Traveling while Indigenous is a pretty cool thing.
Indigenous peoples’ conception of boundaries and borderlines is historically nonexistent. In pre-colonial times, we maintained distinct hunting/fishing/living territories to a certain degree, but we didn’t believe in land ownership because we respected the land to a greater extent than the modern mind can probably imagine. Ownership commands a degree of superiority. In our worldview, no one could possibly be greater than the earth.
By force, our conception of borders and land ownership has now shifted to a largely westernized approach, though it does remain less harsh than that of our counterparts. We know that even though most people (even we) now pragmatically view land as property, the land is ultimately not “ours” or “theirs.”
We also know that even though few maps in existence reveal the truth, many parts of the world - including but not limited to all of North America, South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia - have always been and still are Indigenous territory. To illustrate this I’ll co-opt the western concept of land ownership for a moment and put it like this: the land you’re walking on right now - the land that your house is sitting on - the land that your college campus is occupying - that land your office is hovering over - the land that your favorite shopping mall has destroyed - that land your cattle graze on - the land that you call your own - THAT is Native land. All of it.
Wherever you may be, the Indigenous presence might not be so apparent to you because there are many forces at work to hide it, but if you look and listen closely, you’ll discover a world of stories and teachings that will lead you to the truth about where you stand. And within these teachings of the land and its people, you might even learn more about yourself and your place in the universe.
In my short time on this earth, I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to more countries and continents than I ever would have imagined as a child. I’ve been to nearly every state in the U.S. by car and I’ve also ventured to Morocco, Spain, England, many parts of Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Brazil. I know it’s not much compared to a lot of world travelers, but like I said it’s more than I ever expected. I grew up chronically understimulated in a rural community in North Dakota (I guess all of ND is rural, relatively speaking). This is a place where not only do most people not travel the globe, they don’t even really talk about what’s out there. So all of these places that I’ve been were, at one time, far beyond the realms of my imagination. Now, they’re in my memory.
Traveling while Indigenous is a really cool thing. Here's why...
1. I remain very grateful. I constantly think about what a rare privilege it is for anybody in this world to be able to freely travel. I am also constantly aware of the sacrifices that my ancestors and parents and grandparents made so that I could not only survive but thrive: floating around the globe and uploading my experiences to Instagram as if it’s no big deal. Before my grandma Thelma passed on, around the time I was living in NYC, she told me that while she was at her home on the big hill overlooking the Standing Rock rez, she would sometimes take a moment to pause and think about where I might be and what I might be doing at that moment, and she would let her imagination take her to where I was. That’s pretty awesome.
2. I can relate to Indigenous people everywhere. Our parallel histories and shared experiences have created a strong base on which I can relate to all of the Indigenous people I meet all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. When I meet Native people from other tribes and countries, we trade stories. We talk about how things used to be - stories of our grandparents. We talk about how things might be in the future - visions of hope. We talk about what makes us angry but also what motivates us to do well for our people. We talk about the sacred and spiritual elements of the land, our ceremonies, what we hold dear. We also talk about what restaurants we like, what music we listen to, and what books one another should read. We are able to connect not only on the hardships that our people experience, but also on the deep-rooted cultural strength that keeps our Indigenous communities so vibrant and alive. It makes me laugh when I see articles and books about Indigenous people being on their last leg, on the threat of extinction... as if other humans on the globe could ever manage without the knowledge and presence of Indigenous people.
3. I don’t operate under the false delusion that I am anything but an invading tourist. I’ve noticed that many well-meaning people (especially in my generation) travel the world in search of the ultimate authentic experience. Their anecdotes are reflective of this. Everybody comes back from a study abroad saying, “yeah but I was really immersed. I was with the real locals. I was not a tourist. The brown kids in that selfie were my FRIENDS.” Ha… ha. My perspective is really different from that. Because of what goes on in my peoples' territory back home, because of the feelings that come over me when I see people flocking to worship the greatest piece of vandalism in the history of the world (Mount Rushmore in our sacred Black Hills), because I've seen people take selfies with Native kids without bothering to ask their names, I understand that everybody who travels to territories outside of their own is an invader, including myself. And I’m comfortable with that. It’s a solid reminder of self-awareness. I try not to be obnoxious and rude while treading on other peoples' turf.
4. My appearance confuses people and sometimes allows me to blend in. This might sound antithetical to my holier-than-thou point above, but hear me out. Provided that I keep my mouth shut and avoid traipsing around in full-on touristy outfits (no offense to those of you who rock a sarong with a sturdy pair of sneakers and squeeze your crossbody handbag in fear that “pickpockets” are lurking around every corner), in many places, my looks allow me to sort of fit in where medium brown skin and dark hair is common (that's a LOT of places). As much as it’s annoying and slightly creepy every time somebody tells me that my mixed European/Ojibwe/Lakota ancestry makes me look “ethnically ambiguous” (wtf does that even mean?), I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I do actually kind of know what they mean and I use it to my advantage. I’m not saying that I blend seamlessly or that I'm really fooling anyone, but I am saying that at least by looks, people don’t necessarily pin me for a foreigner right away. For a number of reasons, this is helpful.
5. I get to share things about my own people and culture. One of the less fortunate things I've come to realize is that many people around the world actually do not know (until you tell them) that Native American people or Plains Natives in particular are still ALIVE. Thanks to Hollywood, there are a lot of people out there who think that we simply don't exist anymore. Or, that if we do, we don't go anywhere aside from our tipi (hehe). Sometimes when I have to convince people to "believe me, we're still alive," it's a little hurtful and frustrating, but it's equally cool to pleasantly surprise them with our presence.
6. I am driven by a deep desire to recognize, respect, and learn more about the world through Indigenous eyes. This probably comes off as nerdy and a little too serious but I swear it's fun. While I was growing up, I did not realize that so much of the world is Native country. In fact I had no idea. But since I’ve come to understand this, my life has turned into a very empowering and exciting journey. I'm constantly learning and unlearning more, breaking down the colonial borders that have been propagandized into my mind, and taking it upon myself to know where I really am. For example, when I drive from Phoenix to Vancouver, I know that I’m not simply starting out in Arizona, making my way through Nevada/California, Oregon/Washington then landing in Canada. I know that in fact, I’m starting out in O’Odham land and making my way through Paiute, Chumash, Me-wuk, Pomo, Wintou, Maidu, Yurok, Klamath, and Coast Salish territory. I probably missed a bunch in there but that’s what I’m saying - It’s fun and exciting to always have a reason to seek and learn more about the reality of this world. Because there’s a lot there that the textbooks and TV simply aren’t going to tell you.
I bet there are a lot of other Indigenous people out there who relate to all of this and more. I’d love to hear about your experiences of traveling while Indigenous. Feel free to e-mail me or to comment below.
And for everybody else - Native or not - remember to seek Indigenous understandings wherever your travels may take you. This will open up a whole new and revolutionary way of viewing the world. Well worth it, in my opinion.
Happy travels! Here's a useful map for you: