Indigenous Isn’t Synonymous With Utopian

Ladies sporting indigenous dress

Peru is cool because it wears its indigenous culture right on its sleeve. I mean literally; you can see it on the many individuals walking around in their colorful native dress. I knew I was in Peru the minute I saw my first embroidered skirt. (Actually I think she was wearing a total of 6 skirts at once…)

As a lover of cultures, I wanted to know more about the indigenous people’s history, beliefs, and lifestyle. And really, what is indigeneity and what does it mean?

Actually, there are a few different indigenous groups that call Peru home. I got to experience one of them a little closer during a stop in Puno. I decided to try out a home stay on Amantani Island in the middle of the gargantuan body of water that is Lake Titicaca. I don’t usually like to do this, but I did it the easy way, and paid a small price to go with a tour group.

Lake Titicaca is more like an ocean

I listened intently as our guide explained the lives of the Uros people inhabiting the island.

“They have no electricity.”

“They don’t use money.”

“They are completely vegetarian.”

“They live in perfect harmony with the earth and each other.”

“Their traditions haven’t changed in centuries.”

How many times have I heard similar phrases used to describe vastly different indigenous groups around the world? These blanket statements are an oversimplified, romanticized view of indigenous peoples that don’t even accurately describe their cultures.

I felt that the guide’s description was a bit insulting because the lives of indigenous people in the modern world are so much more complex than the manufactured utopia he made it out to be. And to top it off, most of his claims, were in fact, not true. When I arrived on the island, I saw telephone poles, power outlets, and my host sister even had a Facebook page. Money from the very tour was funneled in to preserve their communities. They ate chicken!

A street light on their traditional island, imagine that

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those things. Modern technology and traditional culture are not mutually exclusive. The question of indigeneity isn’t simply an issue of traditional vs. modern. Indigenous people do not live in a vacuum. Yes, the people of Lake Titicaca have maintained much of their culture over centuries, but over time there has been an exchange of ideas and technologies from all over the country and the world and some aspects of the culture have evolved through time. “Pure,” undiluted culture does not and can not even exist. It’s the very nature of human culture to adapt, evolve, give and take parts of things like language, religion, or economic structures.

I wish there wasn’t such a blatant attempt on the part of the tour company to construct such a simplified vision of the Uros people. We, the tourists, are partly to blame because we come to expect that. We have a very narrow vision of what indigeneity means and the tour companies try to appeal to that romantic vision of a simpler, kinder lifestyle. However, this results in an inauthentic, staged experience for all parties and tourists come away with no more insight into a beautifully complex culture than had they would have just crossing landmarks off their to-do list.

To deny indigenous people the complexity of their culture is disrespect. As travelers journeying through other people’s homes, ancestral lands, and historical landscapes, we need to be conscientious and respectful. This experience made me realize just how important it is to do your due diligence in researching and supporting socially responsible tourism. We travel the world, meet new people, and experience different cultures to learn as much as we can. How can we learn anything about the real world by putting people in a box, neatly labeling them, and expecting them to play out our fantasies of what we think there culture is or should be?