Resisting Tourist Tropes and Valuing Indigenous Culture

When I mention studying abroad in New Zealand, most people think of hiking, mountains and beautiful scenery. In some ways, they are correct. However, these assumptions overshadow the colonial history of Polynesia and the struggles that indigenous people continue to face today.

Walking through the airport my first night here, I was greeted with a large sign of “Haere mai” (Welcome) in white text superimposed on a photo of pohutukawa flowers. My cab driver, upon learning that I am Native Hawaiian, told me how proud he was of his culture and his people, showing me the pounamu he wore around his neck. I soon learned that the former encounter is much more common than the latter.

The core of Maori culture — and native culture everywhere — is always overshadowed by its selling points. “Kia ora!” (Hello!) and “Haere mai” are plastered on billboards and shop fronts everywhere, but there is no mention of tikanga, matauranga Maori, or, for example, the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907, an act aimed to suppress Maori traditional healing methods and force Western medical practices on native communities. The idea that there might be people who are suffering and struggling to live in this country is seemingly overshadowed by the fact that New Zealand is home to such aesthetically pleasing landscapes. After all, how can there be problems in subtropical paradise?

While it is true that New Zealand is full of hiking and mountains and beautiful scenery, without understanding or acknowledging it’s oppressive past, visitors are merely trampling over culture and knowledge without batting an eye. I feel fortunate enough to have enrolled in Maori Studies courses during my time here so I can spend at least a few hours each week learning from tuākana and kaumātua through a lens other than that of Western misunderstanding.

Tourists from all over the world visit New Zealand, fall in love with the mountains and the lakes and (in some cases) end up making a life here. It’s not unheard of to travel here for vacation and end up booking a semi-permanent hostel bed before buying a house of your own and finding a job in one of the cities. Or, buying a van and forgoing the job to drive around the South Island hiking and sleeping wherever you see fit. Meanwhile, indigenous communities are struggling to feel relevant and to keep their culture alive in such a colonized and urbanized homeland.

In the face of a stunning natural environment, there is very little desire to be educated on the culture or life of indigenous individuals. Instead, there is a much stronger desire to take the perfect photo, climb the highest mountain and post it all on Instagram that evening (before 8 p.m.!) with a location tag and @ whoever was present for the moment.

Part of the reason I left home is because I was sick and tired of the culture of consumption that lives there. I was tired of tourists who visited just to take sunset beach pictures; pictures that don’t tend to carry any cultural substance. Three months ago, I arrived in New Zealand, hoping to surround myself with cultural intelligence but, once again, found the exact same tourist tropes. This time, instead of “sunset beach pictures” they were “sunrise mountain pictures” but they were still prevalent and popped up under any Google or Instagram search.

Don’t get me wrong, I love taking photos and documenting what is around me. I love hiking and being in the middle of the mountains or along the coast with little to no cell service, much less wireless Internet connection. However, aside from the plethora of photo opportunities and getting to know other exchange students, these activities fail to recall the history and culture of the ground beneath my feet and the ocean and the trees in my photos.

If a group of foreigners go tramping together for the weekend, they might notice the beautiful sights and the pretty sunsets and the mountainous landscape. However, if a local native person goes tramping, they might notice the plant you use to calm anxiety, or the island in the distance that is the remnant of an animal and it’s quarrel with a powerful goddess or the stars that ancient navigators once used to make their way throughout the Pacific Ocean.

What’s disappointing is that even native knowledge is rare amongst native individuals today due to the stress of Western education over anything else. I know nothing in comparison to others my age who grew up surrounded by this way of thinking, much less my ancestors. Only generations ago, traditional ecological knowledge, a knowledge of the land interwoven with a knowledge of culture and life, was prevalent in native communities all over the world. Today, surrounded by the drought of colonization, this knowledge and those who hold it are much harder to find.

Three months ago, I arrived in New Zealand, hoping to surround myself with cultural intelligence, but instead was reminded of all the ways tourists are complicit in the ongoing oppression and commodification of indigenous peoples.

Until the end of November, I will still be here, hiking and talking to people and seeing more of this country. However, here’s to seeing more through an indigenous lens, understanding more and, as always, asking for more than just some pretty pictures out of this study abroad experience.