The importance of the growing travel trend

On the shores of Lake Huron, leaders of the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth Initiative show off a birch bark canoe they hand-built for cruisers visiting the area on an excursion. Known as one wiigwaas jiimaanthe meticulously crafted ship was an engineering marvel originally used by the Anishinaabe people as a means of survival long before electricity, running water and supermarkets existed.

called Oshkinig, young Anishinaabeg’s canoe is huge, with cedar-carved ribs and a hull of bark harvested from a single tree, etched with maple and oak leaves and flowers that symbolize the transition from summer to fall. It is a stark contrast to modern boats whizzing across the surface of the lake. The canoe is the result of the work of both the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth Initiative and the Georgian Bay Biosphere, who are committed to preserving the region’s wildlife and culture.

The Oshkinigig isn’t just for paddling. “It is used to share stories and knowledge and talk about cultural revitalization in an age of reconciliation,” said Kyla Zhowshkawabunokwe Judge, an Ojibwa member and manager of cultural programs for the Georgian Bay Biosphere. “This is remarkable that despite all the effects of colonization, legacies of assimilation and policies still in place, that indigenous knowledge is all around us.”

birch bark canoe in lake huron

The birch bark ship took 19 days to build using traditional techniques.

Courtesy of Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth/Delaina Rice

Judge compares the knowledge it takes to become one wiigwaas jiimaan, a skill that almost disappeared in the last 70 years, to a seed: it was buried, hidden and protected. The fact that the Oshkinigig now regularly traverses Lake Huron and is on display to tourists is a testament to the survival and resilience of the Anishinaabe people.

The canoe building demonstration is the latest example of the impact of Indigenous tourism, a genre of travel in which visitors experience authentic culture and history right from the source.

Access Indigenous heritage through dazzling experiences – from jet down the Snake River through the Nimíipuu homeland between Idaho and Washington State with Tourism in Nez Perce to be fully immersed in the Haida heritage op Haida house on the banks of the Tlell River in British Columbia, Canada – is growing in popularity and becoming a vital money maker for these communities.

Why is Indigenous Tourism Important?

When supported and owned by Indigenous peoples, respectful Indigenous tourism empowers communities to reclaim, revive and continue their traditions. “We’ve definitely seen some tribes venture into tourism now,” said Ed Hall, who spent more than 30 years as a tourism coordinator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Hall, who is affiliated with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation tribes of North Dakota, now serves as the Indigenous Economic Development Executive in Residence and as the Tourism Executive in Residence at George Washington University. He leads a project called the Indigenous Tourism Collaborative of the Americas, which brings together Indigenous representatives to coordinate landmark tourism projects.

cultural square aqua caliente

When it opens in 2023, the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza will be the second largest Native American museum and cultural center in the country.

Courtesy of Native California/Max Whittaker

Despite being the second largest population in the Western Hemisphere, the Indigenous peoples of the US and Canada have been largely invisible, Hall says, due to generations of assimilation and marginalization. He believes that many indigenous peoples are still considered primitive because of stories that are “posted about us in the media, not by us.”

Hall says Indigenous peoples now share their culture more openly with visitors because it happens on their own terms. “The most important thing we can get out of this industry is being relevant and showing our kids that relevance,” adds Hall, “because that is what is going to support our culture and communities.”

How can visitors support indigenous peoples?

There are 700 Indigenous communities in Canada and 574 countries in the United States, each with its own complex story. Indigenous people owning, operating and being part of travel experiences enable visitors to learn directly from Indigenous voices. Keith Henry, a Métis person and CEO and president of Canada Indigenous Tourism Associationadvises visitors to specifically seek out and patronize such trips.

You won’t be alone. “Indigenous tourism is the fastest growing tourism industry,” says Henry, “and it is important to continue conversations about Indigenous culture through our storytellers and authentic experiences.”

The travel industry now offers experiences through many providers, such as Viking Cruises with its Indigenous-focused excursions and tour operator Intrepid Travel, which offer community-supported experiences such as a trip to South Dakota led by the director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, Ivan Sorbel who teaches the history, spirituality and stories of the Oglala Lakota people through visits to The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School, one of the first cultural centers and museums on a reservation.

How is indigenous tourism evolving?

A well-known avenue of economic development for Indigenous nations, casinos are not typically seen as places to showcase culture, but that is changing with the opening of cultural centers and recognition of Indigenous heritage funded by gaming. For example the Pechanga Resort casino in Temecula, California, recently underwent a $300 million makeover that included adding significant tribal artifacts to the casino lobby, nods to Pechanga heritage in design details, and native treatments at the spa.

“Every piece of art you see on the wall is designed to tell a story about the culture that is here and that continues,” says Myra Masiel-Zamora, a Pechanga member and the tribe’s curator and archaeologist. She was instrumental in overseeing the addition of many elements, including a meditative sound experience recorded on the native land and historically significant botanicals such as prickly pear, in the spa. “The prickly pear oil is very good for your skin. It’s high in vitamin C. We’ve been using it on our skin for thousands of years.”

spa pechanga acorn sculpture

Spa Pechanga’s acorn sculpture represents the food that kept indigenous people alive for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

Courtesy of Spa Pechanga/Darren Edwards

Elsewhere in California, a few tribes will open cultural institutions in 2023 to tell their own stories. North of Santa Barbara, the 14,000 square feet Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center will celebrate the heritage of the Chumash people, who once thrived along what is now California’s central coast. In Palm Springs, the Agua Caliente Cultural Square will become the country’s second-largest Native American Museum and Cultural Center, providing a gateway to the past, present, and future of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians with a 48,000-square-foot museum, state-of-the-art spa, and trail and an educational garden that flourishes with native plants.

How do institutions become more inclusive?

Across the country, many museums and cultural institutions are reforming their methods of inclusion, from returning stolen artifacts to tribes to adding perspectives that are typically not represented. For example the Denver Art Museumwhich opened its signature Native Arts department in 1925, recently completed a $175 million renovation, bringing greater focus to Native voices throughout the museum, not just one room.

Denver Art Museum collection of Native arts of North America

The Denver Art Museum’s collection of Indigenous Arts of North America contains more than 18,000 objects by artists from more than 250 native countries.

Courtesy of Denver Art Museum/James Florio

The revamp was completed with input and collaboration from members of various Indigenous communities and the Museum’s Indigenous Advisory Board. Today, visitors can hear directly from Indigenous artists and community members through videos and materials written by them. “We put artists above the object and the culture and really try to humanize the art that we have,” said John Lukavic, the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts.

The more inclusive framework, says Lukavic, allows the museum to dive deep into social justice issues, such as land and water rights. “We can talk about abuses that have impacted Indigenous peoples: the consequences of colonization, the traumas of forced residential school experiences or boarding school experiences,” he says, “but we can also talk about the triumphs and successes of Indigenous activism.” For many visitors, it’s a way to see a culture they simply wouldn’t have access to at home.


Lavanya Sunkara is a New York-based travel writer who has contributed to Travel + Leisure, National Geographic, from Fodorand Reader’s Digest.

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