‘We don’t need it to be kept secret, we just need it to be sacred’. This remark by a First Nation’s guest at a heritage site in Canada captures a key point in the debate about the search for a ‘spiritual experience’ that has become part of many cultural tourism packages.
Whilst many tourists – possibly driven by a western ‘ennui’ – feel that indigenous societies are somehow the last refuge of ‘real’ spirituality, others feel uneasy about spirituality being thus ‘commodified’.How intrusive have we become, or are we allowed to be, when we visit indigenous tourist sites? How far do our hosts feel they have to go to satisfy our curiosity? When do questions about another person’s beliefs become invasive and rude? The remark quoted above offers some reassurance and a guideline: we do not need to keep ‘secrets’ and protect sites as if they are an endangered species, but we do need to treat the ‘sacred’ with respect. So how do we do this?
We see this debate being played out in all parts of the world. Indigenous peoples find themselves being increasingly valued by their governments for their tourism potential. They have been encouraged to establish and run their own sites, museums, workshops and tours, and regulatory bodies have even come into existence to police such activities and guarantee ‘authenticity’. As all of this has expanded, many tourists now expect to find an opportunity to attend spiritual ceremonies, watch or take part in ‘sweat lodges’, musical invocations, and various forms of ‘shamanic’ practices.
In so far as indigenous peoples themselves have maintained control, something encouraged by the better regulatory bodies, this process perhaps presents few problems apart from those posed above about what is polite and appropriate. What we need to be aware of, however, is the mixture of motives and expectations driving such cultural tourism – and to return to our quotation – how far it shows respect for the sacred? A romanticized ideal may place indigenous peoples in the image of an exotic, strange ‘other’ and/or an image of some ‘lost innocence’. This does not serve either visitor or host very well: it hinders good communication and blocks real understanding.
What we are hopefully striving for is a position of greater equality. This would respect the rights of tourists to be interested in other cultures, but request that they strive to see those cultures in more neutral, less value-laden terms, as simply ‘different’, rather than romanticized visions, remnants of some lost world/age, or a path to greater spiritual awareness, sense of self and/or a connection with ‘mother earth’. A more neutral, inquisitive approach would be more likely to lead to a proper sense of reverence and respect for the ‘sacred’, than other attitudes that possibly exaggerate expectations and put undo pressure on the hosts.
Spiritual practices form an integral part of what attracts visitors across the world. They offer a deep insight into another culture, a potentially quite personal encounter, and an opportunity to understand the values and beliefs that underpin other ways of life. How far people from one culture are prepared to indulge visitors from another will always hopefully be a matter of discretion, as well as one of commerce. And the power to prohibit ‘entry’ beyond a certain point should always be in the control of the host. Respectful visitors, for their part, will always acknowledge the delicate balance that needs to be maintained if we are truly to ‘respect the sacred’.
To end on an even more positive note, it is only when people open themselves fully and take risks on site and in exhibitions that opportunities for real cultural exchange are created. Indigenous peoples have taken such risks and in the process found a mechanism to recreate space for themselves, strengthen their sense of identity, and rejoice again in their own culture and spirituality. Effective cultural tourism creates not only the chance for real cultural exchange, but also the opportunity for all involved to share in this experience of regeneration.
Helen Jennings has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).