Scrolling through Netflix, I spotted a travel-centred series called Departures. Having just returned from a trip of my own, I watched it enthusiastically, living my wanderlust vicariously through it. I was excited to see that New Zealand would serve as the setting for two episodes. Although I was born and raised in Australia, I am part Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) and so identify with the country’s indigenous heritage.
After watching both episodes, I felt an empty and slightly aching disappointment. The Maori people hardly warranted a mention, and only two brief and vague moments had even acknowledged their existence. After watching two 46 minute episodes, six whole seconds were dedicated to recognising the existence of indigenous peoples. That’s 0.1% of screen time dedicated to the indigenous core of the country they claimed to want to know.
It felt like an erasure – of the people, of the culture, of our history, of Aotearoa’s soul. They had defined New Zealand by its natural beauty and adventurous activities, but could not spare even a minute to acknowledge its indigenous. Perhaps this wouldn’t hurt so much if indigenous cultures weren’t already actively subdued, and erased, but it is something that indigenous communities have been dealing with, and fighting against, for centuries, and this kind of content makes it very clear that the battle continues.
Look. I understand that people travel for different reasons. Not everyone is interested in culture or history, but the guys (notably, Scott) in this television show demonstrated an active interest in culture. An interest in culture is overtly stated and actively expressed in their desire to embrace other cultures in countries such as India, Japan and Jordan. It was only when travelling through countries that were presently colonised and overwhelmingly white, where culture seemed to become of no interest to them. It was not only observable in the New Zealand episodes, but was also the case in their travels through their home country, Canada.
I believe that acknowledging and respecting indigenous peoples is essential and morally required for ethical travel. I’m not saying it has to be the focal point of a trip, or even that one should have to dedicate much time and effort to it, but some basic action can make all the difference, and I encourage every traveller to make such efforts.
Here are four starting points of action that you can take to acknowledge and respect indigenous communities when travelling in colonised countries.
1. Do some research
If you are travelling to a colonised country, dedicate some time to basic research. Look into its colonial history. Not only does this acknowledge indigenous pasts, but it enriches and deepens your understanding of a country. If you want to go even further, you can watch documentaries, read books, or listen to indigenous voices, such as through interviews, indigenous films (such as Whalerider or Rabbit Proof Fence), etc.
This step is straightforward and easy. It consumes little time and effort and comes at no cost. Thirty minutes of reading on Wikipedia is all it takes. In my opinion, this recommendation is the bare minimum required when it comes to ethical travel. It probably won’t directly help anyone, but it will counteract indigenous erasure.
2. Explore the culture
There are so many different ways to explore the culture. Thus it can be tailored to fit your interests. Do you like art? Then find a gallery that displays indigenous art. Do you like song and dance? Find an indigenous cultural show. Do you like history? Head to the museum, or look into group tours that explore indigenous history. The options are limitless. Learning about other cultures is deeply enriching, allowing you to expand yourself, deepening your knowledge, and discovering new and different perspectives. And obviously, it’s an excellent way to acknowledge, appreciate and come to respect indigenous cultures.
3. Buy authentically
One of the biggest ways that indigenous cultures are exploited is in the appropriation of their culture in the production of souvenirs. Indigenous art is often illegally taken, decontextualized, reproduced, and then sold for profit in souvenir stores without the creator’s consent. Many businesses appropriate indigenous style, in that they adopt it to create their own renditions of indigenous art and craft (usually utilising cheap materials like plastic), promoting it as indigenous when there is actually nothing indigenous about it.
Approach souvenirs that appear to be ‘indigenous’ with scepticism and always try and have them authenticated. This ensures that the indigenous souvenirs you purchase: a) don’t exploit indigenous peoples and culture, and b) financially support indigenous creators, industries and cultural practice.
4. Support indigenous businesses
If you’re invested in empowering indigenous minorities, you might want to think about how one can support indigenous businesses while travelling. They may be businesses in tourism, hospitality, art and craft, etc.
If you enjoy group tours, consider looking specifically for tours run by indigenous companies, and who employ indigenous peoples. Not only will you be supporting indigenous entrepreneurs and workers, but they can connect you to indigenous voices and perspectives. Learning about indigenous history and culture from an indigenous person, as opposed to a tour guide who is not indigenous, is bound to be more authentic, accurate and vibrant.
When people travel to colonised countries and don’t acknowledge the indigenous heritage, I don’t assume intentional hostility or ignorance. Rather, I presume naivety. Indigenous cultures have been continuously suppressed and erased for many years, so it is easy for non-indigenous peoples and foreigners to forget that they exist, or recognise their significance.
The above suggestions are designed to challenge indigenous erasure, and also to support indigenous empowerment through industry and representation. They are by no means mandatory, nor are they the only options. There are so many ways that we can respect and support indigenous peoples, and I am appreciative to anyone who is willing to make those efforts.