National Museum of the American Indian

"To Indigenize the Western World"—Artist and Organizer Jordan Cocker

Designer, artist, activist, and organizer Jordan Cocker. (Tekpatl Kuauhtzin)
Designer, artist, activist, and organizer Jordan Cocker. (Tekpatl Kuauhtzin)

Please introduce yourself. If there’s a Tongan greeting that you normally use, can you share it?

My full name is Jordan Aileah Poorman Cocker. I usually introduce myself in both Kiowa and Tongan ways: Dae own dae bat-san Een-day-kee and Mālo e lelei!

Do you have a Pacific Island name and American Indian name as well?

My Kiowa name is Dome-Tho-Yah-Koiye-Mah, which means Kiowa-Woman-Who-Travels-the-World. The name I was given as a girl by my Toyebo grandma, Christina Hunt–Simmons, is Atday-Tdape-Dae-Mah, meaning She-Is-Related. I was not given a Tongan name at birth or any other time, but my grandma sometimes calls me Sodāni, which is the Tongan pronunciation of the name Jordan.

What is it like being half Pacific Islander and half American Indian?

I have the best of two worlds and am Indigenous in two ways—as Native American from the Southern Plains, K’gou màyí, a Kiowa woman; and as Pasifika, a Tongan woman. The Tongan word for having parents of two cultures is afakasi.

Thinking of myself in halves is a very colonized way of thinking, a very American way of thinking about a person in parts of blood quantum, in pieces, or as a box to tick. In fact there is no such thing as an Asian Pacific Islander. That phrase is a governmental construct based on geospatial ignorance. This tradition of ignorance, with its international ripples, is a source of displacement and marginalization for Oceanic peoples.

In terms of what it's like, my lived experience can be summed up in a word: strength. I am very blessed and privileged to have traveled and lived with both sides of my family lineages. My parents went to great lengths to raise me and my siblings in an old way immersed in the tradition of oral history, travel, voyaging, and family connection.

The years spent on and between my two ancestral territories braided together my two lines in a good way. Everything is about the ancestors—who they are by name, what they did, where they went, and the legacy that they created and passed down to me. My ancestors on both sides of my family survived colonization, boarding school, and so many other types of trauma so that I can live in a good way. Being afakasi is having strength in genealogy, kinship and family relations, and unbreakable bonds with the land and waterways of my ancestors. As I said, I am very blessed.

In March 2018, Portland, Oregon, became the first city in the United States to proclaim May 5 as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Community members came together to hear the city council make the proclamation and to call attention to the rise in violence against Indigenous women and children. From left to right: Unidentified, Talia M. Reasoner, Shalene Joseph, Jordan Cocker, Maiya Laree Osife, Eva Angus, Ginger McCormick, and Erin August. (Tekpatl Kuauhtzin [Nahua/Tsalagi])

What cultural events do you participate in both cultures?

The way I was raised was in ceremony—the Kiowa ceremonial societies Ton-Kon Gah, Tdiepeagah. I guess I’m wondering what’s not a cultural event. Birthdays, weddings, dances, funerals, baby showers, reunions—I have huge families on both sides, and every event is a cultural event. My nephew was named by an elder at the family baby shower we had, and he was still in the womb! Gifts are given to restore balance, oral history is shared. Every time we gather and even when we are alone, we hold our traditions and ways.

Are you a descendant of any Tongan historical or contemporary leaders?

I am a Cocker and a Hansen. On my Cocker side we have many leaders in the family, both in the traditional way and within the Tongan government. On my Hansen side I'm a descendant of Ulukalala, who is in the line of the kings. On both sides of my family, the Kiowa and Tongan lines, we were clan and band societies. I'm wealthy in blood and descendancy in that way.

Where is the community you grew up in, and where do you live now?

I grew up in Oklahoma, about an hour north of the Kiowa Comanche Apache Reservation. My Toyebo family are from Rainy Mountain and my Paddlety family are from Red Stone. Every time I go home I visit my kin in those places. My grandma lives in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and I spent many days at her side as a girl. I also have family in Oklahoma City, where I went to school.

After graduating from high school in 2009, I moved to New Zealand where my dad grew up. I lived there for seven years going to college. I received my bachelors of design from Auckland University of Technology and masters of museum and heritage practice from Victoria University of Wellington. New Zealand was a perfect place to go to college because it's a mecca for Indigenous research decolonization practices. Maori are killing it at living in a whole way in the 21st century. Their progress in sovereignty, language revitilization, and healing creates space for Pasifika innovation in that country. I loved connecting to my dad’s people more and being near my Cocker family.

