to be diaspora. One of the things that I do is, there's a practice called moai in Uchina and moai is kind of like, there's not an easy English translation. But it's a group of friends who contribute money to a pot of money, every so on. You determine the time, usually, it's like once a month, friends who contribute money to this pot of money once a month. And then so if something happens, and someone needs a large sum of money, and they don't have it, the moai money goes to them. And then you raise contributing, or you could celebrating and partying, stuff like that. So with my Uchinanchu friends that I have here in the Bay Area, we try to sort of have the spirit of moai, and we try to get together once a month. And we don't usually put together a pot because of it was broke as well, but we do like a potluck once a month. We'll go sit in the park, and just you moai, talk and enjoy each other's company for a few hours. Just talk about Uchina being Uchinanchu, stuff we're learning all the time. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

That's so awesome. And I love that that kind of builds community or like an emotional pot instead of having because I don't think any grad student could afford… a money pot.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

And then I think about my indigeneity a lot though, that is part of my dissertation. I'm doing a dissertation on sort of the big eye of indigeneity. Like, looking at indigenous people’s recognition for my people at the United Nations. And the way that our islands have been an object of interest for even before the UN was established. So I do think a lot about being Uchinanchu on to how we relate to other colonized places and specifically colonized islands.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Absolutely, and also good luck on your dissertation. So then you've already spoken on how your heritage is part of your work and studies. How has it been navigating academia and your identity?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

I guess it depends who in academia you're talking to. When I'm talking to students, I don't really give them the opportunity for them to tell me that I'm Japanese. Like, now I’m Uchinanchu. We’re colonized. Let me tell you all the ways why. And I'm lucky I'm currently a grad student instructor for the Japanese Empire class. So we talk a lot about maybe Japan's colonized people’s assimilation policies and I can bring my own people's experience into that class. I also am the GSI for the class we offer on Okinawa in history. And so that's a very specific audience, I control the Caucasian a lot of the time and that's one thing. Then there's the relationship I have with my advisors. So I have three main advisors, my primary is an Okinawa specialist, but he's white. And so our relationship to Okinawa is very different than mine is. And I consider myself very fortunate, he is very onboard with whatever direction I want to take my project, he advises me on content, and I am able to construct the humanity that I have, and infuse that into the content that he's providing to me. And he's been my advisor for years, I worked with him as an undergrad, as well. So he's seen a lot of this intellectual emotional journey in me and it helps me sort of think about how to put that into an academic perspective, which are very helpful. My other two advisors are both women. One is mixed race, she's Japanese white American, and the other is Korean American. So I consider myself very funny, because none of my advisors are actually Uchinanchu. And so as much as they are guiding me, I am also able to explain to them how I need to be personally fulfilled by the project. And they're all very supportive of that, and really letting me be on my own journey while doing the dissertation, which I'm really happy for. And then there's the large, larger world of East Asian Studies in academia which is kind of Japan dominated. So when it comes to that, I find it more complicated because on the one hand I'm like, I want to see more Okinawan panels, like Okinawa studies where we're growing. And then on the other hand, I get really frustrated, because it's either all these like [Japanese 00:37:36], so Japanese ethnic folks, or other non Uchinanchu people who are talking about my islands, and that's their prerogative. I'm not trying to be an essentialist. I don't think you have to be Uchinanchu to do Okinawan studies. But I feel like they're taking up [space] when there's so few Uchinanchu in humanities to begin with. And then sort of especially when I'm back in Japan, I find it really frustrating because I'm like, “Well, I'm Uchinanchu. I have a special relationship to this place.” And Japanese folks will be like, how are you going to do the research? And I'm like, anyway. So there's a level of pushback I get when I'm back in Japan, not by Uchinanchu people, but by non Uchinanchu people studying Okinawa, who feel like because Okinawa is now within the Japanese nation state and within the Japanese socio-linguistic sphere, they have equal access to the islands that my ancestors are from, and I just don't agree. But you are not allowed to shit on me or another person for either excluding you from Sacred Places, or from challenging you with neo colonial ideals.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Like, you can’t gate-keep what isn't even yours.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So it is interesting. Like, there are ways to counter it, though, for the Association for Asian Studies this year, I organized a panel and it's just going to be Uchinanchu people. So, myself, and another grad student and two recent PhDs and we’ve one of the few tenure track professors who is Uchinanchu and the US agreed to be our chair. So hopefully it gets accepted, but the ways to counter it often feel to me a lot more personally satisfying and community building at the same time. We are still mostly called Japanese like by people in Asian studies, unless you're a Japan, like hyper specialist who looks at race or you are an Okinawa specialist, we tend to get lumped into that Japan block. Only a particular is prepared for a conversation on indigeneity yet, I think it's looking too much right now, not too much but the focus right now is very much on politics, and on Mao's China, those tend to be the two big blocks where a lot research is happening. 

