Aboriginal tourism: a bridging of cultures

Does Aboriginal tourism mean sacrificing culture at the altar of capitalism?

Credit: Boomer Jerritt

Andy Everson dances in traditional regalia

Does Aboriginal tourism mean sacrificing culture at the altar of capitalism?

On a breezy June morning John Haldane, a 29-year-old Tsimshian, leads four tourists along a forest path on Pike Island near Prince Rupert. Hemlocks and western red cedars spiral upward into the canopy and skunk cabbage tinges the air with the pungent aroma of springtime. With an assortment of facial piercings fit for a punk rock concert and wearing a traditional cedar-bark hat woven by his grandmother, Haldane has one foot in the present and one in the past.

Pictured: K’ómoks native Andy Everson, dancing in traditional regalia, has been a cultural ambassador since long before Olympics mania hit B.C.

Pike Island is also redolent of the past. Known as Lax Spa’Aus in the native language, or “place of sand and clay,” it sits in the heart of traditional Tsimshian territory on B.C.’s northwest coast. The island is home to three ancient village sites, and petroglyphs of unknown age chiseled into beach rocks depict frogs, halibut and human faces – testament to a thoughtful artistic people who gave careful consideration to their place in the world. “We don’t want to remove them from where our ancestors made them in the intertidal zone, because we view the petroglyphs as prayers being swept out to sea,” Haldane explains.

He pauses with his group in a clearing above a small cove and next to a replica longhouse and begins to strike a small drum. Thump . . . thump . . . thump. In a soft but commanding voice, he begins to relate the story of how the trickster, in its raven form, stole light and brought sun to the world of man.

Haldane is a guide for the Tsimshian-owned company Seashore Charters, and the Pike Island tours are the focus of its efforts to capitalize on the cruise ships that dock once or twice a week in Prince Rupert in summer months. This is no Disneyland confection; when Haldane walks through the rainforests of Pike Island, he is in fact tracing the steps of his Tsimshian ancestors that go back into the fog of time to when the Wisconsin Ice Age subsided some 10,000 years ago. His connection to the island lends the tour a compelling authenticity, and it is this profound sense of place, of connection to land and sea and to river and mountain that is at the core of what has been dubbed, somewhat clinically, “aboriginal tourism.”

Proponents are hoping tourism will not only fuel the ongoing resurgence of native culture, but create jobs in native communities and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrate that native culture is not a dusty artifact belonging in a museum, but a living, dynamic entity. B.C. has more than 200 First Nations and Indian bands, each with a cultural and spiritual claim to a piece of the province’s land and sea.

By any measure, native tourism is punching below its weight. The Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C. (which goes by the acronym ATBC) estimates that the sector generates just $35 million in revenue annually, which pales in comparison to the $13.2 billion that Tourism British Columbia calculates was generated by the tourism industry overall in 2007. However, with the Olympics just around the corner, native tourism could receive a big boost in its international profile. The Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee (VANOC) has gone to great lengths to play the native-culture card in its promotional material.

Keith Henry, a Métis from Manitoba, was hired as CEO of ATBC in the fall of 2008, and when I meet him, it’s in a cramped office in a West Vancouver tower, where six people stare at computer screens and mutter into phones. The place is as sterile as any government office, but this is where ideas about promoting B.C.’s rich native culture as a tourism product are hatched. With the 2010 Games around the corner, and ATBC two years into what it calls the Blueprint Strategy, aimed at boosting the value of aboriginal tourism to $50 million by 2012, Henry arrives at a busy time.


K’ómoks First Nations

entourage comes ashore

at a celebration in Comox.

“The potential is huge. I’ve worked in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and they don’t even compare to what B.C. has to offer in terms of aboriginal diversity,” says Henry, sitting at the desk of his seventh-floor office.

The Blueprint Strategy was born out of the realization that aboriginal tourism faced substantial barriers. Many band leaders were ambivalent about tourism, and the relatively few native-owned companies were struggling for survival. Human-resource development was weak, bands lacked access to Crown land for tourism activities, and entrepreneurs living on reservations found it hard to acquire capital and financing from the banks.

In addition, First Nations face questions of cultural appropriation and a sometimes cavalier attitude toward native traditions and imagery: imagine the well-intentioned white guy who erects a totem pole in front of his gift shop as a kitschy attention-grabber. First Nations themselves are also wary about questions of authenticity: is a particular tourism experience a genuine representation of native culture or a cheap cartoon knock-off?