I currently reside in Gresham, Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is great, but I miss the Southern Plains. Later this year I'll be moving home to Oklahoma City. I travel extensively all over Indian Country for work. Outside of that I have a passion for travel, like my ancestors who traveled the plains and the ocean since time immemorial. At least that’s what I tell myself when I budget for personal travel [laughter]!

What is a significant point in history from your Tongan community that you’d like to share?

A couple of years ago I started an internship at the National Museum of New Zealand. My great aunt Naima Tuinukuafe asked if I recalled seeing a “giant tortoise shell” in the collection. I didn't, but she went on to share a fantastical memory from her girlhood. The story went that she and the princess were playing on the lawns at the palace. She spoke of Tu'i Malila, a huge tortoise from Madagascar hatched in 1777 and given to the royal family by Captain Cook upon his visit to Tonga in July 1777. My Aunty Naima said she climbed on the wide shell, which was as tall as her mid-thigh. She smiled as she recalled riding that tortoise around the palace garden until she “fell off.” Tu’i Malila was 188 years old when she died of natural causes in the 1960s.

How is the modern Tongan government set up?

The Tongan government is a present-day monarchy following the line of the kings since time immemorial.

Approximately how many members are in your Tongan community? What are the criteria to be a member?

One hundred million Tongans. Ahaha, just kidding! There are a few hundred thousand. As far as criteria, there’s Tongan by blood, by passport, and by heart. Interpret that as you will. Tongan identity, like all Indigenous peoples’ identity, is complicated by colonization and globalism.

Traditionally we are an inclusive and abundant people. We were master navigators and were never content to be confined to one place. You can see that in our diaspora—there are as many Tongans living outside Tonga in places like America, Australia, and New Zealand as there are in Tonga.

Is Tongan still spoken? If so, what percentage of Tongans would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Yes, Tongan is still spoken. The Kingdom of Tonga was never conquered and to this day remains a sovereign island nation. I suppose that’s like asking how many French speakers in France are fluent. Most.

What attractions are available for visitors on your island?

Tonga is a group of several hundred islands! My grandmother grew up on a bay called Teleki, which she describes as paradise on Earth. Many visitors come to Tonga because of its remote tropical beauty. Think white sand beaches and humpback whale watching.

Why did you choose to pursue a master’s degree in museum and heritage practice?

I've pursued higher education not because I value western knowledge, but out of necessity to indigenize the western world around me. My educational background is primarily spatial design and museum and heritage, as well as anthropology and Pacific studies. My education also includes mentorship by incredible men and women such as Albert Refiti, Grace Hutton, Teresia Teaiwa, Jillene Joseph, and others.

I decided to get a master’s in museum and heritage practice because the days of the external white savior expert are over. Indigenous people can be our own experts. Also because I'm tired of colonial oppression and the institutional racism that creates disconnections and displacements from sacred and ancestral belongings. This happens in both museological and collecting institutional contexts. I'm tired of museums perpetuating empirical, colonial, or white supremacist narratives through museum practices and policy. I graduated this month to infiltrate the system and indigenize the machine all the way from policy to experience.

What career path do you intend to pursue?

Right now, I'm working for the Native Wellness Institute (NWI), a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of North America’s Indigenous peoples. I'm a project coordinator of the Indigenous 20 Something Project (I2SP), an intertribal movement focused on healing a generation by promoting, creating, and sustaining healthy lasting collaborations among Indigenous people in their 20s. Through collaboration and collectivity, I2SP brings healing to ourselves, our generation, and our communities. I also contract through NWI designing Indigenous evaluation and research for the Future Generations Collaborative, a partnership between Native American–serving entities, tribes, and local government. In the arts, my installation practice is based on heritage or traditional art through a female lens.

My career journey has been nonlinear. In the United States, certainly, sexism, racism, and ageism are factors of the career path experiences of many Indigenous young women. However I persist and intend to continue indigenizing processes and practices as a means of empowering Pasifika and Indigenous peoples and communities.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?

You are strong and resilient. Take the time to heal and focus on your healing, because you are that powerful and can change the future. Higher education is cool, but our ancestors had all the answers. I urge you to seek out that learning. “You need me, I need you, we all need each other. Everything is related.” —Grandpa Gus Palmer, Sr. (Kiowa)

Thank you.

Thank you.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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