Welcome to Heart of Conservation Podcast
Show Notes (edited): Dr. Pasang Sherpa: Episode #1
I am speaking to Dr. Pasang Sherpa, a young and passionate cultural anthropologist, from Nepal. She is the only Sherpa with Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas. We are at the Hanifl Centre for Outdoor Education and Environmental Study, in Landour, Uttarakhand, India. Dr. Sherpa is here in the capacity of Professor for Pitt in the Himalaya study abroad programme.
Her research areas include human dimensions of climate change, indigenous people, and development in the Himalaya. She has worked as a lecturer in the department of anthropology at Penn State University from 2013 till 2015and is currently serving as co-director of Nepal Studies Initiative (NSI) at the University of Washington.
I’ll start with the basic question: What made you pursue cultural anthropology?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I was born and raised in Kathmandu. Growing up I was always fascinated by the differences in my grandmother’ s lifetime, then my mother’s lifetime then mine. I was always interested in learning more about the Sherpa culture and wanted to know how my grandmother lived in village herding cows, farming potatoes and my mother as a young bride came to Kathmandu. Then looking at my own life how I was attending English medium schools and speaking Nepali and not having not having any Sherpa friends actually. So, all of that fuelled my interest in the Sherpa culture and I felt that cultural anthropology would be the right academic discipline for me to learn more.
The Sherpa people are often misunderstood or misrepresented? As a Sherpa would you, agree?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: Yes absolutely. Many people think when they use the word Sherpa, they think it means a trusted guide… and that is how a lot of people use it. Including the assistants to policymakers at important policy meetings like the G8 summit. There’s actually a meeting called Sherpa Meeting for the G8 Summit. The word is also used to mean porters and high altitude guides which is how these occupations are being referred to. But the word ‘Sherpa’ actually comes from the Sherpa language ‘Sherwa’ which means ‘People from the east’ and it is a word that describes our ethnic group.
In your website, you mention being based out of Kathmandu during your Masters and completing a thesis on the Indigenous people of Nepal. Thereon your study progressed to the climate change in the Himalaya. Could you tell us what fuelled your interest in the environment and about that progression?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: In 2008 when I was working on my Masters’ thesis–this was the time when Nepal was becoming a new Nepal as in abolishing the royal Hindu kingdom– people were very excited about rights and equality and freedom of everyone in the country. That led me to look more into social inclusion and indigenous movements.
But then for my Ph.D. what I quickly realized was instead of taking a more national broad view and trying to understand it in that way it was more important for me as an anthropologist to be more specific to a location, a site, and an issue. And, because at that time I was the only Sherpa person studying Sherpa culture–and I think I still am the only Sherpa Ph.D. in Anthropology studying the Sherpas–it was very important for me to understand what the Sherpas were facing. I come from the Mt. Everest region.
By 2009 when I was starting my Ph.D. programme, in the Everest region, we were hearing a lot about the potential glacial lake outburst flood. This was quite scary actually because if the glacial lake—which was what the scientists and researchers were talking about—if it would flood and if it had flooded my mother’s village would be wiped out. So, this was something very personal to me also. As the first anthropologist from the region but also as somebody who is concerned about my homeland, it was very important for me to look at the climate change aspect of the Sherpa people.
What was the most challenging part of your research?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The most challenging part of my research has just been who I am actually. Surprisingly. When I began my work, I thought as a Sherpa person, as a Nepali woman it would be easy for me to meet people, collect information and data and all of that but what I quickly found out again as I was doing my fieldwork as a Nepali woman – and I do look young–if I look young now imagine 10 years ago– many people would just dismiss me as a young woman or not find me as important of a person to talk to. I think those things affected my research but in a different way, opened new ways to be creative about my fieldwork approaches. For example, most of the Sherpa research on Sherpa people previously were focused on men; also men who are very powerful. But most of my work, looking at Sherpa perceptions of climate change in the Everest region and also how various institutions have responded to climate change effects, I ended up looking at people who were previously ignored. Villages, that were not very popular and not very easy to reach for researchers and scientists-which is why they were being ignored.
I also was able to spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my aunt, helping her cook meals for tourists and clean. I was not a good cleaner nor a good cook but I tried my best but I think it did open more opportunities for me to listen to actual farmers who go to the fields and who work day and night with potatoes, cabbage and whatever they were growing at that time. And also, I was able to meet with herders–who are very few now–in the Everest region. So in a way, me being a native Sherpa woman in Nepal opened new doors and helped advance Sherpa studies in that sense but on the other hand, it was also extremely difficult for me to work as a female researcher. Not just in the Everest region but more so when I was in Kathmandu, trying to meet with high-level officials. So that was my experience.
You partly answered my next question…which is how difficult is it to be a woman researcher? I understand your point about people not take you seriously or thinking that you’re too young. I wonder if this is typical across Asia or it’s the same story the world over. Also, are there a lot of women researchers out there?
Dr. Pesang Sherpa: It’s very interesting, to me – everything is interesting because I love learning and knowing. Being a researcher here in South Asia and a young professional in the US has been very interesting. I think India is different because I am only beginning here and I have been meeting people in different capacities as professionals. So not speaking of my India experience but focusing on my Nepal experience, I definitely experienced what a lot of women researchers do – being dismissed and that just comes with the territory. Also, cases of sexual harassment while in the field, it’s a given. You just have to deal with it as a woman researcher.
That being said, there are quite a few women researchers in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’. In fact, most of my mentors in ‘Nepal and Himalayan Studies’ are females. But, looking at native Himalayan people, there are extremely few women researchers. I wish more people would become professional researchers. There are very inspiring young, youth leaders in the field of environment and conservation so I think in the next ten years we will see more females leading conservation and environmental work in the Himalayas.
