Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 13, 2009

Worldview: First Peoples, First Principles

Aboriginal travel

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine got me thinking about a developing sector of the travel and tourism industry: aboriginal travel.

The cartoon depicts an iconic wagon train moving across the American Frontier sometime in the 19th century. Beyond some low mountains powerful searchlights from an as yet unknown destination illuminate the black Western sky. The night-polluting lights are the kind of “Come and get ‘em” teasers that (in the 21st century) announce the opening of a new megamall or some razzmatazz event. With a look of keen anticipation on his face, the driver of one of the stagecoaches announces to his wife sitting next to him, “Indian casino. I’d say Comanche.”

For those of us in North America who have seen many of our aboriginal peoples become financially prosperous by means of gaming casinos, the social satire and subtle commentary are not difficult to interpret. Like all humour, it is the incongruity of the situation that appeals to us and makes us laugh, or at least chuckle. The underlying message, however, is a little more complex. When Europeans came to North America, they took possession of the land in the names of their various colonial powers, regardless of the fact that the land was inhabited — and had been for a very long time.

Over time, however, Native American tribes (in Canada we refer to them as First Nations peoples) re-gained a degree of sovereignty on their “reservation” lands. Whether it be in Canada or the United States, state or provincial governments themselves do not have regulatory authority over these gambling enterprises. Instead such casinos are regulated by separate government bodies that deal with “Indian” affairs. In Canada, all First Nations issues are under the mandate of the federal Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. It should also be noted, by the way, that despite the historical error inherent in the term “Indian,” the word has become institutionalized and therefore unavoidable in many cases.

Historically, native people in North America were colonized in what was often the most brutal fashion. In the United States, the clash of cultures usually resulted in “Indian Wars,” whereas in Canada, according to one expert I heard speak on the subject, we tended to “trick them” through land treaties that made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The legacy of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and the impact on indigenous people is an enormously complex issue, but the social impact on these people has been profound and frequently very disturbing.

For example, on June 1, 2008 the Canadian Government launched the “Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a non-judicial investigative body that began the hard task of conducting hearings on the abuse of native children at the residential schools they were forced to attend. A major skeleton in the Canadian historical closet, these residential schools (in essence an attempt to “civilize” native children), and the abuse that the children endured at the hands of what were often religious-owned and operated institutions, is unfortunately just one example of how our First Nations people were disadvantaged over time.

In addition, on June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons and officially, on behalf of the Government of Canada, apologized to the men and women who had been forced to attend these schools. (For more information see Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s statement of apology.)

The income that gambling enterprises on native reservations provides (and the consequent increase in the ability to provide much needed public services) does indeed provide ways and means of self-determination for people of aboriginal heritage. In the United States alone where there are about 4000 aboriginal gaming establishments, the total revenues amount to about $130 billion annually. In Canada we have 94 such establishments which also include “racinos” (horse race track betting establishments). One First Nations gambling casino less than an hour from where I live (it is also the largest in Canada) brings in about $500 million annually in revenue.

Not all North Americans, however, see gambling casinos (native or otherwise) as a good thing; and many question the social values implicit in them, not to mention the social costs of gambling behavior that can become addictive. Truth and reconciliation commissions are also not particularly new — one only has to think of South Africa — but such socio-political processes have far-reaching implications. Who exactly qualifies (and why) as aboriginal or indigenous is also of course an important issue. And in terms of human society attempting to redress the wrongs of history, I believe there is a role here for travel journalists.

Graham Simmons and the Tiwi of Australia

Recently I did an interview with my colleague and friend Graham Simmons who is an Australian travel journalist living in Byron Bay near the Great Barrier Reef. Graham is a very socially conscious journalist who has written frequently about the Aborigines of Australia, the first peoples of that continent. In his travel pieces, especially those relating to the Tiwi, he demonstrates respect for their traditional way of life and recognizes and validates their distinct culture. In our chat (see below for the link) he makes reference to their ability to put a lot of human history into perspective, especially in terms of their connectivity with the immediate environment. While aboriginal culture is considered by some to be too inwards-thinking and “cut off” from mainstream culture, Graham shows how in fact the Tiwi are actually outward-thinking in terms of “the big picture.” He also articulates how an aboriginal culture can be the litmus test for whether majority cultures isolate or alienate certain groups in society.

