Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum Director and Curator Fran Lujan and Artist-In-Residence Jason Pereira spent the morning of Dec. 30, 2020 out in the rain, in the garden of the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum trying to heal a piece of their heritage that was harmed in the most recent act of desecration against the space.
Days before, someone had reached through the metal fencing that surrounds the garden and tagged one of the museum’s rai, a massive piece of currency carved from stone, with bright yellow spray paint, as shared on PIEAM’s Instagram page on Dec. 26.
The multiple rai were made in Yap Island with the purpose of coming to their intended home in Long Beach. Although these artifacts are referred to as “stone money,” they have a spiritual and cultural value that cannot be measured in dollar figures. Rai and the other cultural artifacts housed within PIEAM are not antiquities like those found in the collections of other “museums.” They are considered to be ancestors.
Pereira, who is of Samoan heritage, shared on his Instagram page why this act of destruction was so devastating.
“What many don’t realize including this kid, is that our Pacific Island artifacts are not lifeless or inanimate objects to us. They carry the spirit and memories of our ancestors with them, in the stories and histories of why they were made and the purpose they served. They carry the sweat, blood and DNA of their makers and caretakers. We treat them with honor and respect as we would our own family,” Pereira wrote on Dec. 30.
This was the latest in a long series of attacks against the space. In only the two months of Nov. and Dec. 2020, the murals on the outer walls have been marked with graffiti approximately six different times.
Before explaining why the building and sacred artifacts should be off limits to them, Pereira showed he understood the perspective of young taggers.
“I come from this world – tagging, writing, graffiti, graffiti art, gettin’ up – all of that. It has its own rules, code of ethics, generational perspectives; and what drives it is that basic human desire – acknowledgments, attention, fame, notoriety. So I get it. I get the ‘why.’ It’s the ‘what’ part that hurts tho’…” Pereira wrote prior to explaining what happened.
Lujan told the Signal Tribune that people often ask if PIEAM has cameras installed. Cameras are in fact present on site but do not do much to stop or deter people from causing damage.
Two years ago the cameras caught a woman who appeared to be having a mental health crisis violently attacking a latte stone that was kept outdoors. After striking it the first time with a bizarre amount of strength, she left and returned with a pole and used it to shatter the ancient piece. The damage is permanent, and the latte stone has now been brought inside for safe keeping.
The latte stone was donated by a family within the Kutturan CHamoru clan, which is based in Long Beach and has been providing free CHamoru language and dance lessons within the city for 20 years.
Latte stones are pillars with capstones that were once used by CHamoru people, who are Indigenous to Guam, to support buildings. Lujan, who is CHamoru, informed the Signal Tribune that all the traditional creations of people Indigenous to the Pacific Islands of Oceania were made with a purpose.
“Everything we do is for a purpose, and so whether it is for shelter, healing, sustenance, journey– everything. Everything the people of the Pacific Islands of Oceania, everything we do is for those reasons, everything. And it’s not because we want to build something, create something just so it can be beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. But they all have a purpose. They all have a purpose and it’s going to be for one of those: shelter, healing, sustenance, journey,” Lujan said.
PIEAM’s name does not fully convey what the space means to people, in the same way “vandalism” doesn’t fully encompass what has been done to it.
“I do not like using the word museum. I prefer to call it a community house,” Lujan told the Signal Tribune.
There are significant differences between the community house and museums run by people descended from colonizers. The garden of PIEAM is one of the few public places you can view rai outside of Yap Island that have not been stolen.
“It’s not ancient. It was carved specifically for us because it would be disrespectful to take a stone from ancient ground from someone’s home and take it, put it in your land in your space. So that’s what other museums do, right? They take things from different countries and different spaces, and they literally buy them and take them. And it’s kind of a form of looting. And they take them, and it’s not theirs,” Lujan said.
Indeed, museums that house the cultural artifacts of colonized people yet are controlled by individuals belonging to the communities who committed the colonizing in the first place have a long history of committing what other cultures would reasonably consider theft and grave robbing in the name of archaeology.
Museums and white archaeologists have been complicit in the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples for centuries. Atrocities include the infamous “mummy unwrapping parties” held by Europeans after Napoleons’s invasion of Northern Africa, the butchering of Yaqui victims of genocide so that their heads and hands could be sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and countless others.
While these examples give context to how long museums have participated in this tradition of theft, modern day instances of museums holding stolen pieces of other cultures are not hard to find. A little over half a year ago, LACMA finally returned a series of paintings that were looted from Korean temples by American soldiers, five years after being made aware of the artworks’ origins.
The cultures native to the Pacific Islands have not been immune to the ransacking of colonizers. To this day, the British Museum in London, England refuses to return two stolen moai to the people of Rapa Nui (known as Easter Island). The British Museum has posted on a page on its website that it is aware of the desire of Rapa Nui’s people to return the statues to their home, and then provides an overview of alleged reasons why the museum will continue to refuse to do so, reiterating the idea that theft by colonizers is acceptable if done in the name of archaeology or anthropology.
“Hoa Hakananai’a represents one of the world’s great sculptural traditions, and is a witness to the global significance of Rapa Nui culture. Its presence increases public understanding of the history of Rapa Nui, its people’s artistic achievements past, present and future, and the challenges faced by the community today. The strength of the British Museum’s collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect – whether through trade, migration, conquest, peaceful exchange or other interactions – both in the past and today,” the British Museum’s website reads.
Saying that you plan to show what you stole to millions of people is not widely known as a credible excuse for theft.
The British Museum will only agree to a so-called “collaborative,” relationship, putting the people of Rapa Nui in the position of being forced to share what is rightfully theirs.
All things considered, the community house located at the corner of 7th Street and Alamitos Ave. in Long Beach is a rare and special place, in which Indigenous people are able to have agency over how their culture is shared.
While Lujan’s title is the Director and Curator of PIEAM, she functions as a culture bearer and the sole caretaker of the space. Within her community, the honorific “Aunty” is placed before her name.
“I come from that story. I come from those, as people will call it, from those legends and those myths so every piece in the museum–every piece, every piece–they are my ancestors. Every, every piece is my ancestor. Every piece, even if they’re not from Guam. Cause they’re from the same ocean. They’re all from the Pacific Ocean. And we are all from that, that’s how we’re connected, from that ocean. The water connects us,” Lujan said.
When the Signal Tribune visited the exterior of PIEAM’s garden Jan. 13, the paint sprayed on the rai had faded with cleaning but was still visible. When asked how Long Beach residents can help support the community house, Lujan asked that people speak up if they see someone harming it, and come pay a visit once it’s allowed to reopen to the public. General admission is only $5, and $3 for students and seniors.
In an act of extreme generosity, Pereira even invited the vandal who injured the rai to one day return to the space and learn.
“To this kid, who couldn’t even finish his damn throw-up tag cuz he couldn’t reach any further through the fence, and the other local kids who’ve been hitting up on the museum’s beautiful exterior wall murals- yo, this is my Aunty’s house! Please show respect, don’t hit up on it, and know one of your own are here too. When we open back up, come on over and get educated. I got you.”