Indigenous Cultures Welcome English Professor for In-Person Research

Kalamazoo College Associate Professor of English Ryan Fong recently appeared on a New Zealand reality TV show titled The Casketeers, which focuses on Māori funeral directors Francis and Kaiora Tipene, who combine good humor with care and respect as they help Māori and Pasifika families cope with loss.

That appearance might surprise some. But to know Fong’s scholarship is to know why it makes perfect sense. Over the past several years, he has been awarded a series of grants that have allowed him to thoughtfully and respectfully perform in-person research regarding Indigenous cultures, including the Māori, across the British empire and French Polynesia, for a book he expects to release in 2025.

The research developed out of a growing understanding of the limits of his primary educational training in 19th century British literature.

“The sparks for this project came during my time at K and with the relationships I’ve had with people like Reid Gomez, the founding director of our Critical Ethnic Studies program,” Fong said while also mentioning current colleagues such as Professor of English Amelia Katanski ’92. “In my conversations with them, I realized that in order to understand the British empire, I needed to understand more than the colonizer’s perspective. Colonialism wasn’t completely victorious in erasing Indigenous people and their culture, as evidenced by the fact that they still survive today, so in the last seven years, I’ve essentially done another Ph.D. worth of research about the sites and communities I am studying.”

New Zealand was one stop last year and the TV show was a small part of it. Fong binged the first two seasons of The Casketeers on Netflix before traveling to partially fulfill an Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership fellowship. He had also emailed the show’s producers in advance, asking for permission to respectfully visit the outside grounds, and to his surprise, he and his husband were invited inside after stopping by.

“In addition to reading books and visiting archives, part of my research is engaging with contemporary culture like The Casketeers,” Fong said. “The show graciously shares so much about Māori culture, and I learned a ton about their tikanga, or traditions, and their language while watching it. They were very impressed that I knew and used so many Māori words in our conversation, and it was a bridge for me to share some of my family’s Chinese traditions with them.”

Also in New Zealand, Fong visited many of the sites significant to Apirina Ngata, a prominent Māori statesman and cultural advocate who served in the country’s parliament. In 1892, Ngata became the first known Māori person to publish a poem in English while he was an undergrad at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, where he was among the first of its Māori graduates.

Ngata was a member of Ngāti Porou, an iwi—or Indigenous Māori tribe—from the Eastern Cape region, or Tairāwhiti, of New Zealand, or Aotearoa. While in the country, Fong visited Maunga Hikurangi, which is the sacred mountain of Ngāti Porou. As part of an iwi-led tour that takes visitors to the highest point of the mountain at sunrise, Fong was able see one of the first places where the sun touches land on each new day.

For the new millennium, the Ngāti Porou community commissioned carvings for a site on the mountain about Māui, a prominent demigod who appears across the Pacific. One of the iwi’s creation stories involves Māui fishing up the islands of Aotearoa with Maunga Hikurangi being the first bit of land that appeared above the ocean’s surface. Indeed, the North Island actually resembles the shape of a sting ray from an aerial view. The island begins with the mouth at the bottom, proceeding to wings and the tip of a tail going north. Many Māori people will commonly identify their iwi homelands based on where it is on the fish, such as on the tail, the mouth or the eye.

“Being able to physically be on Maunga Hikurangi was more important to me than going to find documents in an archive or see objects in a museum,” Fong said. “I organized my trip to better understand where Ngata is from, which includes everything about the land and the waters that have been so important to him and his people. I was privileged to hear stories directly from Ngata’s present-day kin and to directly witness their deep relationship with their Maunga. I wanted to connect with his community and place not just my mind but in my heart, in order to fully respect their stories and traditions in my own writing and research.”

New Zealand, however, was just one of Fong’s stops around the world for his book research, which started in 2016. His final stop was French Polynesia in January, which is considered by many Māori to be their ancient homeland. Previously, he visited places such as Ontario to research the Haudenosaunee people, southwest Australia to examine the Noongar people, and South Africa to learn about the Khoe-San culture.

“As any academic will tell you, what you quickly realize in any project is how much you don’t know,” Fong said. “There’s still a lot I don’t know, but being able to write responsibly about each of these cultures has been a long process of training myself in the scholarship, doing the reading, and building conversations with community members through the travel I’ve done. All of those things were very important to me.”

