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Source: Westworld, By: Dianne Meili
Trails outdoor adventures
Two thousand meters above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Yoho Pass, Alberta, Metis-trapper-turned-adventure-guide Brenda Holder bends over a pile of dried pellets on the side of the trail.
“What do you see here?” she asks.
“It’s scat . . . poop,” responds one of the hikers.
“Yes, from a pine marten. And just by my boot here, you can see the kill the marten made,” says Holder, indicating a pile of grey-brown fluff. “The pine marten somehow got hold of a squirrel – I don’t know how because squirrels are really fast. But the marten must have surprised him and killed him, then eaten him on the spot.”
A middle-aged woman in oversized yellow raingear shrugs her shoulders. “I wouldn’t have made that connection,” she says. “I just saw droppings and some fur scraps. I think native people have more finely tuned senses than non-natives.”
“That may be, or it may not,” says Holder, who has run Mahikan Trails outdoor adventures out of Canmore with husband and co-owner Dave Holder since 1995. But as she explains later on the deck of Emerald Lake Lodge, backdropped by fragrant pine and spruce, “The information animals leave behind has always had meaning for me. In my childhood trapping days with my parents, it would have been important for them to know there are pine martens and squirrels in the area. It would have meant their livelihood. For today’s hike, though, it was just cool to connect people with nature in that way.”
Almost half a province to the north of Holder’s stomping grounds, in a riverside camp that seems isolated to novice canoeists coming upon it for the first time (after kilometres of “nothing”), Maggie Looney is guiding those curious about themselves and the natural world in a different way. Just metres from the amber waters of the Slave River, as owls hoot and coyotes howl in the distance, this petite, greying woman looks sincerely into the faces of a dozen youngsters gathered around her campfire and uses intuition – combined with answers to strategic questions asked earlier – to inform each teen as to the identity of their totem animal. She tells Calgarian Ike Stoodley, a gangly 14-year-old leaning forward on a log stump, elbows on his knees, that his totem is the fox. The young man ponders this, asks about the gifts of this elusive animal (wisdom, agility and a magical presence, responds Looney), then leans back from the firelight to consider further this introduction to a part of himself he has never met.
That peaceful, star-filled night was two years ago. But Stoodley, now 16 and tall as a man, still vividly recalls the extraordinary events of that summer spent with fellow campers from Athabasca’s Long Lake Outdoor Education Centre. His stay with Maggie and husband Norm Stenten included workshops on traditional aboriginal philosophy, drum-making and the practical knowledge of animals, hunting and living on the land, fuelled by bannock cooked over a fire and nights sleeping in tipis. And the cross-cultural teachings of Looney and Stenten still run like a mantra through the trailer of memories playing in Stoodley’s mind.
“We all helped prepare moose stew for supper and picked wild strawberries to bake into the bannock. My dad would roll his eyes at me saying this, but I liked helping out. We were out in the middle of nowhere, outside of our normal domain, and we were breathing fresh air. Maggie and Norm were telling us about traditional ways of living with the environment and the cycles of life based on the medicine wheel, and it was cool to learn about native customs. When they told me the gift of the fox was to know there’s always something more going on than what meets the eye, I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s me. There’s a lot more to me than most people think.’ ”
Stoodley is one of many fascinated by aboriginal ways of knowing. The province’s increasing number of aboriginal tourism initiatives are finding that Europeans – particularly Germans – harbour a keen fascination for the Canadian West and aboriginal culture. But the spirituality and art of First Nations is hugely popular among non-native Canadians as well, because “they fill a need,” says Haida expert and anthropologist George F. MacDonald, author of Chiefs of the Sea and Sky and Haida Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands, and president of B.C.’s Bill Reid Foundation. “North American culture is looking for roots, which is partly why Albertans are increasingly supportive of First Nations culture. It’s a sense of wanting to identify with the region through indigenous art and culture.”
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the concept of aboriginal tourism was not even part of the Canadian lexicon. Native reserves were generally considered out of bounds for white society. The mere mention of them conjured up images of poverty, alcoholism and “No Trespassing” signs. But sophisticated resort developments, such as B.C.’s Spirit Ridge Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos, are changing these attitudes. And aboriginal tourism, though still in its infancy, is now increasingly regarded as an industry with vast potential. Surveys suggest that it is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism market worldwide, a trend fuelled by a large population of highly educated, aging baby boomers who are looking for culturally enriching travel. As to what this means in dollars: according to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the aboriginal tourism industry is expected to generate more than $10 billion in revenue over the next five years. Though Linnea Battel, co-chair of B.C.’s Aboriginal Tourism Association, notes that the benefits of aboriginal tourism extend beyond dollar signs. “It’s another vehicle for preserving our culture. We get to tell our stories in our own way.”
This message of culture and sharing is clearly evident at northern Alberta’s Driftpile First Nation Community School, built in the shape of an eagle feather, just off Hwy. 2 on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake. May through June, the band-controlled school offers cultural workshops to other Alberta school students who stay in tipis surrounded by a circle of trees.
“When you step out of the round ceremonial room in our school, you cross a bridge – marking your walk from the modern world of education into a place of ancient learning – and then follow a red shale path to the tree circle. We had some professional help from a local tree farmer to put in the garden, because we wanted to do it right,” says the school’s cultural adviser and traditional dance teacher Denny Bellerose, of the 28 trees planted in a giant circle. “We placed a tobacco offering in each one and asked for help from our brothers – the tamarack, spruce, pine and birch – in the hope that what we were doing would be blessed. And we planted seven of each kind, for the seven stars of the Big Dipper that guide us on this land. Each spring, we then put up seven tipis in the circle between the trees, where families and groups are welcome to stay overnight and take a powwow dance workshop with us, have a traditional meal and watch an arts performance.” Future plans include regular dinner theatres, an interpretive cultural restaurant and an RV park where residents can watch “the best sunsets ever” over Lesser Slave Lake.
“My elders have always impressed upon me that ‘something isn’t yours until you share it,’” says Bellerose, who has travelled the world as a drummer and powwow dancer and is an active member of the Driftpile First Nation, as well as a representative on the province’s Aboriginal Tourism Advisory Council. “Our elders want to show what we have to mainstream society. They love this land and they love their people. And they realize that, through tourism, traditions will be preserved and our own people will become educated as to how powerful and appreciated our culture is. Aboriginal people don’t own natural resources, but the Creator has allowed us to keep some of our stories and sacred ways of life, and these we want to let other people know about. As for me, all I can say is, ‘Watch out for Driftpile.’ Because great things are coming.”
It’s that kind of enthusiasm for what aboriginal culture has to offer that Holder hopes will inspire other ideas for unique new tourism ventures within the community. In a society where electronics provide convenient, distracting fun, but where discovery and wonder have turned elusive, she describes aboriginal tourism as “a bit like a wildfire. There is high demand.” And it’s that sense of awe, along with a feeling of belonging to this world “instead of controlling or using it up,” she notes, that has contributed to the increased demand.
OUTDOOR ADVENTURES MAY comprise the majority of Alberta’s 80-plus aboriginal tourism initiatives, but a handful of pioneering Alberta bands are focused on large-scale tourist initiatives that generate significant long-term economic benefits. The biggest of these, the Siksika-operated $25-million Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre (the site of the Blackfoots’ historic peace treaty signing in 1877), is just one example. The new LEED-certified, 5,760-square-metre facility in the high sandstone cliffs overlooking the Bow River Valley features heritage displays, a theatre, restaurant, art and craft shop and conference centre, and has already won a Tourism Alberta award for sustainable energy use. Returning to his home reserve for the July 2007 opening of the facility, Bert Crowfoot, who heads up Edmonton’s Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, recalls his first impression: “The first thing that hits you are the huge, eagle tail feathers coming down over the front doors, and then, inside, there are symbols of our culture built into the architecture everywhere. The displays reflect true Blackfoot traditions and values; they’re not overblown or hokey. Elders were consulted every step of the way during its development, and it shows.”