And sometimes getting native and non-native businesses to work cooperatively can be like mixing oil and water. Native people are the first to acknowledge that on the rez, time ticks differently than it does in the mainstream, and often refer to “Indian time.” This speaks to one of the endearing qualities of native communities: schedules often adhere less to deadlines and dollars than to family, traditions and whether or not the purplish, black clouds on the horizon will erupt into a downpour and thwart the planned totem-pole raising. That kind of casual approach to timetables is fine when it’s a community event, but when it’s a dugout canoe tour for cruise-ship tourists on a day excursion, schedules are important.

After less than a year on the job, Henry feels upbeat about progress to date, in spite of the moribund global economy. ATBC now claims 60 market-ready tourism businesses meeting the association’s criterion of at least 51-per-cent native ownership, as well as meeting industry standards in training and professionalism. Like most players in the tourism sector, he hopes that the Olympics will pay dividends, and in ATBC’s case, help raise the profile of aboriginal tourism. “We’re banking on the Games being a huge boost,” Henry says, adding that ATBC has been training “Trailblazers” to act as cultural ambassadors during the Games.

VANOC has welcomed First Nations as full partners in the 2010 Winter Games. Four Host First Nations, an organization formed to represent the Lil’wat, Squamish, Musqueum and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations on whose territories the Games will be played, will showcase their art, culture and entrepreneurship at a temporary pavilion throughout the Games in downtown Vancouver. The newly minted Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Squamish is seen as a flagship of native tourism that emerged from unprecedented co-operation between two nations – the Squamish and Lil’wat.

Beyond the glare of the Olympics, Indian bands and nations across the province are planting the seeds of an aboriginal tourism economy. In the Nass Valley, tourism is a lone bright glimmer in a remote economy where resource jobs have dried up. The pioneering Nisga’a Nation, which signed a treaty in 1998 involving cash and land, is taking tentative steps toward self-government. With fishing and logging on the decline, the Nisga’a are putting much faith into tourism – perhaps too much faith.

Fred Tait, a soft-spoken, good humoured Nisga’a from Greenville, is an unlikely tourism worker. He used to fall trees for a living but now guides school groups and tourists around the geologically fascinating Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park for the band-owned tourism enterprise. “It’s tough here right now; there’s not a lot of work and honestly I never thought I’d be a tour guide,” Tait says, but he adds that he has no plans to leave the Nass Valley, and his job as a tour guide has given him another reason to stay.


K’ómok dancers perform in Comox

To the west, across Hecate Strait from Prince Rupert on Haida Gwai’i, Jason Alsop, a young Haida of the raven clan, feels a similar unshakeable connection to place. Alsop is operations manager of the impressive, $26-million Haida Heritage Centre, which opened in 2007 on an ancient village site known as Kaay Llnagaay, and is meant to anchor the still nascent tourism industry on these remote northwest B.C. islands. Thirty years ago, the elders of Skidegate set aside this land with the idea of building some sort of monument to the Haida Nation.

Today the museum houses Haida art, exhibits depicting the pre- and post- contact history of Haida Gwai’i, displays of flora and fauna, and the Bill Reid Teaching Centre, where Haida can learn and maintain the traditional crafts of bentwood box making, canoe building, totem-pole carving and Chilkat blanket weaving. Alsop feels perfectly at home here; he traces his personal clan lineage to the very spot where this modern museum sits.

“It keeps me grounded and humbled to know that my people once lived on this beach,” Alsop says, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the heritage centre’s greeting house.

While some First Nations are focusing tourism efforts on cultural themes, others have ventured farther afield in the sector. At the opposite corner of the province, near Cranbrook, the Kutnaxa Nation is parlaying its past into something for the future, albeit in a much more capitalistic, mainstream manner than the Haida. Through the company SEM Resort Partnerships Ltd., the Kutnaxa have transformed the St. Eugene Mission, a residential school that was built in 1910, from a symbol of cultural assimilation into a beacon of economic development with a resort, golf greens, casino and native interpretive centre. Today 25 per cent of the resort’s 250 employees are First Nations.

In the summer of 2006 the Osoyoos Indian Band opened the $9 million Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, adding to an impressive stable of enterprises including a winery, RV park, golf course and a joint venture with Calgary-owned Bellstar Hotels & Resorts. Some might criticize the Osoyoos band for sacrificing culture, and indeed some of the rare desert ecosystems of the South Okanagan, to the altar of capitalism; however Clarence Louie, the band’s outspoken chief, makes no apologies. Louie, who is as comfortable in a sweat lodge as he is in a Harvard lecture theatre, has toured universities and Indian reservations across North America touting his tough love brand of self-sufficient native capitalism. According to Louie, you can talk about a native cultural renaissance all you want, but if native adults are collecting welfare and the kids are sniffing glue, those sentiments ring hollow.

