At left, Dr. Franklin Odo, keynote speaker. At right, State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans 2010 awardees last saturday, from left, Mali Kouanchao, FuaHau Latu, Mary Jane Latu, Helemina Latu, Kaimay Yuen Terry, Fredrina Latu, Ellen Miller, Mao Heu Thao, Colleen Riley and Phillip Latu. (AAP staff photos by Tom LaVenture).
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (May 15, 2010) – In his Keynote Address at the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans Heritage Month Banquet Leadership Awards last Saturday, at Crowne Plaza Riverfront in St. Paul; Dr. Franklin Odo offered an insiders look at the development of Asian American Studies and of the Asian Pacific Program at the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Odo, known mostly as Director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution, a position he founded in 1997, and recently retired from to complete a work on “Hole Hole Bushi”, a book on Hawaiian folk and plantation songs.
Odo noted that the Minnesota refugees, immigrants and adoptees are now beginning whose stories are beginning to appear in books, films and documentaries. He only encouraged people to document the commonplace and the ordinary as much as it does the heroic and the famous.
“Generations from now researchers, students and your own descendents will thank you for this, as will the Smithsonian,” said Odo.
The national institutions need the perspective and expertise of the local and regional communities as a ground-up approach, said Odo, who said these are the people in position to say what should be collected.
He said the Library of Congress has a mission to serve the public in addition to serving Congress, and should be expected to do the outreach work around the country.
“They need to be incorporating the extraordinary richness and diversity of our society as a whole and so having them include Asian Pacific history cultural expertise should be expected to have them do their jobs correctly,” said Odo.
The term “Asian Pacific American” is now used as a collection search category, and the Smithsonian Asian Division is now run by Dr. Peter Young.
One of the problems with local based institutions is limitations of space, personnel and funding. They are often dependent on funding by state and local governments and difficult economic times make it difficult for people to do their jobs.
He mentioned good examples of regional institutions as UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian refugee collection; the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, Washington; the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan; and the Japanese Cultural Center in Hawai’i.
Odo said he first consulted at Smithsonian in 1996, when the idea for the APA program was formed. He said Smithsonian Director of Cultural Heritage Policy, James Earley, was an African American with a “sympathetic ear.”
“He (Earley) carved out of his budget the consulting position in an act of racial solidarity with the APAs,” said Odo. “Without him I am not so sure there would be an APA presence, even today. It was really critical that there was interaction and support with people of African American heritage and background.”
With just two staff, Odo said that Reme Grefalda, now the ADFS Vice President of Outreach and Fundraising, began working part time as a fundraiser to build the collection, which has expanded today to contemporary culture and history.
The creation of the Smithsonian APA Advisory Board brought in senators and congressional leaders to offer clout to the fundraising outreach efforts that demanded more than $100,000 a year at first, and quickly exceeded $1 million as projects began to develop.
He credited the advisory board for successful exhibits, “Through My Father’s Eyes” (Filipino American photographer Ricardo Alvarado); “Dreams & Reality” (traveling exhibit of Korean American contemporary artists); and the “Centennial of Filipino immigration to the United States.”
As co-curator of “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon” – the Vietnamese American community after the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon – Odo said the Smithsonian APA program staff were quickly humbled when the community quickly accomplished a fundraising task they thought would be impossible.
The exhibit, which is still traveling around the country and has become a major success of APA program projects, began with a call to Odo in 2004. He said they raised the $60,000 needed to start in less than two months.
“One of the keys is to engage the community and empowering its members to take responsibility for its own destiny,” said Odo. “Create a sustainable model and structure to be good stewards of our heritages.”
Odo said there are many successful heritage projects in Minnesota, and called the APA community here a “leading example of empowerment and sustainability.” He encouraged local cultural organizations should pay special attention to the new groups – and credited the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History and Research Center with collecting the documentation of Asian immigrant groups in this region.
He credited University of Minnesota Asian American Studies faculty, and noted that Dr. Josephine Lee is now the National President of the Association for Asian American Studies.
Odo said that his work mean meant keeping up on APIA activity around the country, and said there is now a growing national movement that will not stop, and the APIA experience is becoming increasingly important to national identity and character.
“The contributions that you all make will be noteworthy,” said Odo.
“The Twin Cities have a plethora of vibrant community leaders and it is a model, I think, for the rest of the country, and the rest of us can learn a great deal from you,” he added.
An author, scholar, activist and historian, Odo was participated in the emergence of Asian American Studies during the turbulent 1960s. Born a Nisei Japanese American in Honolulu in 1939, Odo studied East Asian Studies at Princeton, Graduate School at Harvard, and earned his Doctorate back at Princeton.
At his first teaching position at Occidental College, in 1968, Odo said he it was the height of the war protests and that at nearby UCLA the struggle began to establish an APIA identity and eventually an APIA studies program formed.
Odo said that the debate today is around the banning of ethnic studies programs, such as in Arizona, and said to keep in mind that some instructors tend to overreach and are perceived as trying to create divisions in society. He said that in some ways this “necessary exercise” mirror the white supremacist attitudes, past and present, of educators and institutions.
Odo reflected on the first instance of immigration discrimination back in 1882, when Congress identified four groups that would no be allowed in the country, or to become citizens: Felons, paupers, mentally insane, and the Chinese.
“By the early 1920s, basically all Asians and Pacific Islanders were barred from entering and becoming citizens,” said Odo. “It was not until 1965 that these laws were removed and a surge of immigrants from India, Philippines, Korea and China began (with the influx of Southeast Asians beginning in 1975).”
The idea of ethnic studies is to have information and critical analysis to be pursued by students of all races and ethnicities, he said.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) welcomed the guests with opening remarks – calling May a great month for celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage and the month in which Minnesota was admitted to the union.
“I’ve always believed that our state’s strength and our diversity and vitality comes from our people; and our APIA community is an essential and vibrant part of life here in our state,” said Klobuchar. “We also celebrate contributions of groups that continue to add so much to the richness of our culture.”
Klobuchar spoke on her work in Washington, and said the state doing comparatively well, economically, to other states in tough economic times. She credits a successful future to an innovation economy with skilled people working in a welcoming environment.
She said the state’s largest companies started small, and that for today’s startups to become tomorrow’s giants; Minnesota needs to produce the best and the brightest, which includes people from elsewhere that are educated here and then invited back to contribute.
Klobuchar spoke of the challenges facing Minnesota and the Asian Pacific states in the context of her recent trips to India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, China and Japan. She said that economies are tied together and that it is an important time for stronger ones to jumpstart the weaker ones.
“We are all tied together,” she added. “What happens in one country is going to affect the rest of the world.”
She also spoke on her human rights work, which includes responding to the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees back to Laos from Thailand; the student riots in Thailand; and pressuring the military junta in Myanmar to allow opposition parties and restore free elections.
“When we have people oppressed in a part of the world who are related to us who are either our friends or our neighbors or related to them it really hurts all of us,” she added.
The awards presentation was officiated by Council Chair Eleasalo Ale, who said Heritage Month and the Council recognition of community leadership has helped the Twin Cities APA community and the state to become a better place.
Two Leadership Awards were presented to Kaimay Yuen Terry and Mao Heu Thao. Mali Kouanchao received an Excellence in the Arts award. The family of the late Dixie Latu Riley was present to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award on her behalf.
Karen Lyu, possibly the first and only Korean American female jazz vocalist, provided the evenings entertainment, signing in Korea, French and English. The longtime Twin Cities resident is currently living and working in Nashville.