In 2021, Fong was one of four scholars from around the U.S. who founded Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, a digital humanities project that began reimagining how to teach Victorian studies with a positive, race-conscious lens. And ultimately, he hopes his book project and research will hold similar potential for his classrooms and students.

“I was intensely moved by how graciously I was received when I traveled,” he said. “I knew I was going only for a short time as a tourist and that comes with lot of baggage and issues. I went in with humble expectations, recognizing that whatever people were willing to share with me would be a gift. But people opened their hearts after seeing the intellectual and, more importantly, heart work that I had done before arriving. My efforts said, ‘I respect your history and culture.’ That work is what informs my teaching and what I wanted to bring back home, not only for my research, but for my students.”

A Q-and-A with Ryan Fong

Interview conducted with Social Media Ambassador Blagoja Naskovski ’24.

Question: What is your favorite part of being a professor at K?

Answer: There are actually very few places in the world that we set aside for people to come together to explore questions in a sustained and deliberate way. Every day I go into a classroom, I have the privilege of doing just that with students. We get to be with one another, talk about readings and learn from one another. It’s an all-too-rare and precious experience.

Q: You teach courses that address 19th century British literature, literature by East Asian emigrants around the world, literary theory, and women, gender and sexuality. Do you have a specific course that you really enjoy teaching and why?

A: This past fall, I had the incredible experience of teaching a class on Indigenous water stories from the Great Lakes and the Pacific. I was able to draw a lot on my experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand and connect them with literature by Anishinaabe writers here in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. Since this class was paired with Bela Agosa’s sophomore seminar Becoming Kin, which was all about Indigenous diplomacy and poetry, we were able to share students and link conversations between our classes in powerful ways, which culminated in a visit to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi tribal grounds with artist and community leader Jason Wesaw. It was a transformative experience for us all.

Q: How would you describe your students?

A: I really appreciate how passionate and curious K students can be, and how willing they are to connect their classroom experiences with their bigger questions about the world.

Q: Do you see interest among K students in learning more about Indigenous communities through literature?

A: Little by little, yes. And thankfully, it’s not just in my classes.  Amelia Katanski has been teaching about these topics at K for many years, and Cyndy Weyandt-Garcia been offering some amazing new classes more recently as well. Learning more about Indigenous history, literature and activism connects with so many issues that are pressing and urgent today—including climate change, political sovereignty and addressing the violence of colonialism around the world.

Q: What would you suggest to students who would like to major in English?

Do it! My fellow professors in English and I all want to give you the tools to ask big questions about the world and to explore ways of making it better and more just. We do that by reading from an array of cultural and historical perspectives and by teaching you how to create and express yourself with your own words. We have alumni who have used this training to find meaningful work in many different arenas, from teaching to journalism to non-profit jobs to publishing to starting their own businesses.

Five people in the lobby of a New Zealand funeral home.
Associate Professor of English Ryan Fong (second from right) and his husband, Eric (second from left), visit the cast and set of the reality TV show, “The Casketeers.”
Ryan Fong stands next to a bust of Apirina Ngata
Fong stands next to a bust of Apirina Ngata, a statesman and cultural advocate.
Tall carvings at a mountain, Maunga Hikurangi, sacred to Indigenous people in New Zealand
The Indigenous Ngāti Porou community commissioned carvings for a site at the sacred mountain of Maunga Hikurangi to mark the millennium.
Sunrise in the mountains of New Zealand
This picture, taken at one of the highest points at the Maunga Hikurangi on the Eastern Cape of New Zealand, shows one of the first points where the sun rises on a new day.
A long and wide canoe used at celebrations to mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the Indigenous people of Northern New Zealand and the British crown
This site shows where the Te Tiriti o Waitangi, or Treaty of Waitangi, was signed between the Indigenous iwi of the North and the British crown. Each February 6, waka—or canoes—like this one are sailed on the bay to mark the treaty’s anniversary.
Tāne Mahuta, or God of the Forest, is the tallest Kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest. It measures 148 feet tall and 50 feet around. It’s between 1,500 and 2,500 years old. Toward the top left, smaller fallen trees have grown into it.