But what I found especially interesting is how interacting with the Tiwi allows Graham to see beyond the obvious; his reference to how they adapt to change, incorporating traditional beliefs into modern society is especially interesting. At one point he and I discussed how the Tiwi smoking ritual underscores universal purification ceremonies. Graham also reveals in his articles (and his stunning photographs) how aboriginal people have an awareness of the absolute, have unique and distinct art forms, and possess a mythology that is not dissimilar from “Western” myths. However, Graham emphasizes that fully understanding the connections to the land and aboriginal peoples’ awareness of the mysteries and wisdom that has been their legacy for thousands of years is almost impossible for non-aboriginal people.


But in terms of what we can explore through travel journalism, it is the commonality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultures that I find most relevant. As Graham points out, the Tiwi have always practised “environmental science” and wildlife management; have always known not to over-exploit natural resources. Furthermore, the principles of sustainability through oral history and the direct generational transference of traditional skills may be something that the “developed” world has lost.

Graham’s articles also are a lesson in losing one’s cultural baggage to gain new perspectives through aboriginal travel. And it is significant that in Australia, the aboriginal travel industry is fully supported by organizations such as The Aboriginal Tourism Association, a separate “Travel Australia: Aboriginal Culture” website, and various independent aboriginal tour companies.

The Siksika Nation: an alternative to casinos

I have researched and written a number of travel articles that focus on the aboriginal experience. But the aboriginal travel experience that has been the most meaningful for me was a visit to the Siksika Nation in Alberta. Also known as the Blackfoot, the Siksika Nation is a case study of an aboriginal sense of place. Their relationship to the land differs in many ways from that of the Europeans who arrived with quite normal but highly preconceived notions.

The Siksika Nation has approximately 6000 members and is part of the much larger Blackfoot Confederacy whose ancestral lands (approximately 113,000 square kilometres) once spread over most of southern Alberta and into what today is Montana. Their history adds 10,000 years onto what is usually considered the span of Canadian/North American history.

In Canada, land treaties would eventually be negotiated with First Nations peoples. The most important of these are what is known as the “Numbered Treaties” under which the First Nations peoples surrendered parts of their land in return for direct payments and other promises on the part of “The Crown.”

The Siksika, along with other nations in this part of what would eventually be Canada, negotiated Treaty 7, which many historians consider one of the most important of them all; and it was the legendary Chief Crowfoot who acted on behalf of the Siksika Nation. As signatories to Treaty 7, the Siksika essentially allowed the Canadian “national dream” (the transcontinental railway that assured that Canada would be a single and separate nation … from you know who) to pass through their land. On September 22, 1877, Chief Crowfoot (along with others) signed a treaty with “Her Majesty the Queen,” a treaty whose provisions and stipulations were to last “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the water flows.”

History, however, is a complex and problematic process. And in terms of the First Nations peoples of Canada — or of all of the Americas for that matter — the adage “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter” applies in an especially poignant way.

The Siksika travel and tourism business plan

The event at the heart of my visit to the Siksika Nation was a community affair; we had been invited to attend the unofficial inauguration of the magnificent Siksika Nation-Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre. In many respects it was like an enormous family picnic during which a great deal of inter-generational bonding was happening.

But the Centre and the Blackfoot Historical Crossing Heritage Park are also part of a strategic business plan on the part of the Siksika. This is also a travel and tourism initiative that will attract travellers from all over the world, especially those who value the kind of historical-cultural travel that informs, enlightens, but does not hesitate to examine problematic historical issues.

What the Siksika probably lost in terms of prime land, they eventually may have regained in terms of the contemporary travel and tourism market. Their land today is one of the most important historical sites in Canada; and they have begun to turn these lands to their advantage as an aboriginal travel destination — for everyone.

(This article was first published in the Newsletter of the World Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers.)

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