When we think of cultures on the brink of extinction the mind usually wanders to earth based cultures world wide being infringed upon by modern development. Another common image is that of oppressed peoples being forced to assimilate, flee, or possibly be put to death in a hostile regime takeover. Unfortunately these are familiar headlines in our modern era. All of these are very accurate and very real.

But there is another cultural heritage in jeopardy…one a lot closer to home, only about 300 years old, (not very old in terms of culture) and I would argue, dying quickly.  It’s the American culture.

But what exactly IS the American culture and how does one experience or preserve it?

From the very beginning, America was a nation made up of over 500 nations, and that was before the first Europeans ever set foot on the continent. The American culture then, has always been a conglomerate of different languages, religions and customs…in short, cultures.

There are a few overarching things that symbolize the American culture like the eagle and the flag but to understand it on the whole and how it all works with all the peoples that make it up, we need to delve into it and experience it first hand. And that is best realized through travel.

Tousey family at the Declaration of Independence Monument. Photo: Jen Tousey
Tousey family at the Declaration of Independence Monument. Photo: Jen Tousey

We all know that when we travel we gain understanding. That is often the point of travel itself, to go experience some place new and different. We often think of going overseas and experiencing exotic food and places and we always come back with great stories to share.  But how well do we know our own stories that shaped who we are collectively today? And why don’t we think to apply that same method of experiencing to our own back yard?

Throughout our very own nation from sea to shining sea, we have indigenous centers that tell beautiful and heartbreaking stories of Native peoples. For example, in Florida one can tour the Seminole way of life and see everything from historical artifacts to modern day alligator wrestling. In Montana, one can visit the Flathead reservation and not only see the local cultural museums and trading posts, but tour the bison range, and see the southernmost outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.

In Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History hosts a three day African World Festival for all kinds of hands on experiences showcasing again, history of African American cultures from arrival to modern day. Gospel legends, dance troups, artifacts galore… It’s one of many places to visit so showcase another vital section of our overall American culture.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Photo by Michael_Bolden is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Photo by Michael_Bolden is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Colonial Williamsburg literally takes back to the time before we were America and showcases prominent the figures who wrote the Constitution and rallied to form the country. One can experience tavern food, talk with Thomas Jefferson, even dress colonial. It doesn’t take more than a couple hours there to notice all the diverse peoples who made up colonial America.

Traveling domestically and through history has given This Family extraordinary experiences. Not only have we had teachable moments for our children but we’ve made memories by making connections to people and places we would never have done otherwise.

For example, touring Ford’s Theater and letting the girls know that we were related to Lincoln suddenly brought the experience of walking in his footsteps to a more meaningful place. When we stood on steps where he delivered a speech in Fredericksburg, it became more than just a photo opp. They wanted to know what speech was delivered here. What did he say?  Was this before, during, or after the Civil War? And when we stopped to see the old slave auction block right on a street corner, where normal every day activity was still occuring, the seriousness and context of what we were looking at hit home in a way that never would have happened simply by reading a book or seeing something in a museum. The stories were real.

We have found travel is a powerful tool in understanding other people’s stories and that has rekindled a healthy sense of pride in our nation for us. It’s a theme we wish to continue and to put out as inspiration to others, even a call to action if you will. In a time of fractured society, it feels like a conscious effort to experience the stories that made us all can only aid in the betterment of our nation.

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You’re thinking…OK great. Nice words. But what does that mean or even look like?

I recently wrote and article on 7 Ways to Experience American History with your family. I think it’s important to not only learn about ‘us’ on the whole but to really experience it and celebrate it. This can be done by watching films, cooking, and my personal favorite TRAVELING! By traveling and delving into our historical sites, not only are we gaining knowledge ourselves but we are also supporting local economies. The ripple effect of course is once we visit and experience, we talk and share. That builds community and cultural intelligence. All these things work together to honor and maintain and even build our overall American culture. In theory, this then creates a healthy national pride through personal experience, leading to overall good. And THAT is really at the core of the American existence. You see, exploring and understanding differences through authentic accounts doesn’t have to be ‘foreign’. We are so rich, right here in these United States.

But it does require action with purpose. I think we Americans are up to the task. I mean, we did create an entire nation together.

Need ideas to get started?

Delve into your family’s geneology, to experience a town or area that your forefathers were a part of. Or use travel to take a deep dive into something you love…like blues or country music. (Both American inventions I might add) Shoot, visit a nearby city and go to all their museums and historical sites. Feast on their local cuisine. Take an architectural walk, or simply be present in their evolving story.

The thing I really like to impart is to purposefully delve into our history, both personal and collective and use travel as the methodology. It may not be your family exactly and I guarantee you there will be ugly things that turn up, but the stories of the flawed humans weave together to make the tapestry that IS our collective history and therefore, our collective identity. Taking the time to travel and learn these stories is a way to say thank you to all those who came before us, sacrificed, and created what we have become.

And THAT is our American Culture. And in these fractious times where healthy sense of patriotic pride is at an all time low, it is well worth the time and effort to rediscover, embrace and honor our American heritage.

Tousey family dressed in Colonial costumes.
Tousey family dressed in Colonial costumes.