Visitors take a 45-minute indoor tour of the world-class exhibit that encompasses the entire gallery floor, before descending a staircase to a series of displays on the story of the Siksika people. (New exhibits are featured regularly, as are demonstrations and performances.) Beyond the interpretive centre is then an outdoor tour, offered seasonally from May to October, on a trail leading to the graves of two legendary Blackfoot chiefs: Crowfoot, who signed Treaty 7 (the influential peace agreement between the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Canadian government), and Poundmaker, the former’s adopted Cree son (a remarkable relationship given their two nations were enemies).
The Cluny Earthlodge Village, established around 1740, is located just west of the centre. Surrounded by fortified palisade walls and a moat, its log and earth dwellings are linked to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples who migrated north from the middle Missouri region of the Dakotas between 1740 and 1742. During construction, Siksika committee members travelled to North Dakota to meet with elders who could verify the village’s historical details, including stories of a group of Mandan-Hidatsa who journeyed north and later returned speaking another language. Visitors can also tour the University of Calgary’s new on-site dig of one of the earth lodges (as archaeology students delve into the mystery of who first migrated to this site, their traditions and where they came from), followed by overnight stays in painted tipis at the Buffalo Jump village, with two-hour one-on-one visits with a Siksika storyteller.
Just east of Blackfoot Crossing is Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, where the glaciers that bulldozed the surrounding terrain divided, leaving these green, gently rolling elevations intact. (Explorer and geographer Captain John Palliser noted in the journal he kept between 1847 and 1850: “These hills are a perfect oasis in the desert we have travelled.”) Spanning the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, this lush landscape of undulating hills, small lakes and deep canyons has long been held sacred by the many nations who camped here while hunting and gathering. And today, the park is the site of an international celebration of aboriginal culture held each June, History of the Hills. Established in 2003, the five-day cultural event features 13 interpretive stations where visitors can listen to a Cree singer-storyteller, watch a hide being tanned, play traditional games and view an archaeological dig. A final-night concert under the big tent at the tipi village features violin strings tickled by the likes of legendary Metis fiddlers John Arcand, Calvin Vollrath and Teddy Boy Houle.
Just west and south of Blackfoot Crossing, where the foothills meet the plains, is the granddaddy of aboriginal tourism: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the destination is the world’s oldest, largest and best-preserved known buffalo jump, an attraction ranked alongside Egypt’s pyramids, England’s Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands’ natural wonders. For more than 5,500 years, the Piikani people, as well as Blackfoot sub-groups Siksika and Kainai, herded bison over its 10-metre height each autumn so they could dry the meat and stockpile their winter food supply. But complementing the impressive interpretive displays and magnificence of the site is the “just-as-important human element,” says marketing manager Joseph Crowshoe. Staff are well-prepared “to tell the story of the great buffalo hunt. The elders have set the foundation for a legacy, and today, we share just as our ancestors would want.”
OF COURSE, ABORIGINAL TOURISM is not a panacea for all of the problems faced by First Nations. But it has tremendous potential to address employment and economic needs within communities. Done properly, it supports First Nations’ aspirations for self-determination and reflects land-use planning, cultural, economic and employment goals. It can also serve as a vehicle for recovering what was once thought lost and for preserving cultures that struggle to survive as traditional ways of life disappear. Ironically, the opening of First Nations communities to outsiders, once feared as the road to ruin, may be the key to healing and revival.
As Brenda Holder states: “I like to tell people, ‘You know, it’s not only your product – your business – that’s the tourism factor, it’s you. You are the main tourist attraction, simply by your birthright. And the clients we host can’t get enough. They’re always thirsting for the knowledge of aboriginal people. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, that what I thought was ordinary, wasn’t. And it’s been a surprise: how the ordinary things that we do are special to a lot of people.”
With files from Kerry Banks. Stony Plain-based writer Dianne Meili, a Cree Metis, is an author and the CFWE host of “One People, Many Lives.”