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Ruminations on Spiritual Tourism

Ruminations on Spiritual Tourism

I am a fast writer, generally. I get an idea, and it just wants to come out, and often it does. Not perfectly, but whatever, there’s no such thing. I do my best. Sometimes I can get thousands of words onto the pixelated page in no time flat. It just is how things go.

The following post, though, is a toughie. It’s really about my sense of disquiet, an uneasiness about the nature of capitalism colliding with indigenous culture. And writing about disquiet is hard. It’s squirming around inside of me, looking for truth, reaching out for answers, when what I mostly seem to have are questions.

Or ruminations at best.

I say all that to ask that you read this post gently and with understanding that it is more exploration than anything else. In the triad of pillager-tourist-guest, I think this middle place, as is so often the case, is the hardest part to articulate or get settled.

The Business of Cultural/Spiritual Tourism

Cultural tourism is big business worldwide, especially for indigenous people, and with good reason. For one thing, many of the traditional crafts, music, dances, recipes, drama, and other teachings would have been obliterated (as many have been) without the influx of money that tourism brings.

Take Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example. Many of my classmates from Wesley Theological Seminary went there for a “cultural immersion” experience of two weeks in the winter spending time and traveling around Pine Ridge and the surrounding areas. I considered this “immersion” myself, as I knew I know next to nothing about the indigenous traditions of the Lakota and Dakota people of that area, and little enough about Wounded Knee and the history of clashes between indigenous people and “settlers” on the land. Of course, I also can’t help thinking of Mount Rushmore, another South Dakota monument this one to white, capitalist empire.

As it turns out, I decided against going on the trip not because of any personal concerns about the political or justice issues involved, but because of my own physical limitations and the lack of access to many of the places the group was scheduled to go.

Nonetheless, something stayed with me: the admonition to make sure to bring cash. Why? Because selling traditional crafts from homes and small shops is one of the only ways that some people at Pine Ridge can make a living.

I also think of hotel chains on Waikiki offering classes on traditional Hawai’ian culture. I consider the many temples and sacred sites around the world that are sustained and protected because people visit them and spend money. I think of trips my friends have taken to Peru, Thailand, New Mexico, and many other places, for the express purpose of learning something about religious, spiritual, or cultural differences and similarities worldwide.

Is there anything wrong with that? (Aside from the incredible fossil fuel use of airplanes, which we’ll set aside for just now.)

How Capitalism Destroys and Preserves

We have created a world in which money is necessary to protect, defend, or just barely hold onto what has been sacred to people for generations. But as one reader has pointed out, we turn indigenous people into exotic objects, their traditional arts simply things with no context or meaning besides our own desire for consumption. Fairy mounds must have special protection from the government, and even that protection is jeopardized when developers want to build. Indigenous people are essentially locked into parks and reservations that then become exotic locales for First World people to visit and spend money.

And that money does indeed keep some traditions alive.

Other traditions, like the singing calls of rural Greece are dying out because people have had to move to cities for work, away from traditional shepherding ways that use those calls. There is no capitalist motive to keep them going. There are only a very few families left who know the fascinating call-and-response language. Why should the world keep it alive?

The Way of the World?

As a friend of mine has pointed out to me, cultural exchange has always happened. It’s how the world’s people have developed. War, empire, pillage, as well as more benign exchanges of trade, invitation, and welcome have driven such exchanges. The Silk Road. The British Empire. Ancient Near East enslavement of prisoners of war. Enslavement of African peoples in the United States and throughout the Americas. Alexander the Great. So many methods that humans have used to mix and match ourselves together.

Furthermore, there is disagreement within indigenous and oppressed cultures around the world about where pillaging ends, fire near a sweat lodgetourism begins and ends, and where invitation, and learning with integrity are. And asking one person to stand in for a whole people is tokenism and often exoticization. I have two Black friends, for example, who are 180 degrees apart about white people singing Black spirituals in worship contexts.

What disturbs me about cultural and spiritual tourism is not that we want to learn about one another. It is good and right that people be interested in one another’s ways. What disturbs me is how capitalism and empire have been used to justify the destruction of cultures and then those same cultures become exoticized and dramatized by the same people living off the fruits of the destruction.

For me, a white Unitarian Universalist minister and priestx (I’m trying out this new word I’ve learned…), the question of cultural tourism is just plain hard. Tourism can lead to pillage. It can also lead to genuine invitation, welcome, teaching, exchange, and permission to share. Being a tourist can lead to becoming a guest.

And being a cultural and spiritual guest is where I intend to go in my next post, probably next week. Keep your eyes peeled!

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