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By Craig DeSilva

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (November 14, 2000 - PIDP)---With 22 years on the job as head of the University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Pacific Islands Studies, Dr. Robert C. Kiste is considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on a region that spans 7,000 miles wide and whose residents speak a quarter of the world’s languages.

During his tenure at the Center, he has probably fielded more inquiries about the Pacific Islands at his UH-Manoa campus office than anyone else in the nation.

"We get phone calls and informational requests from everyone including the local school teacher who wants to know about a particular lesson to the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. which wants to know about a particular issue in the Pacific," said Kiste, the Center’s director.

"Two weeks ago, I was in Washington to give a briefing session on contemporary issues in the Pacific to 20 Congressional staffers whose representatives and senators are interested in the Pacific," he said. "We respond to the private sector and government agencies in Hawai‘i regarding business opportunities in the Pacific."

Kiste also recently met with an official with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who was interested in the recent political and ethnic conflicts in the region.

The Center for Pacific Islands Studies, the only academic center in the country focusing on all the Pacific Islands, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a weeklong conference starting today.

The conference, entitled "Honoring the Past, Creating the Future," will feature scholars and other experts in the region from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Guam, American Samoa, New Zealand, Australia as well as Hawai‘i.

Despite surviving five decades, Kiste notes that the Center was once on the brink of extinction.

"The program had struggled for many years to become a viable center for Pacific Island studies, and I think that has happened in the last 15 years," said Kiste, an anthropologist who previously worked at the University of Minnesota before coming to Hawai‘i.

"Pacific studies had been allowed to lag and lacked organization and focus in the late 70s," he said. "There was consideration of actually doing away with Pacific Islands studies at the University of Hawai‘i. And that caused a hot debate on this campus."

The Center was established in the post-World War II era after the United States acquired administrative responsibilities for Micronesia. Over the years, the Center has developed into the nation’s leading area for Pacific Island studies with academic programs, a publishing house, and outreach programs.

Throughout its history, the number of graduate students enrolled in the Center has grown from just two students in 1950 to 30 students today. The Center has three dozen faculty members who specialize in the history, language, economics, and culture of the region.

The Center produces a twice a year journal called the The Contemporary Pacific, which focuses on current issues in the Pacific. The Center also publishes a scholarly Pacific Island Monograph Series, a series of popular books called South Sea Books, and a newsletter.

The Center’s outreach program includes a series of conferences and lecturers focusing on the Pacific Islands. The program also trains Hawai‘i’s public school teachers to teach Pacific Islands studies in the schools.

Kiste said a $246,000 a year grant from the U.S. Department of Education given to the Center since the early 1970s has been instrumental in keeping many of its programs alive.

"It’s allowed us to have the outreach programs and annual conferences and help support and develop new courses," he said.

The Center is looking at new ways to expand its teaching programs beyond Hawai‘i. One proposal involves the creation of Pacific Island courses on the Internet for students and institutions abroad. The Center is also looking at possibly creating a consortium of Pacific study centers in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Guam that will allow students to study in various parts of the Pacific.

"Interest in the Pacific has always been overshadowed by Asian interest due to the size of China, Japan and Korea and their massive populations and problems," Kiste said. "The Pacific Islands are small potatoes compared to that."

Interest in the Pacific Islands in the United States usually fluctuates depending on whether or not the United States has a strategic interest in the region, Kiste said.

That interest has subsided somewhat since the end of the Cold War. But Kiste said the Pacific region is still worth studying. The latest political and social unrest occurring in Fiji and the Solomon Islands has spawned new interest in the region. The Pacific has also been the focus of criminal activity that has made the region vulnerable to money laundering and Asian crime rings.

"There really is a crisis in governance and stability right now throughout Melanesia that people need to know about," he said. "We think the Pacific is inherently an interesting place to study."

Also, with an increasing number of Pacific Islanders leaving their homes for the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Kiste said those migrants will rely on Pacific Island studies to help them keep in touch with their heritage.

"We’re getting calls right now from (U.S.) west coast institutions with an increasing number of Pacific Island students of Polynesian and Micronesian descent who are interested in Pacific Island studies," he said. "At San Francisco State University, there’s a club of Pacific Island students who want to know about their region. And the city of Auckland, New Zealand is the largest urban population of Polynesians in the world."

This week’s conference will include free performances by dancers, artists, and poets from the Oceania Dance Theater at Fiji’s University of the South Pacific.

A series of discussion will look at the future of the Pacific.

To find out more details about the conference, go to http://www.hawaii.edu/cpis/conference   

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