You work must have taken to you to exotic and lesser know regions. Is there one experience that stands outs for you?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: The thing that comes to mind happened a few years ago. The Everest region is very popular. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Now, in 2018, I think it’s a well-established tourist destination so it’s very easy to have a comfortable time in the Everest region. I want to talk about my experience in west (Nepal), which a lot of people consider remote and rural. Again, ‘remote’ is just a perception. What do you consider rural?
That being said, I remember this one time when we had walked for 16 hours. Some of my colleagues and I wanted to look at old trading routes of northwestern Nepali people going to Tibet. We wanted to see what the route was like…how they travelled and all of that. At around 6:00 pm our vehicle broke down in a flat area with no trees, no shelter or house or anything for kilometers. We had to cross two rivers with no bridge. We’re talking of crossing glacial rivers and icy cold water coming at high speed. We tried to fix the vehicle but it wasn’t happening. Eventually, we gave up and as a group decided to walk. I don’t remember the actual distance but our camp was 17 k away. I do remember—and this is the only time, I’ve done something like this—because there was no bridge, the water was cold and coming at high speed, we had to form a human chain to cross the river. Firstly, we took our clothes off as we didn’t want to get wet and cold. It would be impossible to walk in the night with wet clothes on. We would get sick. So the best idea for us was to take our clothes off, form a human chain and cross the river. And we did that twice. Mind you, we had no food. We were hungry, it was cold, it was windy so I started collecting horse and yak dung to burn in case we needed to start a fire. That was my brilliant idea. We kept on walking. I think some of my friends may have gotten altitude sickness. Another colleague and I were the first to reach the first herder’s hut at 10:00 pm. Luckily it didn’t rain that night and also there was a full moon. We were very lucky with that. Everyone at the herder’s hut was asleep so we had to wake them. I was so grateful to them for giving me butter tea that warmed my body. That experience always stands out for me. We reached the camp at 2:00 am. We got good food and I really enjoyed that dal bath.
Why is what you do you important? In the sense, how does it or will it translate it for ordinary citizens?
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: One thing I have always been very conscious about is making sure of the way I speak, the way I use my professional experience and to present myself in a very relatable and accessible way. What I mean by this is that I try to stay away from theoretical jargons and big academic ideas—not because I think they aren’t important but because I want to be more relatable to the everyday ordinary person outside academia.
I am an academic person and I do continue to pursue academic work and I do continue to write literature but on the other hand, I also actively and consciously, in my day to day life, try to be relatable.
Earlier we were talking about my Master’s research, which was looking at indigenous issues and indigenous concerns in Nepal. Secondly, for my Ph.D. work and postdoctoral work I was looking at climate change and just environmental changes and how it was affecting the people in the mountains. All of these research questions actually come from the experiences of everyday Himalayan people. I am not going after the big, new, theoretical perspective or idea. I am not pursuing those theoretical ideas from within anthropology, the discipline, but rather I find my research questions from the local people or from local experiences. This is why I was led to looking at climate change–which is not something I started with– but later became very important to me just because that is where I am coming from and those are the issues are matter to me as a person.
Dr. Sherpa, where are you at in terms of your own goals?
Dr. Pesang Sherpa: After I finished my education, I worked as a lecturer for two years at Penn State University. I really wanted to be back in the mountains and do more research and so I joined the new school as a postdoctoral fellow and that is where I was able to visit a lot of places in the India, Nepal and the Chinese area some people know as the Kailash sacred landscapes. That is where I spent my most recent time.
In terms of what’s next for me, I am exploring ways to connect to people in different ways. Not just as an academic person but also as a researcher whose work involves what’s relevant to the Himalayan people. I am trying to think more about sustainability and climate change adaptation from the perspective of local people. This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would like to do next. Some of the things, I think, might be very helpful and useful in bringing my research findings to the local communities would be using a different medium. That is why I am so excited about this podcast experience.
I want to start a blog and share some of my research findings immediately. The first thing I would be sharing would be my research findings and work on the Sherpa diaspora. Along with Jim Fisher–another senior anthropologist who studied the Sherpas in the 1960s and built the school where my mother attended–I spent the last few years looking at the Sherpa communities in New York, Colorado
Seattle, India, Nepal trying to understand what Sherpa culture is actually. What Sherpa is and what do we mean by it? Because we’re no longer just in Nepal. The first blog that will come out next year would be focused on that project.
Dr. Sherpa do you have a favourite conservation word or term with us. help us improve our conservation vocabulary.
Dr. Pasang Sherpa: I don’t think it’s my favourite word necessarily but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s the word ‘Anthropocene’. The word ‘Anthropocene’ comes from the ancient Greek word: ‘antropose’ meaning human and ‘cene’ meaning recent. This is referring to the geological epoch and talking about current times when human activity is dominating the earth’s systems. The reason I’m interested in that is that I am spending a lot of time thinking about the Himalayas and why it is scared for us Himalayan people.
I’m also trying to connect this notion of sacred Himalaya with the ways people are thinking globally in terms of anthropocine, the new geological epoch. To me, this is interesting because, first of all in the Himalayas, nature, and human have always lived together. I don’t think humans are perceived as more important or above the natural world, which is the case for the western way of thinking where humans are considered above nature and control nature. From those ways of human nature relationship, I wonder what and how we can think about ‘Anthropocene’ and how it might be relevant to the Himalaya we know. So I‘m also wondering if it’s relevant. On the other hand, living on this planet-if, we consider ourselves global citizens-it might be important for us to think about what ‘Anthropocene’ is and where the conversations about the Himalayas fit in these larger global discussions of this new geological epoch. So those are the kind of questions that are in my head these days. That’s my word contribution to you.
If you’d like to read more about Dr. Sherpa’s work visit: http://www.pasangysherpa.com/