Indigenous Culture and the Rest of the World

Image courtesy of xura at

Societal peer pressure often pushes us to think that any moral person knows saving indigenous culture [1] ,[2] is the right thing to do. Many of the motivations for that belief are the ways minority cultures have been and still are treated. Most Americans know how appallingly our country has treated Native Americans and a handful of other people groups. [3]

Some people respond to western guilt by giving of their time and energy to visit a less advanced civilization in another country. “They are so simple and so happy,” is a common refrain after a typical voluntourism trip to a culture lacking the dependable plumbing and electricity westerners are used to. The sentiment seems appropriate equally for less advanced societies, and cute children. It also sounds very similar to the idea behind the “Noble Savage” stereotype. While characterizing indigenous cultures as ideal, the stereotype also proclaimed them to be less intelligent and mature than those writing about them, and played into some pretty racist ideas of natives as lower forms of people. [4] Besides the destructive influence this type of thinking might have, it is not clear that opening westerners eyes to more primitive cultures and any structures that may be built on a trip are a pure good to the communities westerners go to. Some have claimed westerners are unknowingly taking job opportunities from local workers in their zeal to put together a week’s worth of construction, and even encouraging local families to part with their children temporarily because of their desire to hug an orphan. [5]

Similarly to the way our ancestors decided to impose our rules and culture on indigenous people, some in the west now feel obligated to force them to retain the culture that our ancestors encouraged them to let die. There are those, including anthropologists, who want to leave current indigenous cultures in the mountains or jungles, insulating them from the western world, and forcing them to keep their unique qualities, and way of living. Some anthropologists suggest that teams of experts contact indigenous tribes and live among them in order to sustain their survival, but the author of this article expresses many doubts that the scientists can vouch for all of the things that could go wrong in such a contact.[6]

There is a push among some people to do everything possible to document aspects of unique cultures that are falling out of use.[7] Most of the articles siting these efforts do so with a tinge of remorse that these aspects of a people are not in daily use in a practical way. [8] There is a sense that just recording these aspects of culture is false, and maybe even a cop out.

This article starts to give a glimpse as to what indigenous people might really feel, “’People have this romanticized view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,’ says Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University. But when Hill and others interview people who recently came out of isolation, the same story emerges time and time again: they were interested in making contact with the outside world, but they were too afraid to do so. As Hill puts it: ‘There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet.’”

This article states that most isolated tribes know the outside world is there, and know far more about it than we would think. Many times they contact people from the outside for help because they feel more fear about the dangers they are facing in their home from the likes of illegal loggers or drug dealers, than they fear the outside world as a whole.

The scariest part of knowing there are indigenous people out there is that it seems we westerners haven’t really improved our greeting method much since the days of Columbus. We still introduce disease, and the governments of countries like Brazil who have many isolated indigenous tribes living with them don’t seem to have much of a protocol for preventing that.[9]

We westerners also need to learn that indoor plumbing and electricity aren’t indicators of intellectual maturity or superiority. For example, this article from “The Guardian” reminds us that there may be as many disadvantages as advantages when meeting the outside world, especially considering the disease exposure we bring with that welcome. It also talks about the way indigenous cultures often leave their position of economic independence only to enter into low class poverty. [10] We need to learn about indigenous cultures with respect, on their terms and without the arrogance that our way is either evil or superior with respect to theirs. We need to acknowledge that every culture has positive and negative aspects to it.

This leaves us with a number of options to improve the lives of indigenous people and our relations with them. We need to use the assets we have in the areas of disease prevention, and diplomacy to help governments properly greet indigenous people when we chance to meet them. Obvious wrongs like illegally cutting forests, or the killing of indigenous people who happen upon drug smuggling need to be stopped. But where and how do we start? Many governments of many kinds have indigenous people living within their borders. Some of those governments are far more effective and interested in tackling these multifaceted problems than others. As people work to improve relations with indigenous people how close should we get to them? Should we live among them, or document their culture from afar? Should we consider their culture their own matter and leave them to continue it in private? As we see globalization spreading for better or worse, [11] will our future hold homogenization, diversity, or a kind of personal or cultural expression we can’t now imagine?



  1. “Who Are Indigenous Peoples?.” international Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.
  2. “Who Are Indigenous Peoples?.” Ed. Marian Masaquiza. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.
  3. “The Anatomy of White Guilt.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.
  4. Gardner, Helen. “Explainer: The Myth of the Noble Savage.” N.p., 24 Feb. 2016. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.
  5. Stupart, Richard. “Does ‘Voluntourism’ Do More Harm Than Good?.” N.p., 31 July 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.
  6. Hill, David. “Scientists Must Let the World’s Most Isolated Tribes Make Their Own Decisions.” N.p., July 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <;.
  7. Wegner, Nina. “How Indigenous Cultures Can Save the Modern World.” N.p., 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <;.
  8. Nuwer, Rachel. “Languages:Why We much Save dying Tongues.” N.p., June 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <;.
  9. Nuwer, Rachel. “The Sad Truth about Uncontacted Tribes.” N.p., 4 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <;.
  10. Corry, Stephen. “Do Indigenous Peoples Benefit From ‘Development’?.” N.p., 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2016. <;.
  11. Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction. N.p.: Princeton University Press, 2002. N. pag. Princeton University. Web. 26 Apr. 2016. <;.



  1. What is your heritage? How much do you know about it? What is something you find unique or special about it?
  2. What are some of the biggest problems isolated indigenous cultures face? How does the outside world contribute to those? What do you think would be hard about small village life?
  3. What are some of the positive aspects of being part of an isolated indigenous culture? What do you think you would like about a small village-type lifestyle?
  4. Do you think we should be working to document disappearing languages and cultures? Do you think we should encourage these cultures and languages to be in active use? If yes, how would you accomplish this?
  5. How do you think we should address the violence that is affecting indigenous cultures from illegal logging and drug trafficking? How would you address indigenous violence among tribes?
  6. In an ideal world where would indigenous people fit in? How would globalization and thousands of unique cultures coincide? Would we have a unified culture that incorporated aspects of many? Would we have many cultures?  How would those cultures get along?
  7. What is the most important action to take right now in relation to indigenous cultures?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s