Decolonizing The Way We Talk About Travel

Life Writer
09.05.18 19 Comments


You hear it over and over: Travel changes you. Travel allows you a chance to figure out the world in a deeply personal way. Travel makes you grow. But what if what you’re learning is only re-enforcing destructive myths, outright lies, and vitriolic stereotypes? What if your realizations on the road are actually regressive?

As a person who grew up in an Indigenous community in the Pacific Northwest, I was raised with a wholly different history — some would say current reality — than the rest of America. My people’s history wasn’t about triumphs, manifest destiny, or a grand pioneering myth. It was about genocide, lies, and a continued destruction. Growing up Indigenous in America meant you were never going to be equal and your history didn’t matter, certainly not in any concrete way.

So, I escaped. Both my community and my country. I made my life about travel. And it was fun. But if I’m being honest, I can’t say it was better. Traveling while Indigenous meant coming face to face with Indian stereotypes — where my culture’s destruction was celebrated as a triumph. I found it psychologically devastating and I’m not the first to have that experience.

Here’s an example: On a recent trip to Puerto Rico, while touring Old San Juan, we hit all the monuments, murals, and architectural spots that make that place unique. Every single one of those spots was a celebration of the colonial annexation of that island. “Here’s the great Christopher Columbus monument!” our guide exclaimed with pride as we rode past a towering statue to a man who, by his own words, was one of history’s greatest monsters.

“This is the church where the founder of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon, is buried,” our guide said later. “Very important place for Puerto Ricans.” I asked if there was anything about the Taino people who Ponce ethnically cleansed from the island. I was told those people are “all gone. Extinct.” Then without further prompting, the guide said, “Without Juan Ponce de Leon there’d be no Puerto Rico. He discovered the island.” I know this is a lie. There were literally hundreds of thousands of Taino (possibly millions) on the Caribbean islands in 1500 and the remaining Taino are still trying to be recognized by the Puerto Rican government.

The place wasn’t “discovered” and the people aren’t “extinct.” But to be Indigenous is also to be seen as argumentative in the face of pain. A problem starter. So I didn’t say any of this — just “um-hum’d” and moved on.

As the day wound on, we passed more monuments to Spanish “explorers,” Abramhic saints, and those from history who are presented as settlers, civilizers, and saviors. In reality, they were colonizers, rapists, and mass-murderers. The breaking point came later when we were walking from the barricade walls back into Old San Juan and we passed what I was told is “the oldest building in all of the Americas,” the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, and “the oldest house in all of America,” the La Fortaleza. I mention that the homes still occupied to this day in Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo predate these colonial buildings by over 500 years.

I received a shrug in return. The tour moved on. Systemic erasure is par for the course when it comes to colonial history.

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