When Wild Men Move to Town

When indigenous tribes come out of seclusion and find how others are living, can you blame them for giving up the loincloths?

tribal tourismIn a funny editorial in The Week back in May, William Falk summed up a common indigenous peoples’ dilemma in two short paragraphs. It’s a story of the Nukak-Maku tribe from the Amazon, who said goodbye to the jungle and moved to town. There, they discovered, lie wonders such as shoes and plentiful food.

It’s a rare tourist who goes abroad and doesn’t get disappointed by the relentless march of technology and western influence. Hiking three days to get to a remote village just doesn’t have the same kick to it when the locals are wearing Detroit Pistons jerseys, watching satellite TV, and drinking Pepsi. But good luck trying to turn that clock back. It takes a special kind of person to willingly go back to basics and live off the land. Most of us would rather have it easy.

In some places the pull of tradition is so strong that at least the old ways of dress still persist: in much of the Andes, in the hills of Northern Vietnam, in rural Mongolia. In others, a wardrobe update from what worked 1,200 years ago would make a lot of sense (a full-length black burka when it’s 110 degrees fahrenheit?)

In some spots, cultures have cashed in on our desire for seeing “the authentic,” so people have been turned into museum exhibits–as in the long-necked “giraffe women” of northern Thailand and Burma.

Some cultures find a bit of balance, letting tourists into their world, but not to the point where there are busloads of tour groups passing through. (See Secret Men’s Monkey Business, by Peter Moore, for one such trip.)

As the editorial says, “Soon, the Nukak will wonder how they ever lived without sleeping pills, e-mail, and Wonder Bras. At the moment, the Nukak have no word for ‘future.’ But unless they quickly return to the jungle, we all know what lies ahead.”

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