Explore overlooked cultures within the U.S.

More than half of GW’s undergraduate students participated in international study abroad programs in the 2011-12 school year, according to the school’s most recent data. Students look forward to exploring the culture of exotic countries, causing some cultures in the U.S. to be ignored. Taste testing the cuisine of another culture, learning the language of a different country and participating in traditional ceremonies and celebrations provide memorable experiences for students, but you don’t need to travel abroad to do that.

Although American students are taught about Native American history, often in elementary school, college students tend to forget the rich culture that existed long before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Even further overlooked, especially by students who live in the continental United States, are the cultures of Alaskan and Hawaiian natives. These cultures can be just as rewarding to explore as those present in different countries, while also teaching us lessons about the mistreatment of these groups by the first European settlers and then later by Americans. More students should consider exploring that domestic history by studying in a different state within the U.S.

On a trip to Hawaii last month, I realized how little I knew about the state and it’s original inhabitants. Before this trip, the extent of my knowledge about Hawaii came from watching the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch. Although many of the experiences I had, including Luaus – traditional Hawaiian feasts – and a trip to the Polynesian Cultural center, were undoubtedly altered for the enjoyment of tourists with plastic canoe rides, microphones, a stage for performers and a children’s food section filled with American favorites, they still allowed me to learn about the culture. I tried a variety of Hawaiian cuisines, including poi, purple sweet potatoes, and haupia, a coconut-based dessert. I was able to appreciate the tradition of storytelling through dance and I learned about the natives’ connection to nature – especially the ocean – through snorkeling and hiking. The experience reminded me of other cultures closer to home that I neglected to think about since an elementary school project on the Iroquois, who similarly maintained a deep connection to nature and valued storytelling.

Apart from simply visiting the nearby National Museum of the American Indian in Southwest D.C., students can also take advantage of programs like the National Student Exchange, which allows students to study at different universities across the U.S. Not only are these programs often cheaper than going abroad, they can be beneficial for students who can then use the opportunity to explore the cultures of different native tribes across the U.S. Learning about other cultures helps students increase their understanding of different groups of people and allows them to see the world through a new perspective. Most native groups, including Hawaiians and Native Americans, are especially connected to nature in a way that many nonnatives are not. They see natural beauty in their environment while also looking for a spiritual connection, which creates more valuable and meaningful experiences.

Beyond enjoying Native craftsmanship and customs, exploring the relationship between Native Americans, Hawaiians and settlers can provide students lessons on the abuses of power, discrimination and greed. Historical events, like the infamous Trail of Tears and the U.S. government’s involvement in the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy, have had negative effects that haunt the U.S. to this day, leaving many natives in a cycle of poverty. Through learning about the past, one can prevent recurrences of the same mistakes in the future.

Native cultures are often in a perilous position, with old customs being forgotten and some tribes in danger of losing their native languages. It doesn’t help when they are forgotten and overlooked by college students searching to learn about different ways of life, but think jetting off to a different continent is the only way to do it. Study abroad programs are extremely important and provide valuable experiences for students, but we should also not neglect to see what is often right in front of us and should consider immersing ourselves in a culture closer to home.

Kelly Skinner, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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