Up until the mid 20th Century, Christian missionaries felt it their duty to seek out isolated indigenous cultures, and effectively stamp them out. The missionaries often saw any customs and traditions, even language and modes of dress, as links to their old (necessarily evil) religions. Some governments also formulated policies to eradicate the language and traditions of indigenous peoples in order to expedite their assimilation into the dominant society.
By the 1970s anthropologists were alarmed at the rate of acculturation of tribal people in the Amazon and other remote areas of the World, and raised a new awareness of the importance of preserving and studying these cultures. By the 80s, some anthropologists were agonising over the fact that even the act of visiting an isolated society for study, would introduce unforseen changes in the very thing they were trying to preserve.
It was in this climate that the stories for Star Trek’s “Next Generation” were written. Many of these stories hinged around moral conflicts arising from the Prime Directive. This directive was their all important principle of non interference with less developed civilisations. In some episodes, anthropologists have to study their subjects from a hidden location. It is considered harmful for these societies to even learn of the existence of more advanced civilisations. This directive reflects the feelings of many in reaction to the previous injustices; that we need to hermetically seal isolated societies to save them from contamination from the modern world.
However, if we really take a good look at both of these extreme positions, the first assumes that the indigenous people have an inherently inferior culture, and are incapable of harmonising with their more numerous neighbours. The second assumes that the people are not even capable of dealing with the truth of their situation in the World. Both positions are patronising in the extreme. Neither of these positions give indigenous people any say in how they might prefer to deal with their futures.
Is there a middle way? If we discover a tribe that has never had outside contact, do we let the missionaries destroy their way of life, or do we quietly build a wall around them, so they will never know we exist? In reality, they can not remain unaffected by the outside World forever. Eventually, they will be forced to deal with the World. We have seen from historical experience, that culture shock nearly always leaves indigenous people vulnerable to the depredations of religious, political, or commercial exploiters. The only reasonable solution is to carefully prepare and inoculate the culture against the worst effects of outside contact.
The suffering and losses of indigenous culture have not been due to their inferiority or stupidity. They were merely caught unprepared, and at a huge disadvantage. If they had been forewarned and prepared, they would have been able to retain more of their original cultural heritage. Many governments are starting to see the value of this middle way, and now encourage their indigenous people to preserve their language and traditions while adapting to the wider society and its laws. Many indigenous groups are now turning back to their traditions for inspiration, and identity.
This adaptation does require change. Not all traditions should be preserved. A century ago, head hunting was common in remote regions around the World. Obviously, keeping some traditions would cause more harm to a culture as a whole, as outside contact increases.
In Star Trek’s early references to the Prime Directive, it was expressed merely as non-interference in the internal politics of other cultures. Later, it was expanded to express non-contamination of less developed cultures. This probably reflects the influence of some “postmodernist” thinkers of the time, whose version of “multiculturalism” saw a need to preserve cultural differences, even if it meant encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid.
In the real world, cultures have always been changing. Complete isolation is a rare and temporary condition. Cultures change from within, as traditions are handed down and re-interpreted. Elements are constantly borrowed from neighbouring cultures and languages. There is no such thing as cultural purity, and therefore complete preservation is illusory.
Hopefully, most of us will have an interest in preserving, and even reviving parts of our own ancestral heritage. If we are to maintain these traditions, we must do so consciously. In the modern World, we have access to so much information, that we are free to choose what works for us. Many will don the trappings of various cultures as little more than fashion accessories. Others will be more deliberate and research their choices. In their search for connection, many modern individuals are emulating tribal customs, such as tattooing and piercing.
In former times, culture was absorbed unconsciously, enforced by the norms of society. Now, we have more freedom, but also more responsibility. However we decide to construct our own cultural background, we must do it in the context of the wider society in which we live, while still being respectful and knowledgeable about the cultures we draw from. To do less will merely result in an anachronism or eccentricity that will not really benefit anyone, and even trivialise or dilute the deep symbolism involved. If researched and applied successfully, it will be a source of pride and empowerment for ones self, and a benefit to the wider community.