Indigenous Peoples' Day: Travel Programs that Celebrate Indigenous Cultures
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Indigenous Peoples' Day: Travel Programs that Celebrate Indigenous Cultures

On Monday, October 10 the United States will recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the nation’s nearly 6.8 million Native Americans. The festivities draw attention to the role indigenous people play across the globe.

It’s unknown how large the indigenous population is worldwide. Estimates range from 250 million to 600 million in approximately five thousand indigenous nations. The continents of Asia and Africa have the majority of the world’s aboriginal population.

Rustic Pathways students spend time with indigenous families in multiple countries to learn about their cultures. Here are some of the people they meet while traveling.

Peru and Ecuador – The Quechua People and More

Students in the Sacred Valley Service program in Peru interact with local indigenous people during their homestay and service work in the Andes Mountains. The Quechua people that they meet are so-named because they speak the Quechua language. This includes the Incas and several other native groups. Overall, about 45% of Peru’s population are members of indigenous groups like the Quechua.

Photo: Rustic Pathways

While the students are in the region, they learn all about Incan culture while interacting with locals and visiting Machu Picchu. Among the things they are likely to see are their colorful handicrafts.

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The indigenous peoples in Peru and Ecuador have struggled with land rights and poverty. The itinerary of one of Rustic Pathways’ programs to Ecuador this past summer was altered when indigenous people in the nation held a strike.

These aboriginal groups in Ecuador have suffered amid the expansion of petroleum and mining activity. Some of this activity has been led by a Chinese mining consortium searching for copper that’s used for electrical wiring in products like computers, appliances, and electric cars. The Ecuadorian government conceded to some demands to end the strike, but the struggles for these indigenous groups remain.

Dominican Republic & Puerto Rico – The Taíno

The Taíno are the indigenous people in the Caribbean, so students traveling on Puerto Rico programs and Dominican Republic programs learn about their history. They are the people Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in the region.

There is a debate over whether the indigenous group still exists, but genetic studies have shown descendants remain. One of the highlights of their culture is their artwork.

Program leader Cody Miller said one of the best parts of the Puerto Rico Paradise program is a hike to an ancient ball court that’s surrounded by large Taíno petroglyphs, which are rock carvings. Many petroglyphs there feature the goddess of fertility, which made this a sacred spot on the island for indigenous groups.

“People would come from all over to have a spiritual journey because it was well-protected and hidden,” Miller said.

Thailand – The Karen Hill Tribe

Students on the Come with Nothing program in Thailand stay in a Karen Hill tribe community during one of their homestays. It’s Thailand’s largest ethnic minority group. It’s believed this tribe originated in Tibet but then settled in Myanmar. In that country tribal members faced persecution with the Burmese military burning many of their villages. That led to many of them fleeing to Thailand for safety.

The villagers live in primitive conditions with many residing in bamboo stilt houses. They rely on farming for their subsistence.

Over the years, Rustic Pathways students have helped with community development projects in one Karen village. This past summer projects included the installation of a water tank and repair of a concrete floor.

Indigenous Fijians

More than half of the population on the Fiji Islands are indigenous Fijians. They live in communities ruled by chiefs. A Council of Chiefs helped maintain some of the customs in the country after the islands were colonized by the British. However, the council was disbanded following a 2006 coup.

Still today Rustic students experience a number of cultural traditions. They are welcomed during a kava ceremony. During this ritual, the root kava, which has a unique taste, is ground to make a shared drink. The students also watch a meke performance, which showcases fire dances and other traditional performing arts.

While some of these traditions have a very long history, the Fijian attire students wear has only been part of the culture since colonization in the nineteenth century. The sulu was worn by Fijians to indicate a conversion to Christianity.

Tanzania – The Hadzabe People

Students on the Culture and the Crater program spend time with one of the only remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. They learn about the Hadzabe’s language, lifestyle and hunting techniques. This includes lessons about animal tracking, making arrowheads, and building fires.

Photo: Rustic Pathways, Tanzania

The Hadzabe are one of about 130 ethnic groups in Tanzania. However, the Hadzabe have some of the greatest difficulty with outside influences since their lifestyle is so different from modern life.

Tanzania Community Impact Manager Tusekile Mwakalundwa says they’ve had to contend with the negative impact of donations that don’t fit their culture. She says Rustic students will see empty schools that were donated but were not practical for a tribe that is on the move. The Tanzanian government met with tribal leaders to try to come up with potentially better options and built boarding schools at recommended sites, but this is also controversial.

“When you keep children in school, they are missing the informal education they would have gotten from their parents, which we could argue is more important for their type of lifestyle and sustenance,” Mwakalundwa said. “We also have people come – tourists mainly – who want to give them certain clothes, but this is not their way of life. We’re changing their way of life.”

Morocco – Amazigh People

The Amazigh are the indigenous people of northern Africa. Sometimes they are referred to as Berbers, though that is considered to be derogatory by many people. Amazigh means free men, so it is the preferred name by most people in the region.

This indigenous group has faced a long history of colonial suppression. For centuries they were forbidden from speaking their language or following their culture. Now they are working to preserve their language which is called Tamacheq, Tamaheq and Tamazight.

Still this indigenous group has faced many battles – sometimes within their own people. Some Amazigh descendants have been dismissive of their own roots. And groups of Amazigh in Algeria have resorted to dangerous militancy to promote their interests.

Despite these challenges, progress has been made, and today many aspects of the culture are alive and well in Morocco. Students traveling on the Moroccan Wanderer program are immersed in their culture, music, and food while staying in an Amazigh village amid the Atlas Mountains.

These are just a few of the indigenous groups Rustic students encounter while traveling. They also interact with groups in places ranging from Hawaii to Mongolia. View our teen travel programs for more details.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer