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Indigenous Cultural Tourism Protocol

Indigenous Cultural Tourism Protocol

Cultural tourism is one of the largest and fastest-growing tourism markets globally. The urge to experience another culture or learn about another culture is a common motivation for a great many tourists. In Canada, the uptick in Indigenous-led wildlife tours and community-based cultural experiences reflects the growth in this market. Both domestic and international tourists are increasingly drawn to Indigenous culture.

And, Indigenous communities are organizing and capitalizing on this interest:

There are more than 1,500 Indigenous-led tourism organizations. . . Collectively, they employ over 33,000 people, generate $67 million in consumption tax revenue, and contribute $1.4 billion towards Canada’s annual GDP [1]

The significance of “Indigenous-led” organizations is immense. No longer are Indigenous Peoples and their cultures objects of interest in the tourist trade - they are the operators and as such, they manage which aspects of their culture are shared and which are held back.

Throughout history and throughout the world, Indigenous peoples are frequently the most marginalized sectors in their societies. Paradoxically, their very cultures which were often suppressed through colonialism, have long been of great interest to tourists due to their “otherness.” The appeal of Indigenous culture was not overlooked by the federal government.

Indigenous arts and culture are the most unique and authentic thing Canada has to offer the world. In the 1970s, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sought to strengthen relations with the Soviet Union and China, key ministers like Jean Chrétien facilitated exhibitions of Inuit art behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Shanghai, and Peking (now Beijing). And, in 1991, Haida sculptor Bill Reid completed and installed The Spirit of Haida Gwaii at the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC. The piece was also featured on $20 notes issued between 2004 and 2012. [2]

This was then

Banff Indian Days, 1955
“Banff Indian Days”, 1955. Photo: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Flickr

An example of this paradox is the establishment of “Banff Indian Days” in the late 19th Century. Banff Indian Days was a festival for tourists to see “real Indians” and to display “authentic” Stoney Nakoda culture. It began in 1889 when passengers on the Canadian Pacific Railway were stranded in Banff for several days. The Stoney Nakoda were asked to “dress up” and entertain the passengers. Which they did and continued to do so until 1978.

The backstory is that when Banff National Park was created it prohibited all traditional hunting and gathering activities of all Indigenous groups that make up the Treaty 7 Nations, including the Stoney Nakoda, due to the perception that such activities damaged the park. They were pushed out of the land on which they had pursued their traditions for millennia except for certain days on which they were invited to Banff but were always expected to wear regalia in order to draw tourists and revenue and then vacate again.

An added layer of interest to the Banff Indian Days example is that this was in the era of the government doubling down on erasing Indigenous culture. From 1906 to 1951, it was an indictable offence for Indigenous People to appear outside of their reserve wearing traditional regalia.

This is now

In 2004, Stoney people began to rekindle the celebrations although not as a spectacle for tourists but as an occasion to gather and share stories on land that holds great cultural significance to their culture.

The many benefits of cultural tourism include:

  • Providing sustainable economic opportunities. Some Indigenous communities are remotely located with few opportunities for economic development.
  • Supporting local entrepreneurs
  • Creating employment, especially for youth
  • Bringing in new money which boosts the local economy, businesses, and tax revenues
  • Bringing in new money which can be used for community amenities such as cultural centres, carving sheds, and studios
  • Building community pride
  • Strengthening connection to culture and land
  • Expanding awareness of Indigenous culture and the importance of preservation
  • Building connections with people from outside the community contributes to reconciliation
  • Contributing to the preservation of culture and traditions by providing the resources necessary to maintain the skills and traditions. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes intangible cultural heritage as of equal importance as buildings:
Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. [3]

The challenges cultural tourism face includes:

  • Promoting and developing authentic cultural experiences without commodifying their culture
  • Protecting heritage and sacred sites
  • Not falling prey to over-commercialization

Here are some tips and suggestions for you to keep in mind:

There are Indigenous cultural experiences in every province and territory. If your holiday plans include a cultural experience and you’re really keen to get the most out of your trip consider taking our online Indigenous Awareness course so that you understand the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the roots of some of the challenges and issues impacting Indigenous Peoples.

  • Adopt the view that you are a guest in the community and that you are there to learn about, honour, and respect their traditions and culture. Indigenous Peoples have struggled long and hard to preserve their culture.
  • If you are unsure of what is and is not appropriate, ask your guide.
  • Choose your words. Here’s a list of terms to avoid.
  • Be cautious about asking questions about potentially sensitive subjects such as divisive resource development projects, issues in the news, politics etc. Instead, keep your questions related to the culture of the community you are visiting. You can learn a lot by just listening.
  • Don’t expect or try to hold eye contact when chatting with your guide or community members.
  • Don’t expect to shake hands. Wait to see if a hand is offered first. If so, keep the pressure gentle especially if the other person is an elder. Shaking hands is not a competitive sport.
  • If there are culturally or ecologically sensitive areas that are forbidden to visitors, respect that rule.
  • Be socially conscious. If you are planning to visit an open-to-the-public sacred site do some research on how the associated community feels about the public touching and taking photos of the site.
  • Ask if there are rules about photography.
  • Alcohol may be forbidden which means strict adherence to this rule. Alcohol has had a destructive impact on some Indigenous people and communities.
  • Be aware of dress codes. If, for example, you are invited to a sweat lodge ceremony, be aware that in many Indigenous cultures, women are required to wear long skirts for the sweat. Find out in advance and pack accordingly.

If you are informed, respectful, and grateful for the opportunity to experience Indigenous culture, then you can’t go wrong.

[1] A New Day for Indigenous Tourism, The Aboriginal Business Report, p 15
[2] Julian Brave Noisecat, How Canada Uses Indigenous Art to Push a Liberal Agenda Abroad, The Walrus, Jan. 16, 2019,

Featured photo: A traditional big house built in 1953 by Kwakwaka'wakw Chief Mungo Martin. Victoria, BC, Canada. Photo: Shutterstock

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