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

You'll be a pioneer in that aspect  maybe. 

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

Maybe in the entire United States in a history department, there is only one Uchinanchu person. And I only recently found out she's Uchinanchu, so we're not well represented.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

So knowing that, how then do you feel about the concept of cultural preservation and how it applies to your culture? And then how do you feel about the work that museums, libraries, archives are doing in those kinds of settings?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

It depends. We have a lot of content. So that's a really good question. In the United States, there's a lot of archival materials on Okinawa. And in part that is, because following World War Two, Okinawa was a US military from until 1972. And so during that period, it was run by the US military government, and all the military government archives are stored at the US National Archives. So there's that. And because Okinawa was the site of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater, during World War Two, universities all across the countries have either oral histories with World War Two vets, or they acquire veteran’s personal papers after they pass away. And so you get a lot of “Hits” when you look up Okinawa in research institutions. So I think that's interesting, but it's giving a very particular perspective. And so at the moment, there's also the anthropological museum side of things. So there's archives, and then museums, and museums in the United States have a lot of our ancestral remains, and they don't want to give them back. So that's a second aspect. And then the third one, I would say, is that community history work. And I think the question I have for academics in particular coming into that community work is intentions and commitments. So, for me, I work as a graduate student advisor for the Okinawan memories initiative. It's an undergraduate research project. That is primarily not Uchinanchu students, but they have chosen to study. And in the process, we've formed a partnership with the Okinawa Association of America. Every step that we take, and everything we do with OAA is in close conversation with the OAA. And it's inserted with what the OAA wants. So, for instance, we train undergraduate students on oral histories, and how to do oral histories. And then we teach cultural sensitivity, age sensitivity for those things. And that OAA lets us know which members they want us to prioritize interviewing. So that's one way that we take direction from them. We also do our working to help them organize their personal community archive, that they're housed inside the OAA. So that mean, it's like using our university resources to acquire acid free a folder so that the papers don't disintegrate or digitizing the projects and the collections that they want digitized first. And so it has to be coming from the community. And we have, can support them with, but we'll never take the lead on direction or if the OAA wanted to stop this partnership, like it would be unfortunate, but we would stop. And I don't know that all academics come in with that willingness to product aside. The museum things, I think people ask for stuff back, they should get it back. But I think other people have written much more articulately on this subject than I will. So right now, the thing that I'm focused on is trying to locate a lot of these remains are, because we're part of the nation state of Japan, we rely a lot on looking at the geography tags, rather than the ethnicity tags in museums, which makes things a little bit more difficult. Also, a lot of our human remains came by American or British explorers. So it means having to read a lot of like really shitty men's writings about walking into caves and taking skulls, and then wondering why the quote, the natives wouldn't touch the skulls or carry them for them, even if we were going to pay a lot of money, so I find that to be very emotionally taxing work. But important, ultimately I think the shit should just be given back. People ask for something, give back. The archives, I think, are interesting, because Okinawa is a place that has a lot of hurricanes of buildings that are meant to withstand them now. But because of the World War Two experience where in the Battle of Okinawa, a third of our people died in about six weeks, a massive amounts of distraction. Everyone who was left alive lived in internment camps for over a year, during which time the US military confiscated the lands that they wanted to make bases. And so I'm sorry, this is that phone call I need to take.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

No problem, I'll pause this. We are back.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So during World War Two, so much of the conversation, or not so much of the conversation, but because the island was so badly burned, a lot of documents were burned at that time, a lot of people don't have birth certificates. They had to recreate family registries after the war. A lot of the island just went up in flames, documents with it. Or royal palace, the castle was burned down at that time. So anything that was inside the castle was decimated. And so the only things that were survived or survived from the pre-war period was actually the stuff that was held outside islands which is a very strange place to wrap your head around mentally, which is your islands are so badly affected the place that the history happened, and we're just talking about like, written history right now. We are a oral history culture. So we have our legends, our stories, our family histories, but all traditional histories are located outside of Ryukyu. And so it wasn't until the 1990s that there was a concerted effort by the prefectural government in Okinawa to go to the United States to go to these sites outside of Ryukyu and mass copy everything to bring back and establish a prefectural archives in the Ryukyus. So knowing that this is the history of like, how the archives in the islands function out the official archives, I think that big institutions such as universities in the United States and the National Archives in the Smithsonian, I think that they should have people within the bigger institutions doing that work and sending them to Ryukyu as not a type of reparations but type of reciprocity.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Absolutely.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

