Aboriginal Tourism

An imperfect opportunity

By Jennifer Adese

The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) from Siksika Nation, an hour east of Calgary, recently settled a 100-plus-year-old land claim, granting them compensation and rights to economic development in Banff National Park at Castle Mountain. In a news release, Chief Joe Weasel Child called the agreement a new beginning. “[For] one of our last untouched sacred sites, Siksika will be working collaboratively with Parks Canada to share a unique Northern Blackfoot culturally based ecotourism experience with all Canadians and tourists from all over the world.”

Aboriginal tourism is growing across Canada. Branding various activities through aboriginality is clearly attractive to Indigenous people, provinces and the Canadian state. As in other provinces, Indigenous people in Alberta are being encouraged to engage in “ecotourism,” in which visitors experience the environment in more gentle ways, and cultural tourism. A 2013 Travel Alberta report notes high demand for Aboriginal tourism experiences, “reflecting international interest in the plains First Peoples traditions.” Keith Henry, president of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada (ATAC), has urged Aboriginal leaders “to grow this sector and seize the economic opportunities of an increasing market demand.” The Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC says tourism is a perfect opportunity for Indigenous communities to do sustainable economic development. While generating income, First Nations can simultaneously educate tourists about local environments and practices that demonstrate care for the Earth, people and wildlife.

On the surface, such tourism appears to promote Indigenous economic development and create jobs. Its advocates suggest it can reduce poverty, model sound environmental practices and help keep cultural traditions alive. But it may not be as beneficial as some think.

Growing interest in Aboriginal tourism is tied to a shift in the wider industry toward “experiential tourism.” Experiential tourists want customized adventures that promise personal growth, reflection and a feeling of accomplishment. A 2013 study of urban Albertans who vacationed in rural Alberta showed that, of the 3 per cent who participated in Aboriginal tourism, most would do so more often if it offered “more immersive experiences.” While respondents didn’t say precisely what kind of experiences they meant, they clearly want to participate in activities rather than be passive consumers. In 2005 Clint Dunford, Alberta’s then-minister of Economic Development, said people who come from overseas to experience Aboriginal tourism want immersive experiences. Research shows that international tourists, much like locals, expect Aboriginal cultural tourism to offer opportunities for a nature-oriented and conscious spiritual enlightenment that helps them reconnect with the environment.

Aboriginal tourism is defined by ATAC as “all tourism businesses majority owned, operated and/or controlled by First Nations, Métis or Inuit peoples that can demonstrate a connection and responsibility to the local Aboriginal community and traditional territory where the operation resides.” Aboriginal cultural tourism refers to businesses that meet these criteria while also incorporating “culture in a manner that is appropriate, respectful and true….” ATAC says “the active involvement of Aboriginal people in the development and delivery of the experience” lends authenticity. By this definition, anything from dogsledding to sleeping in a tipi, making moccasins, going for walks to pick medicines or participating in sweat lodges and powwows can constitute an “authentic experience.” Casinos, on the other hand, occupy a complicated space with respect to Aboriginal tourism. While Indigenous themes may be incorporated in the design and construction, and some events may be geared towards Indigenous audiences, casinos aren’t generally considered part of Aboriginal tourism.

Strater Crowfoot, past chief of the Siksika Nation and a key player in the development of Blackfoot Crossing interpretive centre, affirms this. Blackfoot Crossing opened in 2007 on the Siksika Nation at the site of Soyopowahko, an historic river crossing and meeting place along the Bow River. Various nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy gathered at the site and Treaty 7 was signed there in 1877. Crowfoot argued that the centre would allow for the restoration of “a sense of Siksika identity” and create economic opportunities for the community. “I think tourism is a good vein to take,” he said in 2006. “It is the new buffalo for the tribe. It’s renewable, it’s sellable and it can create jobs and opportunities. Many communities are looking at casinos and projects like that, but with those kinds of projects there are issues, social problems that may arise. This project is positive.”

The wider industry is shifting toward “experiential tourism”—personal growth, reflection and a feeling of accomplishment.

Crowfoot’s prediction about the marketability of Aboriginal tourism proved correct. Canada’s Aboriginal tourism sector is growing rapidly. In 2014 Indigenous tourism accounted for $2.65-billion in gross economic output, contributing $1.4-billion to the country’s GDP. That’s up from $596-million in 2002. The number of Aboriginal tourism businesses in Canada nearly doubled between 2002 and 2014, from 892 to 1,500. They now provide some 33,000 jobs. Some studies, such as the 2003 National Study on Aboriginal Tourism in Canada, suggest the demand from European and US tourists exceeds the available options. Although the range of options has certainly expanded, the market may be challenged by a lack of consumer confidence in the capacity of Aboriginal cultural tourism suppliers.

