From New Zealand to America: Let's talk Native communities

A couple of months back, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to the United States where I was taken on a whirlwind tour of Northern Utah and surrounds, including Yellowstone National Park, plus corners of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It was all kinds of magical, so much so I haven’t even done a blog on it yet because I simply saw SO MUCH BEAUTY that I don’t even know where to start. I promise I’ll get onto to that, stat!

Because August 9th is the United Nations-recognised International Day of Indigenous Peoples, I want to talk about my experience as visitor to this country in regards to its native communities.

Naturally, whenever I visit anywhere in the world, I compare it – as I am sure all visitors do – to what I am accustomed to at home; to my own “normal.” Just like the United States, New Zealand is a colonised country with a native population whose way of life was shattered by the arrival of Europeans.

I do not pretend for a second that New Zealand is perfect in regards to the relations between the Maori community and the Pakeha (white New Zealanders) community. When viewed as an individual case, there’s a lot of work that needs doing, a lot of wrongs that need righting. BUT, when I compare the situation at home to even our closest neighbour Australia, I realise that in a lot of ways, we do ourselves proud.

When I was young I became conscious of the fact that I would never, ever see an Aboriginal character in all the Australian shows I watched, unless they were playing “The Aboriginal” – that is, a mysterious native type (think the King George character in Baz Luhrman’s Australia, if you’ve seen it). When I visited the country as an 11-year-old, I remember being actively aware of the absence of Aboriginal people in the cities unless they were street performers playing didgeridoos, which just struck me as so odd and uncomfortable... where were they?

When I look at New Zealand society and the presence of Maori culture in everyday, mainstream life, it’s there and they’re there because... well, of course they are. I don’t even like saying “they.” They’re New Zealanders; I’m a New Zealander. The same way people whose ancestors are from China are New Zealanders, or those from Samoa, or those from Pakistan. Like every other ethnic group, Maori people are simply present in New Zealand life because they are New Zealand life. They’re represented in the characters on our television shows, the players on our sports fields, the presenters on our news shows and the politicians in our parliament. They’re my classmates, my workmates, my friends.

Despite my heritage, I feel a personal connection and a deep love for Maori culture. It is unique to my motherland and Te Reo – the native language – sounds like home. Our national anthem is sung in both English and Maori, and everything on my passport is written twice, once in each language. Like any other Kiwi, I know Maori songs, and I am familiar with the customs of the culture, even if I don’t use them often.

I knew America was more similar to the Australian scenario than my country’s, yet I was still taken aback by my experience of Native communities as a visitor. In my experience – and yes, I know it was brief – Native Americans were talked about exclusively in a historical sense. Until my last day, the only native culture I saw was displayed in glass cabinets alongside Jurassic relics. Except unlike the dinosaurs that are known to have once roamed this area en masse, Native Americans are still here... so why are they talked about like they no longer are?

While I realise the way of life put on show in museums largely doesn’t exist anymore, the people themselves certainly do. They are there, but they are invisible to visitors and to a large extent they’re invisible in mainstream American life. How often do you see Native American actors on screen? How often do we hear their voices telling the news rather than being told as news by outside groups? Just look at what has happened in Standing Rock... it’s mind-boggling. It’s heart-breaking.

When there, if I asked historical questions about the local native communities and tribal groups, the answer would be given in detail, but if I asked about the current situation or recent times at all, there seemed to be a total divide, almost a non-interest. This was explained simply with, “they’re on the reservations.” Never have I known ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to be more true, and I hated it. I felt like by accepting this answer, I was contributing to what I see as a big problem.

On the last full day of my visit, speeding through the giant landscapes of Northern Utah along those endless roads (just like you see in the American road trip films) my companions and I started to get a serious hankering for coffee. Not that filter nonsense Americans love so much either, but a cup of quality, foamy goodness. This Kiwi girl was hoping for a flat white of course, but somehow I didn’t think I was likely to find it out here. After a search of epic proportions involving the tracking down of 3 places (in the middle of nowhere, mind) that were closed, Google told us there was a coffee house back up the road a few miles, so we backtracked. All this for caffeine, I know...

The place was called Kahpeeh Kah-ahn, a Coffee House owned and run by the Ute Indian Tribe on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and it was exceptional... we’re talking proper coffee with milk steamed to perfection, which is hard enough to find anywhere in the United States, let alone in the middle of the open road. The staff were super friendly, and the place even had a coffee-on-wheels joint, allowing them to hit the road and bring their brilliant brew to caffeine-fiends all over the place... A.K.A. lucky people.

After the experience I’d been so aware of having the week leading up to this, it was refreshing, inspiring and honestly something of a relief to stop by. To see a Native American-owned and operated business doing its thing, and doing it damn well.

I have since discussed this experience and my thoughts with lots of people, and I know there is a bigger, profoundly problematic picture within Native American populations which I definitely did not see during my trip. A picture which paints a pretty sad cycle aided by the complete segregation of these designated reservations from the rest of American society and the utter lack of support and love and interest... something I just can’t get my head around.

I admit there’s so much I don’t know and can’t understand about the wider situation... I can’t understand how it has been able to get this bad, how this has ever been able to happen. But I do understand that it needs to change, desperately. I don’t pretend to know how, and I also acknowledge that as an outside, my ability to do anything to help is limited. But I do know that when I go back to the States for future travel, I am not going to go along to museums to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at relics from a culture that still exists right down the road. I am not going to look back on the beauty of a culture and a people that was and ignore a culture and a people that is.

If you’re heading to North America and have a similar mindset, get in touch with the team at the Native Wellness Institute, lead by Jillene, who told me she is happy to help connect visitors to Native businesses, cultural gatherings and an experience that allow you to see and feel Native communities in a proactive and supportive way.

And if you’re passing through Utah, make sure to stop by Kahpeeh Kah-ahn to try what can only be described aone of the best coffees in the West!