In the past few classes for my Native Peoples of North America course, we have been looking at how tourism has affected several different Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee and the Hopi. This topic is important because for some Native American groups, tourism is one of their major sources of income. However, this economic opportunity often has an impact on the tribe’s culture and its people. For example, most tourists are hoping to see a specific image of Native Americans, namely how they lived in historic times, and are often disappointed when members of the tribe are dressed in modern clothes or using new technology. So in order to attract more visitors, some Native Americans have to revert back to more traditional forms of dress, ceremonies, or customs, at least in front of foreigners, which may not reflect the culture and practices of the modern day tribe. Case in point, here is a promotional video which is meant to highlight attractions that visitors might enjoy on the Seminole Reservation. Rather than emphasizing their modern culture, the video encourages tourists to watch their historical reenactments and purchase traditional crafts (activities shown in the last minute of the video).
As a result, there is much debate within the Native American community about whether tourism has a positive or negative impact on tribal lifestyles. During our investigation, one of my classmates raised a question about whether our actions of visiting Native American tribes and inviting guest speakers for our class were any better than the tourists who visit Indian tribe for the dances, headdresses, and dream catchers. This question is what I am hoping to address in this post.
After considering this question, I found that I greatly related to this subject because it is an issue that I faced last year when I was studying abroad in Venice, Italy. During the spring semester of my sophomore year, I lived on the island of Venice along the Grand Canal and studied several different aspects of Venetian life, including art history, language, food, and culture. I lived in the city for four months, shopped at the grocery store, explored its narrow streets, and talked to native residents about their experience living in the unique, yet beautiful city. However, despite the lengthy time that I spent living on the island and the efforts that I took to learn about the Venetian culture, I was still seen by most residents as merely one more annoying, loud tourist. It did not matter that I was genuinely interested in learning about the many problems that the city was facing due to the rising cost of living, drastic impact of tourism, and shrinking job opportunities; because I could not speak the language fluently and did not know the customs, I was labeled an outsider and often looked down upon by many of the Venetians. Although I can understand the Venetians love/hate relationship with tourism (bridges are for walking not blocking traffic and taking pictures), I still felt that I should not be considered the same as a person who spent two days in Venice, bought a mask, saw San Marco, and rode on a gondola. I believe that my feelings last spring apply to this question posed about Native American tourism.
Although I can see the reasoning behind this question, I do not believe that our efforts in this class should be equated to the type of tourism seen on many Native American reservations today. Mainly, my response is based on the difference in our focus and intentions while learning about Native American cultures compared to most tourists. First, when my class looks at a particular Native American culture, we attempt to get a complete picture of their way of life by learning about both the past and present culture. For most of the tribes that our textbook covers, there is a division of focus between historical accounts of tribal culture and more recent events and cultural shifts that have occurred within the group. Thus, rather than seeing a shallow snapshot of Native American culture by visiting a reservation for a day, our class aims to learn about many aspects of their past and present culture, such as sociopolitical systems, gender roles, life cycles, and problems affecting the community.
Additionally, in our lesson, we try to look beyond the material culture to learn about the tribe’s values and beliefs that shape the way its members view and interact with the world. In learning about Native American cultures, values and beliefs help to shed light on actions which may seem peculiar or barbaric to an outsider and to provide insight into the importance of many reoccurring symbols and themes within the culture. While a tourist may want to buy a craft because it is pretty, I would rather know the symbolism that the craft has to its creator. Finally, compared to the tourists who visit the reservation because they think it is trendy or cool, our class is genuinely interested in gaining more knowledge about Native American cultures. I took this class because I found Native Americans interesting and because I wanted to know more about their way of life. In this way, I want to use my knowledge in order to form my own opinions about important issues that affect both Natives and Non-Native Americans and to contribute to the discussion and search for possible solutions to these problems. Overall, I want to be better informed and more prepared to help this group of people fight for what they deserve.
To some, this may not be reason enough, but I can only hope that Native Americans are able to tell the difference. I enjoy learning about other cultures, but it is often discouraging to be lumped into a group that is stereotyped as being ignorant, offensive, and careless. I would rather be classified as something in-between, neither insider nor outsider, but merely someone who is hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the people and world around her.