Alberta has roughly 140 Aboriginal tourism businesses (as of 2014), comprising 6 per cent of all Aboriginal tourism outlets in Canada (BC’s share is 20 per cent). While the majority of these businesses are Aboriginal-owned, 54 of them are Aboriginal-themed public (i.e., government-owned) facilities. They engage in outdoor adventure activities (27 per cent); accommodation (17 per cent); retail and attractions (each 13 per cent); festivals and events (10 per cent); resorts/casinos (6 per cent); food and beverages (5 per cent); and transportation and other activities (9 per cent). They represent 2,272 full-time-equivalent jobs and generate nearly $170-million of GDP.

Alberta Aboriginal tourism has been expanding steadily since the 1990s. Its early growth led to the creation of the Aboriginal Tourism Authority of Alberta (ATAA) by operators from southern Alberta. By the mid-1990s the Niitsitapi Tourism Society of Alberta was formed to bring together Aboriginal tourism operators from across the province. Between 1998 and 2003 the Niitsitapi developed a membership structure and offered marketing and business management support to Aboriginal tourism outfits.

Initially the Niitsitapi operated relatively independently, according to the National Aboriginal Tourism Research Project of 2015. Both the ATAA and Niitsitapi were short-lived, however, eventually closing for lack of money. The latter was especially vital to the development of the local Aboriginal tourism industry and was the first clear link between the larger tourism industry and Indigenous operators.

By the early 2000s the government of Alberta began to take a greater interest in Aboriginal tourism and draw on it to market the wider tourism industry. The province bypassed the Niitsitapi and instead developed distinct strategies to grow Aboriginal tourism, marketing these experiences on its own. It also began including Aboriginal tourism in its wider promotional activities, such as on its Travel Alberta webpage, where visitors are told, “All around Alberta you’ll find tributes to the strength and stamina of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit” and—more problematically—that these places help tourists “feel the past come to life.”

The lack of commitment to supporting Indigenous-led tourism efforts in the 1990s highlights a tension that resonates with other areas of government–Indigenous relations, in which the government has been accused of not consulting enough with Indigenous people. Although in 2005 the province struck the Aboriginal Tourism Advisory Council, a 13-person body primarily composed of First Nations leadership and some Métis people, unlike BC it hasn’t had an independent regional Aboriginal tourism association. It wasn’t until May 2017 that Alberta announced it would provide $100,000 to support the creation of a provincial Aboriginal tourism body. Efforts to coordinate government activities with Aboriginal tourism businesses could be hindered by the fact that the province promotes its own Aboriginal-themed experiences and sites.

While ATAC claims Aboriginal tourism emerged in Canada in the 1990s, the activity is in fact much older. What exists today is reshaped “Indian tourism” merged with the broader industry’s turn toward the marketing of “experiences.” In fact, Aboriginal tourism finds its roots in the early years of imperialism.

In the mid-1800s, western Europeans and Americans travelled in the name of exploration and adventure. Indigenous people in turn found work as guides and as linguistic, cultural and environmental interpreters. Patricia Jasen, retired professor of history at Lakehead University, notes that tourists, predominantly from England, “flocked from the enervating city to the exhilarating wilderness, hoping to cast themselves under the care of Mother Nature and to rediscover the power of the primitive within themselves.” Jasen notes Indigenous peoples were seen through a romantic lens as living free from the pressures and oppression of modern English life. “Going native” allowed early tourists to cast off their prim and proper English ways in favour of a purportedly wilder and freer life. At the same time, tourists could witness and lament what they felt was the inevitable demise of Indigenous people—destined to “die out” as immigration and modernization swept over them.

Canada’s early tourism encounters took place farther east, and not until the displacement of Indigenous people and the subsequent building of the railroad was tourism developed on the prairies. Historian Daniel Francis says the railroad served as a key turning point. The government came to see tours through the plains and into the mountains, capitalizing on the beauty and “wildness” of the landscape, as a means to fund the railroad. Indigenous people were viewed as central to selling the image of the Wild West. The federal government was aware of the market for selling “Indianness,” and the CPR sought to capitalize on Indigenous people while simultaneously asserting dominion over Indigenous lands.

From the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the CPR sold and orchestrated train tours through the prairies for tourists to view “wild Indians in their natural setting from the safety and convenience of a railcar.” It was “every bit as exotic as visiting the depths of Africa or some distant island in the Pacific,” wrote Francis. The government and tourism promoters also sold tour packages that mobilized romanticized images of Indigenous people, creating “the Indian” as a marketable commodity.

Tour packages once mobilized romanticized images of Indigenous people, creating “the Indian” as a marketable commodity.

Francis recounts that “seeing Indians” became such a popular tourist draw that in 1894, when flooding wiped out the CPR track, the company hired people from the Stoney reserve at Morley to entertain travellers marooned in Banff. The Indigenous peoples who participated did modified traditional dances, wore traditional clothing (some of it adapted to play to tourist expectations) and competed in rodeo events for money and prizes. CPR’s tour packages entrenched Indianness in the very heart of Alberta’s tourism brand.

The popularity of Indianness in Alberta tourism waned through the 20th century, in part as the result of an overall decline in tourism brought about by the First and Second World Wars. Over the past few decades, however, tourism and its relationship with Indigenous people has experienced a resurgence.