“There’s no culture in poverty,” he once told me, adding that the band’s investment in the desert cultural centre is proof positive that honouring traditions and swinging golf clubs are not mutually exclusive.

K’ómoks native Andy Everson has been a cultural ambassador since long before Olympics mania hit B.C. He’s a well known artist, dancer, storyteller and academic whose master’s thesis in anthropology focused on contemporary expressions of K’ómoks culture. Personally, he doesn’t care much for the slot-machine and poker-table kind of Indian economic development, or the carnival-like powwows that have sprouted across the West, though he doesn’t begrudge bands that have chosen these as the way to generate jobs and revenue. He’s more interested in delving into Kwakiutl culture, the linguistic and cultural group to which the K’ómoks people belong, and interpreting it through song, dance, art and storytelling. He earns a living mostly by selling his artwork to tourists and collectors, and he regularly performs with his Comox-based Kumugwe dancers for both native and non-native audiences.


Hereditary chiefs George Hunt

and Basil Ambers preside over

a fire in Port Rupert

“There’s a sense among some non-natives that we don’t have a history in North America, that we’re somehow nomadic. I want to impart a sense that we do have a strong history, an oral history that is just as important as European history,” Everson says.

That said, he doesn’t expect everyone to fully understand the threads of subtlety, nuance and protocol that are woven into the fabric of native society, and more particularly, the unwritten rules around what parts of a culture are open for public consumption. (ATBC is currently trying to develop protocols to help bands address this question.)

Take the much misunderstood potlatch, for example. Crushed by the missionaries and outlawed by government but undergoing a major resurgence today, the potlatch to the uninformed observer would seem like profligate waste, where the host gives away vast amounts of material wealth. Behind this apparent orgy of reverse materialism is a complex and highly ritualized practice around which coastal aboriginal society revolves and social hierarchies are reinforced. It is where weddings, births, deaths and the giving of names are honoured, and such events are validated by those called to bear witness. The blankets, masks, bentwood boxes, coppers and other gifts of pre-colonial times have today been replaced with TVs and other modern goods, but dance, song and feasting remain central to the ritual. So far it hasn’t been packaged into an event and staged for tourists.

The potlach is not the only tradition to be spared from tourism commodification. “Some of our dances are for our people only and we don’t do them necessarily for others,” Everson says, pointing to the Hamatsa society, a highly secretive cultural practice that involves inherited dances performed over several days. “If somebody wants to do one of these dances for a non-native audience, they’ll have to answer to our people.”

Just as the potlatch grounds West Coast native culture in time and place, so too does the oral tradition, and storytelling is another one of aboriginal tourism’s unique strengths. Peter August is a full-time tour guide and storyteller at Capilano Suspension Bridge, one of Vancouver’s longest-running tourist attractions. A 53-year-old Squamish native, August was working dead-end warehouse jobs until about 10 years, ago when he took a college tourism course. A gig working as an interpreter for a Vancouver Museum exhibit led to his job at the suspension bridge. August, who says storytelling has been part of his life since he was old enough to comprehend his own ethnic heritage, was honoured at the ATBC annual awards ceremony for his work as a cultural ambassador. At Capilano Suspension Bridge, he comes into contact with tourists from around the globe, including the occasional doe-eyed visitor looking for Hollywood depictions of Indians in feather headdresses smoking a peace pipe in a teepee. It keeps his job interesting, August says with a laugh, adding that his guests often ask how they can go to a potlatch, as if there’s a kiosk on the rez selling tickets to such events. “I tell them that they have to be invited,” he says.

Back on Pike Island, the ravens need no invitation to become involved in John Haldane’s story, as he shares his own interpretation of the mythical trickster that stole the sun. He strikes his drum. Thump . . . thump . . . thump. At appropriate intervals, a throaty squawk pierces the silence. For a moment the tourists feel like they’ve been had, as though Haldane has enlisted this obsidian fixture of the forest in the telling of the tale. “The raven can hear me,” he says with a coy smile, looking up into the canopy of green.

Variations of this creation myth have been shared around campfires or in longhouses for thousands of years. After the arrival of Europeans, the suppression of such stories and the dismantling of aboriginal culture was nearly so successful and thorough that many natives themselves learned to be ashamed of their heritage. Not any more – traditions of the past are now being kept alive in tourism experiences from the coast to the Rockies.