Essay 2: A Sea of Islands: Early Foundations and Mobilities of Pacific Islanders

indigenous people of tonga Library of congress
Indigenous people from the Upper Ten of Tonga, c. 1918-1920.

From the collections of the Library of Congress (

By Amy Stillman, Director, A/PIA Studies Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

An essay tasked with introducing the Pacific Islands and its inhabitants might begin by acknowledging late 20th century constructions that coupled together Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. These range from political alliances, demographic initiatives, and socio-cultural formations that grow out of intersections of Asians and Pacific Islanders in island communities as well as within the continental United States. Among the earliest scholarly endeavors, the "P" or "PI" appears in variant namings, such as in the first iteration of the Association for Asian Pacific American Studies (now Association for Asian American Studies) and, at this writing, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In the United States context, it is not difficult to connect Asian and Pacific Islander peoples conceptually via the geographic contiguity of the Asian continent and the Pacific Ocean. While doing so comes at the cost of effacing profound historical differences, and absolute adherence to maintaining those very historical distinctions also ignores more recent histories of intersection. Scholarship on Asia and the Pacific Islands is pursued in two distinctly interdisciplinary fields with attending professional learned societies, publication venues, and claims on academic and institutional resources. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, especially in the US Posessions, fall in the gaps... Read more >> (.pdf 1.9MB)

The views and conclusions contained in the essays are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Part of a series of articles titled Finding a Path Forward: Asian American Pacific Islander National Historic Landmarks Theme Study.

Last updated: April 9, 2019