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To Click or Not to Click: The Dilemmas of a Sympathetic Tourist


It's hard to please the tourists. They arrive, camera in hand, looking for Indians, teepees and feathers. They poke around where they're not supposed to, climb over sacred places and ask silly questions. They talk loudly, litter and shuffle their feet, prying in nooks and crannies, hoping for a glimpse of "real" Indians.

This morning, two tourists got lucky. They spotted our guide, Blue Moon Flower, a member of Taos Pueblo, and without a moment's hesitation, interrupted our conversation to ask if they could take her picture. She obliged, and as she took her place between them, one of the women triumphantly declared, "Good! We got a photo with a Native!"

Welcome to life with the Pueblos in the 21st Century.

For hundreds of years, Puebloan Indians did not have to pose for tourists. They lived self-sufficiently by farming and hunting, they raised their children according to their own traditions and beliefs, and they passed their native languages to the younger generations.

But, as you might already know, all that changed when the Spanish and then the Anglos occupied their land and forced them to adopt new religions, languages and work. After enduring brutal domination by foreigners for over 400 years, the Taos Pueblo Indians (like most other Native American tribes) finally secured the right to their land. (Incidentally, the land was theirs to begin with!) Now, however, instead of living off their land, they live off tourism. And so, day after day, Blue Moon Flower and her tribe have to brave the steady stream of foreigners who walk through their sacred soil in order to take their photographs, buy their pottery and gamble in their casinos.

Tourism is nothing new. I'm sure that every year, most of you probably take a trip and, camera in tow, record the experience for posterity. Tourism isn't such a bad thing, either. Hey, I've been to 28 countries in 24 years, and I'm the first to stand up and declare the importance of traveling and getting to know new cultures. So what's different about visiting the Pueblos? And why did the experience leave me feeling confused and angry?

Try to imagine how you'd feel if strange people came into your neighborhood and started taking photos of your house, your flower-patch, your cemetery and your place of worship. Now imagine those same strangers asking to pose for a photo with you, then bombarding you with questions about your religion and traditions - things that you're not supposed to discuss with anyone. How rude! Well, that's just what happens at Taos Pueblo, one of the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico and home for more than 1,700 people. Every day, dozens (if not hundreds) of people trample through, invading the privacy of those who have struggled for generations to secure this place as their home.

But, wait a minute! Tourism is sounding worse and worse - why doesn't the tribe put an end to it? Why don't they block the road and tell people to turn around and go back home?

Well, it's because in some ways, tourism isn't so bad - in fact, it's necessary. It generates revenue for the Pueblo and creates jobs, and it even has the potential to raise awareness about the tribe's culture and way of life. Many people depend on tourism to make a living, and without it, they would be out of a job. The people we spoke with at Taos understand this, so they try to make the best of the situation by limiting what people can or can't do inside the Pueblo. If you want to take pictures, for instance, you have to pay a special fee. Even after paying, you're still restricted in what you can photograph. No pictures of kivas, for instance, or of people, unless they give you permission. That's why this dispatch contains no images. Stephanie and I felt that taking photos, even if we paid, would be overstepping he boundaries of our visit. What do you think?

So that's been my dilemma - visiting the Pueblo, I became a tourist, too. And by being a tourist, I became both part of the problem and part of the solution.

I wondered how tribe members feel about this dilemma. I decided to pose this -- and other -- questions to the students at the Taos Day School, a K-8 school inside Taos Pueblo that we visited in the afternoon. Most of the 6th, 7th and 8th graders told us they would prefer if tourists didn't come to their Pueblo, even though they are bringing money to the tribe. One girl said that she hated when strangers stopped her on the street and asked her to be in their photo. No kidding! I'm sure I'd feel the same way.

Tourism isn't the only source of contention for the Taos Pueblo. The Puebloans' culture is severely threatened by modern society, and young tribal members often struggle to fit in with both the modern and traditional worlds. Some of the kids told us that their non-Puebloan friends tease them if they miss out on an activity because they have to take part in a traditional ceremony. "They don't understand what it's about," a 12-year old girl told me. In addition, these students are made to learn Tiwa, the Pueblo's native language. But because Tiwa is an oral language, the only way they can learn it is by speaking it with their friends and family. That doesn't sound too hard, right? Well, when we asked how many of the students could speak it more or less fluently, fewer than 20% raised their hands. Some didn't know it at all! And yet, they all agreed that it was very important to know Tiwa, because through it, they could reassert their identity and participate in ceremonies unique to their culture.

Being a teenager in Taos Pueblo isn't easy: teens have to learn a language usually only spoken by their older family members. They have to find time for all their traditional rituals amidst their busy "modern" lives. They have to deal with pesky tourists, and they have to withstand racism from those outside their culture. That's right - these students told us that many of the kids from other schools call them names like "brownie" or "drunks."

Nevertheless, there is hope. One source of hope is named Don Lightningbow, and he is the Governor of Taos Pueblo. We met him when we first arrived at the Pueblo in the morning, and by the end of our meeting, he'd invited us to dinner! Don is a firm believer that education and cross-cultural exchanges can improve understanding between his people and the rest of the world. Although he knows that many tribal members, especially the young ones, have a hard time reconciling their traditional beliefs with modern society, he is confident that in the end, they will learn to fully embrace the best of both worlds. And although he would also rather close HIS Pueblo off to tourists, he recognizes the important educational role it can play for those unfamiliar with Native American culture.

I don't mean to say that you should go to Taos Pueblo and ask the first person you see, "Where are your feathers?" Instead, you should learn as much as you can about its diverse and unique history, and be respectful of its people's sacred beliefs, many of which cannot be shared with non-Native Americans.

In the ideal world, we would practice a tourism that would be neither exploitative nor degrading. It would foster awareness and respect for different cultures and celebrate the differences that make us each unique and special people. So pack your bags - just don't forget to include a healthy dose of empathy, consideration and courtesy for those you're about to meet. It's the least you can do.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Discovering what makes Sherman Alexie tick
Daphne - Cheerleaders and cowboys among the Native Americans?
Stephanie - The time honored traditions of the Taos Pueblo Indians
Stephanie - So what exactly goes on at a powwow anyway?
Team - A little Native American-style Q & A to get your brain juices going