Studying indigenous cultures around the world is an important part of understanding the countries that you travel through, and the world as a whole. The study of indigenous cultures encompasses a broad range of subject areas and disciplines, including language, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, politics, and history. Therefore, it's an ideal area of study to add to any undergraduate degree, and can be added to your study abroad program.
If you are fascinated by the subject and want to learn more, there are numerous opportunities for graduate and further study, in everything from Australian Aboriginal rock art to the Nahuatl language in Mexico. The study of indigenous cultures is likely to make you a more informed traveler, and more sensitive student, and a generally more well-rounded person!
Major/Minor Subject Areas
Entire degrees -- from Bachelor's to Doctorate level -- can be completed in Indigenous Studies and its variants around the world. Each region puts a local spin on the subject, but Indigenous Studies is usually a multi- and interdisciplinary field. Regional variants include Te Reo Maori (language) in New Zealand, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Australia.
As an international student you can complete your entire degree in this subject area in a foreign country. Alternatively, you could choose to take just a few courses on the relevant Indigenous cultures of your host country while on a study abroad program.
Universities around the world offer courses in the languages of the indigenous peoples of their region. For example, you can complete entire degrees in Te Reo Maori in New Zealand, or just add a course or two to a study abroad semester/year. With smaller languages, such as Australia's numerous Aboriginal languages, you may not be able to complete formal study in that language, but institutions in those places can advise how to go about learning them.
Although it may sometimes be possible to learn an indigenous language outside of the region it is spoken, this should not be relied upon, so actually traveling to the appropriate region is usually necessary.
If your studies (usually at the graduate level) require field-work immersion, this can usually be arranged through your home institution, either through official partnerships or the individual professional networks of professors. For example, if you are completing a Masters in Latin American Studies and need to immerse yourself in the culture of the Mayan people in Guatemala, your home university may have links with a university in Guatemala. Alternatively, your supervising professor could put you in touch with their professional contacts in Guatemala, to ensure you receive the kind of immersion experience you need.
As well as a subject in universities, you can study indigenous cultures through programs offered by specialist centers. A prominent one is the Center for World Indigenous Studies. With them, you can study one or two courses, or complete a certificate. They are able to cater their programs to your individual interests, and while they are based in Washington, U.S.A., they collaborate with centers all over the world.
The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Vietnam also teaches and leads research in indigenous cultures of the Southeast Asian region.
Where to Go
Numerous places around the world are home to peoples that are classified as 'indigenous', but of course each is different and provides unique experiences for prospective students. Here are four places that are at the top of the list of destinations to head to if you want to study indigenous cultures abroad.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the indigenous people of Australia, and have some of the oldest existing cultures in the world. The study of indigenous culture in Australia centers around them. The fields of anthropology and archaeology are very big in Australian universities, making this country a good option for undergraduate or graduate studies in the disciplines. The Australian National University in Canberra -- Australia's premier research institution -- is also home to the National Center for Indigenous Studies.
Although a neighbor of Australia (above), New Zealand is culturally very distinct. The indigenous Maori people migrated to New Zealand from the islands of Polynesia over 1000 years ago, and the study of indigenous cultures in New Zealand centers around the Maori people. Universities around New Zealand offer majors in Indigenous Studies/Maori and Indigenous Studies, with the University of Auckland and University of Otago being leaders. This discipline combines aspects of history, anthropology, sociology, archaeology, linguistics, politics, environmental studies, and other aspects that affect Indigenous peoples in the contemporary world.
Canada has been a leader in indigenous/First Nations activism, and there are many First Nations and Inuit groups throughout Canada. This diversity is reflected in academia. Institutions throughout Anglophone and Francophone Canada offer courses/degrees in Indigenous and Canadian Studies, with the University of Alberta being a leader in the field.
Central America is home to a vast number of indigenous people, all with their own cultures and languages. The region is an especially great place to study indigenous languages, such as Zapotec in southern Mexico, Quechua in Bolivia, Mayan in Guatemala, Guarani in Paraguay, or Nahuatl in Mexico (among others). In some of these places it may be necessary to hire private language tutors to supplement/instead of formal classes in an institution, but this will definitely add richness to your studies of indigenous cultures. Studying these languages would also be a good accompaniment to a Latin American Studies or Spanish major.
Planning Your Trip
Your study and lifestyle needs are as individual as you are, but here are some tips for helping your study abroad experience go more smoothly.
Choosing an Indigenous Studies Program Abroad
Choosing where to further your study of indigenous cultures will largely depend on the kind of experience you seek.
If you want to learn an indigenous language, then look for an institution located in that area (such as a university in Oaxaca for learning Zapotec), or travel to that area with the intention of finding a private language tutor.
If you want to supplement your degree at home with a few courses focusing on indigenous cultures, then look for a university that offers courses of interest to you. For example, if you are an Archaeology major, consider studying abroad in Australia for a semester and taking courses in Australian archaeology. Or, if you're a Sociology major, study abroad in New Zealand and take some Maori and Indigenous Studies courses.
Alternatively, at the graduate study level, various institutions around the world would be willing and able to cater to your individual research interests.
Health & Safety
If opting to study some form of indigenous cultures program at an institution in a developed country, there are no specific health and safety tips to keep in mind, other than to practice common sense safety measures as you would while traveling anywhere.
If you intend to conduct fieldwork with indigenous cultures anywhere in the world, be mindful of the specific issues that those cultures and communities face, and take care not to offend. For example, some remote communities may feel hostile towards outside researchers due to bad experiences in the past, or may be living in economically poor situations. Take care to educate yourself regarding your role as an outsider before meeting these people and you will minimize the risk of misunderstandings.