ATAC and the provincial government differ on who should control Aboriginal tourism businesses. The organization is comprised of operations mainly run by Indigenous people. Yet the province’s definition of Aboriginal tourism includes outfits such as Creative Western Adventures, a Calgary-based company founded and staffed by non-Indigenous people. CWA deploys various Indigenous people to offer “native encounters”—chances for non-Indigenous people to “meet” Indigenous people as part of a broader range of western experiences.

Alberta Tourism also promotes designated provincial parks, such as Áísínai’pi/Writing-on-Stone. Áísínai’pi is a sacred place where the Niitsitapi recorded “directly on the land… where petroglyphs and pictographs cover the sandstone cliffs.” The area is protected as a National Historic Site and through the province’s Historical Resources Act. Park officials regularly meet with Niitsitapi elders and the park employs Niitsitapi people as cultural interpreters.

The difference in ATAC’s and Alberta’s definitions says something about the central tension of Aboriginal tourism. While the province markets Áísínai’pi as an “Aboriginal experience” and works in tandem with local Niitsitapi, the site was ceded through questionable treaty-making processes. In the eyes of the provincial and the federal governments, the Niitsitapi don’t own Áísínai’pi and don’t have final say about how the site is managed.

It’s important to note that tourism “often preceded—or accompanied—immigration and resource exploitation,” says Jasen. Tourism, as with many core Canadian industries that trace their origins to the late 1800s, is both a by-product of and driver of colonization. As author James Daschuk writes, the reserve-making era extending from the late 1800s into the early 1900s was undertaken to “clear the plains.” Indigenous people were relocated and many were left without a secure land base. Indeed, the origin of many problems in Canada’s Indigenous communities today lies in forced relocations to low-value lands or the confiscation of land altogether.

As with the Miistukskoowa (Castle Mountain) land claim settlement, the land at Áísínai’pi remains in the government’s hands. While the Niitsitapi are permitted access for economic development—tourism—the government has not repatriated the land to its original caretakers. The fact the Niitsitapi will create development at Miistukskoowa with little direct oversight honours the recent recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—namely that the government engage in meaningful consultation and respectful relationships with Indigenous people when it comes to economic development.

But while this settlement might appear to be a win–win, any approach to fostering economic development in Indigenous communities still healing from the legacies of colonization should be built on a foundation of land restoration. An agreement that doesn’t see the land returned to the Niitsitapi is as revealing for what it doesn’t say—that the Canadian government’s economic interests still override the inherent right of Indigenous people to traditional lands.

Based on ATAC’s definition, neither Áísínai’pi nor Miistukskoowa is true Aboriginal tourism. The Niitsitapi don’t own or primarily control the kinds of tourism that take place there, even as they participate in it. Neither is Blackfoot Crossing—where reserve land is held “in trust” by the federal government—true Aboriginal tourism. Meanwhile, definitions raise complex questions about distinctions between government’s understanding of land ownership and Indigenous concepts of relationality, caretaking and stewardship.

Some Niitsitapi, of course, are proud and active participants in tourism at Áísínai’pi, and many at Siksika welcome the economic development potential of the recent settlement. But a contradiction is at work here. Allowing the governments of Alberta and Canada to retain ownership of the land while expecting native “culture” to be separated out and commodified compromises the core of what makes Indigenous people Indigenous. This model filters land relations through a market-based lens, one solely interested in expressions of Indigenous culture that fit the government’s Aboriginal tourism agenda. Indigenous cultures are yet again “for sale.”

Indigenous-led tourism does educate about the lived realities of Indigenous people, yet the market will always be dictated by consumer expectations. The tendency of some people to de-emphasize casinos as a “true” form of Aboriginal tourism (i.e., a form that adheres to stereotypes), for example, reveals a troubling fetishism of Indigeneity.

On the face of it, embracing Aboriginal tourism makes sense. Who opposes sustainable economic development? But then, Aboriginal tourism can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Each Indigenous community—on reserve, off-reserve, status, non-status, Métis, urban or rural—is culturally distinct, as are the needs of its people. Not all reserves in Alberta are on lands that can sustain appealing tourism opportunities, and many lack even basic infrastructure. While Chief Weasel Child’s people are close to mountains, some northern Alberta communities are surrounded by muskeg, are under boil-water orders and offer little obvious marketability except as hunting destinations.

Aboriginal tourism won’t solve some problems. Much of Canada’s wealth is derived from Indigenous lands, yet, in the face of broken treaties, Indigenous people remain chronically undersupported. Many communities simply need their treaty rights taken seriously and adequate housing built. The province’s efforts might be best spent genuinely listening to Indigenous communities and pressuring the federal government to redress its long-standing neglect. Once land and infrastructure that are a basic right of Indigenous people are in place, Aboriginal tourism could be a different prospect altogether.

Aboriginal tourism promises to raise awareness of Indigenous culture and provide much-needed money to people and communities, yet it is at best a band-aid economic development model. It shouldn’t be touted at the expense of more meaningful and substantive reconciliation.

Jennifer Adese (Métis) is an assistant professor in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University.


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