It's very strange to think that the easiest place to study Ryukyu is actually the National Archives in Maryland rather than Ryukyu itself.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Rather than the home place, sort of, it's just I know you were talking about, you had mentioned the Smithsonian is a little off topic, but I know recently, they talked about the collection of brains. And like returning those, and I just can only imagine how emotionally taxing that is, especially for families who had no idea that was even missing.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

Literally, there's a grave up in Nago, which is in the north part of Okinawa Island. That was a grave site for a branch of the former royal family. It was like I think, in 2015, or something like that. A university researcher or someone did like a CT scan of the grave, or we have family tombs sound like they're quite large, did a great CT scan of this tomb, and was like, it's empty. And all the family members were like, “What do you mean it's empty? Like, how can it be empty?” We've been praying here for the last 100 years. And turns out that a had been grave robbed by anthropologists from Kyoto University, like 50 years prior, and no one had any idea. Because we seal the tombs and so unless you have a really good reason to open it.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

There's no one.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

So this family is currently in a legal battle with Kyoto University. But I think this comes back to this question of indigeneity, and indigeneity as a political category, because indigenous peoples in Japan don't have, there's no NAGPRA in Japan. Indigenous peoples in Japan, particularly I knew, can ask for human remains back, and they have a better chance of having them sent to a closer institution than they do to their home villages. And in the case of these ancestor remains that are in Kyoto University, Kyoto University, has batted off every lawsuit for almost years. And so they have not even confirmed that the remains are there. Because this political category of indigenous, we're not recognized as an indigenous people, so they don't feel obligated to tell us in accordance with international standards. So I heard that. It’s a difficult situation.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Absolutely. So I think for my final question, I kind of opened it up to you is, is there anything you'd like to share or anything you wish people outside of your culture and community knew?

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

Our community, like there's a lot I could say. But I think like the fact that we are so invisibilized makes things difficult. But I think, if I leave it at anything, like if you have to have a interwoven understanding of what indigeneity means in Okinawa to think that we're indigenous peoples, you have to not only look at our history of colonization, but you also have to look at the ways that even though we're technically Asia, we are in the Pacific, we are an island chain in the Pacific. And so if you look at the ways in which other militarized Pacific peoples have been treated, it makes a lot more sense to see us as indigenous, than if you looked at the way continental Asian indigenous folks are treated. We do have overlapping colonialisms is happening right now because of the US military presence as well as the Japanese continued assimilation policies. And so if you come in with a governmental viewpoint, you won't get it. Like you have to be looking to islands, you have to be looking to the ocean. And when you do those things, you'll see the ways in which our indigeneity is not only intrinsically connected to the ocean, but our indigenous issues are as well. Like, it comes [back] to ancestors and this comes back to militarism, like right now one of the big issues we have in our islands is that we have an area of southern Okinawa down in [Japanese 00:55:00], we had 130,000 of our people during World War Two 1/3 of our island's population died during the war because of crossfire between the Japanese and the US, and compulsory mass suicide at the hands of the Japanese. And with that scale of death, proper burial holes in graves were not allowed. Those people were in these internment camps for over a year. And so there's an area of the island now, where the most fighting occurred. And so it's understood that this part of the land has 10s of 1000s of ancestor remains in this area of land, and this is the part of the island that the Japanese government has decided they are going to dredge landfill from in order to build the new US military base in the northern part of our island. The base is incredibly unpopular. There's been three Okinawa Prefecture votes to not have it. 70% don't want it there as of this referendum. But because Japan doesn't want it in Japan, we have to have it in Okinawa, allegedly. So this will be the 32nd US military base. It's because Okinawa is so small, they want to make a Marine Corps Air Station, so a runway, and they've decided that the only way that they will have enough space to make a long enough runway is by land over an endangered coral reef. So the coral reef that they want to build on is the home of dugong. So those marine mammals as mentioning from our origin stories, it's the home to that. And it is the coral reef that outside of the Great Barrier Reef in Austria has the most biodiversity in the world. This is where they've chosen because of a strategic plan between the US and Japan to build this new base. And then to make matters worse, when they're landfilling over it and they're taking this landfill with all these ancestor remains to fill in the grief, that they're then going to pave over to make an airstrip like that just compounding levels of…

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

It's just horrifying.

 

Alexyss McClellan-Ufugusuku: 

It's not only an indigenous issue, it's an environmental issue, it’s a military issue, it's a democracy issue. Our indigeneity is wrapped up in all of these things. So anyone who has any ideas about what to do about Okinawa, let me know. Any of it right now because there's just so many compounding problems that feed into our indigeneity, that's my takeaway.

 

Claire Lavarreda: 

Thank you so much for sharing everything and for just doing this interview in general, and I feel like I learned so much from you also, just not knowing anything about the culture. So I'll stop the recording but I'm not going to end it.

 

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