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UCCS professor is driven by passion to ‘decolonize’ Pacific Islander history

“The very first time I opened the journals of Captain Cook, I slipped open a page and I saw my last name, Tua’one, on that page. It is, in fact, the very first time that my last name was written down in English.” – ‘Ilaheva Tua’one

For ‘Illaheva Tua’one, finding academic purpose was a deeply personal journey. She found her calling in telling the Native side of the story from 18th-century texts of the Pacific Islands and global colonization.

In 2020, Tua’one joined UCCS and began coordinating the Native American and Indigenous studies certificate. She teaches courses including “South Sea Tales” and “Introduction to Native American Studies” in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies program.

Tua’one was born in Salt Lake City, but her father was from the Kingdom of Tonga, an island between New Zealand and Hawaii.

“When I got to UCCS, it was like the doors flung wide open,” Tua’one said. “I feel such support from this campus, and that this campus [is] thirsty for this kind of knowledge.”

Along with her passion and perspective, she brings a robust educational background including a bachelor’s degree in gender studies, a master’s in English literature and a doctorate in British and American literature. Her English degrees have given her a “discipline” backed by her experience in gender and ethnic studies, making her a well-rounded, committed scholar.

It was in her literary studies that she felt she was missing some connection to Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, but her ancestry led her to a specific path in 18th-century literature.

“Joyce, by the way, is the best author of the 20th century, let’s make that clear,” Tua’one said. “But I have no stake in what he says, right? I do have a stake, though, in the things that travel writers were saying about my country in the 18th century that led to their colonization and to the muting of their culture, and of their gods.”

In 2010, people told Tua’one that no one studies 18th-century Pacific literature, but she took that as motivation. Seeing her ancestors in these travel writings and the journals of colonialists and pirates, she felt a powerful connection to them.

Tua’one found that decolonizing these studies was going to be her calling after discovering a compelling revelation in the journals of James Cook. Marked by historians as one of the first enablers of British colonialism, Cook was a British captain known for three 18th century voyages on which he made the first European contact with Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia and violently mistreated Native Pacific Islanders.

“The very first time I opened the journals of Captain Cook, I slipped open a page and I saw my last name, Tua’one, on that page. It is, in fact, the very first time that my last name was written down in English,” Tua’one said.

“It was as if Tongaloa, who is the Tongan god, were calling to me and saying, ‘this is your life’s work,’” Tua’one said. “And it was so powerful.”

In the WEST program, Tua’one strives to educate students about decolonization and the censorship of Native culture to broaden the field of scholarship at UCCS.

“One of the things I really want for this program is to grow and get more majors, more certificates and more minors. We are working on double majoring with departments as well as possibly getting a master’s program,” Tua’one said.

In addition to the WEST program, Tua’one loves to speak publicly and is a storyteller at Kramer Family Library. Tua’one sponsors the upcoming storytelling hour, the 8th annual storytelling contest at Kraemer Family Library on Oct. 20.

“They have a new position called ‘storytelling professor,’ and that’s me. So, right now, I feel like there’s this forward momentum for me,” Tua’one said.

“I come from a culture that values humor in a big way, and creativity and orality. So, I try to write in a way that people can understand and speak in a way that people can listen,” she said.

Her contributions to UCCS are significant, but she also contributes to Transpacific studies on a large scale. Her work on 18th century Indigenous discoveries is going to be featured in peer reviewed journals.

Using UCCS startup funds, Tua’one visited The Huntington Library, one of the world’s largest archival libraries. There she had access to rare missionary journals that recount how Christianity was forced on Indigenous populations, and said she was heartbroken to find a shocking story in history.

“One of the things I did discover is Tahiti, which is one of the very first islands to be discovered and then colonized and then Christianized. [Christians] turned the Tahitians into Christians and then the Tahitians into missionaries and sent the Tahitian missionaries out to then convert the rest of Polynesia,” Tua’one said.

Tua’one aims to use this research to write new articles and a book.

Getting her doctorate was not easy. Tua’one recalls times of harsh racial discrimination while in her master’s program that took a mental toll on her. Much like discovery journals from Indigenous populations, her own story was muted by people in the program because of how they perceived her.

“Because of that discrimination, I felt like I wasn’t being valued at this institution. So, I left and went West again,” Tua’one said. She lives with her wife and two cats in Colorado Springs.

Tua’one offers the saying “keep your head up to the sky,” from the song “Keep Your Head to the Sky” by Earth, Wind & Fire, to demonstrate the centrality of hope in her work.

“We can only hope for things that can happen. We wish for things that don’t happen. We never say, ‘I hope to be a bird,’ but we can hope for a better world. So, keep your head up to the sky because we can keep hoping,” she said.

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‘Ilaheva Tua’one is driven by a passion to ‘decolonize’ Pacific Islander history. Photo by Lillian Davis.