Engaging with Decolonization at WMA 2019

By Kamalu du Preez - 2019 Wana Chin Scholarship Recipient


     In nearly twenty years of working within a professional setting at a museum institution, the 2019 conference was my first chance to attend WMA, which I found to be a wonderful, eye-opening, and important experience in helping me to develop skills and networks to support my position at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. From the very beginning, my role at the museum has always been focused on care of the cultural resources and ancestral remains of Kanaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian people), a responsibility that always reminds me of my place within my community – as a culture bearer, a practitioner, an advocate, and a link between the past and the future.

     My hope for attending the WMA 2019 meeting was to take part in conversations that challenge, shift, and reframe the dynamics of institutional power and indigenous agency within cultural institutions. These changes are desperately needed in institutions which represent indigenous peoples. While there are many individuals and institutions prioritizing this work on a larger scale, I felt it was important for me to see how these conversations and actions are happening elsewhere in the world. There are times when Hawaiʻi does feel like a microcosm of diversity and inclusion that could be understood as an example of how to bridge gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, yet there are just as many instances of policies or actions that remind me there is still much work left to be done.

     One of the biggest challenges with tackling the need to address decolonization alongside shifting power to indigenous peoples is where and how to start. Sometimes, change can be enacted at or through sites like museum institutions, which hold the cultural patrimony of a people. In other instances, those same institutions, when unwilling to share power and address issues of agency for native peoples, can become the most significant opponents in the struggle to connect indigenous communities with the stories and objects that were held by their ancestors. As someone who has worked within a museum setting for many years, I am passionately committed to finding pathways towards decolonization by not only increasing diversity in representation at museums, but especially increasing the need for and reliance upon cultural competency from an indigenous perspective.

     Having the chance to attend discussions centered on building capacity for diversity and inclusion, challenging institutional and structural racism, indigenous perspectives on museum diversity, and engaging with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in practice were incredibly valuable to me as a practitioner in multiple worlds. The undercurrent of these sessions was the need for social change within different institutions, ranging from acts that are personal, intimate, uncomfortable and challenging to open channels for meaningful engagement and change. The strategies and programs that other institutions are enacting have helped me to think about the actions we are taking in Hawaiʻi and what potential actions may still be done.

     Not only did I have an opportunity to benefit from conversations and discussions shared as an audience member, but also as a presenter in the panel called “Seeding Authority: A Roundtable Discussion on Decolonizing Initiatives at Four Institutions.” This panel was a continuation of similar discussions held at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa earlier in November 2018, which center on the ways in which three Hawaiʻi-based institutions and one California-based museum are addressing the need to decolonize collections, policies, procedures, and even how staff engage in their respective roles. I would not have not known exactly who to expect in terms of an audience, but the room was surprisingly full, considering that the scope of our conversation might have seemed so specific to Hawaiʻi. It was my hope that bringing some of these discussions to the broader museum community on the continent would inspire or spark further action, a decolonial ripple effect in our spaces and professional communities. I am also simply grateful for the chance to speak the truth that reflects my lived experience as an indigenous museum professional, sharing time and space with my fellow panel speakers.

     In Hawaiʻi, opportunities to take part in professional development in forums like WMA are few and far between, and for those of us based in the islands, the costs incurred through travel are sometimes the proverbial nail in the coffin that keep us from engaging as easily as those who are already based on the continent. It was very much a blessing to have the chance to make the long trip to Boise to attend the 2019 WMA conference and meet with others who are taking up the work of decolonizing institutions, whether ally or native, because this work cannot be accomplished by one person or one place alone.

     I am very thankful for the time and space that was provided for me as a recipient of the Wanda Chin Scholarship, and while I may be an awardee only once, I hope to have more opportunities to engage with WMA in the future. Mahalo nui!


Kamalu du Preez was a 2019 recipient of WMA Wanda Chin Scholarship. She has been a museum practitioner for over nineteen years at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum at Kaiwiʻula, Oʻahu, where she is currently the assistant collections manager in the Ethnology department.




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