By AUDREY FISCHER
Cultural stewardship for Asian Pacific American (APA) collections is something that Franklin Odo knows more than just a little about. The recently retired founding director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program, which was established in 1997, has spent his 40-year career developing curricula and collections around this theme.
“I defected from Asian Studies in 1969,” quipped Odo, who recently delivered the keynote address for the Library’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. That year, Odo was “knee-deep in trying to figure out an Asian American studies curriculum at UCLA.”
Born in Hawaii, Odo is third-generation Japanese. Educated at Princeton and Harvard, he returned to the West in 1968 to teach at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In an atmosphere of political activism, he was inspired to advocate for an Asian American studies curriculum.
“We were not trying to create divisions but rather to come together in creative ways,” said Odo, noting recent proposals in Arizona and Texas to “expunge ethnic studies” from school textbooks.
According to Odo, 40 years ago there were approximately 1.5 million Asians living in America—or less than 1 percent of the population. Like Odo, most of them were of Japanese descent, living in Hawaii. Today that figure is 15-16 million Asian, or 4-5 percent of the population. Asian Americans of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian and Korean descent are living throughout the continental U.S.
“We are here to stay,” said Odo. Referencing dark periods in American history such as the suspension of Chinese immigration during the 1880s and the Japanese internment camps during World War II, Odo said, “We were not simply victims. We fought in the courts and in the media to assert our rights.”
Given the increasing number of Asians in the U.S. population, Odo believes that institutions like the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress must be the cultural stewards for Asian Pacific American materials.
“With more than 140 million items in more than 400 languages, the Library of Congress is set up to serve Congress,” said Odo. “The Library will find it hard to respond to [congressional] requests,” Odo added, if Asian Pacific American materials are not collected and preserved.
Odo explained that in 1997, the Smithsonian Institution established an advisory group headed by the Norman Mineta (former U.S. Congressman and the 14th Secretary of Transportation) with a mandate to research, deliberate and then report on the Institution’s ability to increase and diffuse knowledge about the nation’s richly diverse Asian Pacific American communities. Released in June 1998, the Asian Pacific American National Advisory Group’s final report called for the creation of an Asian Pacific American studies program. Odo, who retired in January 2010, was the program’s founding director.
Odo also credited James Early, director of cultural studies and communication at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, for “his act of solidarity” in helping to launch the APA Program.
“The Smithsonian’s ‘castle’ is a good metaphor for the institution,” said Odo. “It’s like a medieval European feudal system. There’s a king and each of the 19 museums are their own fiefdom, controlled by dukes, barons and earls,” joked Odo. “It’s an interesting challenge depending on where you stand.”
Odo believes that one of the key measures of the program’s success is its sustainability over time. Since its inception, the Smithsonian’s APA Program has sponsored more than a dozen successful exhibitions featuring Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Indian and Vietnamese Americans, to name a few ethnic groups.
He noted that $60,000 needed to be raised in six weeks to mount the exhibition focused on Vietnamese Americans.
“The community not only met but exceeded the goal,” said Odo who believes that another important ingredient of success is “empowering a community to engage people to control their own destiny.”
In retirement, Odo is working on a book about folksongs that were sung on sugarcane plantations in Hawaii.
“These documents almost disappeared because this form of expression from common people was not valued,” said Odo, “and the next generation may be unable to determine its importance or to read the original language.”
“The Library of Congress, like the Smithsonian, has the responsibility as a national, federally funded institution to preserve our heritage,” concluded Odo. “And if we do this, future generations will be grateful.”
For information on the 2010 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month go to www.asianpacificheritage.gov.