Monday, April 13, 2009

Culture as Spectacle

Ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular, but in tandem with the benefits can come costs to the indigenous peoples that occupy the same areas as the wildlife that visitors flock to see. It occurs to me that, too often, we treat those “other” cultures as a form of wildlife, too, and this needs to stop.

I had visited this subject privately, when I began thinking of Native Americans, and how they have been so stereotyped, in both positive and negative ways, and how, ultimately, any stereotype is a negative because it so limits one’s perspective.

I was prompted to think about this again while viewing an installment of the PBS series Independent Lens, which aired a documentary called Milking the Rhino on April 7, 2009. Kenya and Namibia were the two sites profiled, each with issues surrounding the sharing of wildlife and land between tourists and native tribes.

Historically, White colonials in Africa prohibited natives from hunting wildlife, a resource that indigenous peoples were dependent upon, in part, for food. Instead, game safaris allowed White hunters to shoot trophy animals. Later, creating national parks meant relocating tribes wholesale. Sound familiar?

Today, many tribes earn their livelihood through farming, and grazing livestock, which are equally unwelcome pursuits in many wildlife preserves. Ecotourism services have sought to balance this effect by employing tribespersons as guides, interpretive naturalists, liaisons with the scientific community, and as workers in the hospitality industry of lodges and camps build for tourists; and by growing food crops in gardens to be shared with the locals. Still, resentment boils over.

A filmed discussion between the lead government official in charge of Namibian game parks, and the woman in charge of the ecotourist lodge, was telling. She was protesting that the local tribe would essentially turn its village into a “curio shop” in order to sell souvenirs to her visitors. “This is not what [my clients] expect” she intoned emphatically. Her message was clear. Visitors expected tribal peoples to behave naturally, just like the other animals they came to see.

Well, why shouldn’t the tribe be able to exploit the tourists? Seems the least they should be allowed to do in exchange for being exploited themselves. My mind drifts to what I imagine will ultimately happen to tribal customs and rituals. A choreographer from Broadway will be sent to Papua New Guinea to instruct the tribes in how to properly execute their native dances. Don’t forget the wardrobe assistant, either.

The tragedy, as I see it, is that in the act of providing entertainment services to tourists, tribes are corrupting their customs, stripping the meaning from their rituals, and we all lose when that happens. There is no reverence in culture as spectacle, no sacrifice demanded of passive observers. It is us westerners who need to change our expectations, and recognize our arrogance.

For more on Milking the Rhino, and to participate in the ongoing online discussion, please visit the Independent Lens website.

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