Celebrating Indigenous Tourism in Alberta

June in Canada is National Aboriginal month, with June 21st being also being National Aboriginal Day, a day which should become a national stat holiday in my humble opinion. As Canada marks its 150th anniversary of its confederation, any good Canadian will tell you that this beautiful land was home to Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.

Perhaps an even more important milestone than Canada 150 is the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report in 2015. A long and painful read, the report includes the testimony of brave residential school system survivors and outlines the painful legacy of Canada’s colonial past on Indigenous peoples. The report finishes with 94 calls to action, some of which focus on improving education about Indigenous peoples for both citizens and newcomers to Canada. By learning about Canada’s troubled history with Indigenous peoples, as well as their inspiring culture and history, Canadian citizens, newcomers to Canada and tourists alike can do their part to facilitate reconciliation.

Meeting the Princess at Piikani Days
Meeting the Princess at Piikani Day during the Calgary Stampede
With these calls to action in mind, this post will feature some of the  ways both visitors to Alberta and Canadians alike can make the most of Aboriginal History Month by seeking out experiences that celebrate their culture and history. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are just some of the possibilities to explore Indigenous culture and history in Alberta:

Indigenous Tourism in Southern Alberta

Southern Alberta’s largest city, Calgary, offers many opportunities to experience Indigenous culture, including the Glenbow Museum where there are guided walkthroughs of a Plains Indigenous community’s traditional life out on the open prairie. Guided tours of the facility’s impressive artifacts collection can also be arranged. Recently, a Siksikappi medicine wheel was installed in Nose Hill Park that anyone can visit for free. During the  world famous summer festival and rodeo, the Calgary Stampede, Treaty 7 nations set up the “Indian Village” by the Elbow river where you can view traditional dancing, teepee set ups and sample delicious fry bread. It’s actually my favourite part of the Stampede and if you’re lucky, you may even be invited to join in a round dance! For National Aboriginal Day, the University of Calgary will be presenting its second annual “Campfire Chat” which all are invited to attend.

The Prairie Chicken Dance, a Familiar Site at a Powwow
The Prairie Chicken Dance, a familiar sight at a powwow
South of Calgary is the Unesco world heritage site called “Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump” where local Indigenous peoples used to drive bison off a cliff to hunt them. The awe-inspiring facility climbs several stories to the top of the cliff where you can see the remnants of the historic jump.  Throughout the facility, there are artifacts and interpretive displays to help visitors understand the importance of the jump, as well as the Indigenous peoples history in the region both before and after the settler colonials arrived. There is also a small theatre that periodically shows a film reenacting a dramatic buffalo jump. The film does a fantastic job of explaining both the ingenuity and cultural significance of the bison hunt.

Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
Further south still, is perhaps our favourite activity in this post: a paddle down the Milk River to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. There you may take a guided tour to see some of the oldest and largest collection of petroglyphs in the North American Great Plains. If you arrive at the park via the river, there are even more petroglyophs to be seen from the river.

Indigenous Tourism in Northern Alberta

Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, is a city dedicated to showcasing Indigenous art. For example, the historic Garneau Theatre showcases films from the Dreamspeakers Film Festival and the Bearclaw Art Gallery features Indigenous art. During the summer, Edmonton hosts its annual free Heritage Festival, where guests can see Indigenous and Metis dancing and sample their traditional foods. On  National Aboriginal Day (June 21, 2017), Edmonton is planning a number of celebrations, including a round dance, at Victoria Park and will broadcast the festivities live so anyone can take part.

Hoodos in Southern Alberta
Petroglyphs are carved on some of these Hoodoos in Southern Alberta
Just north of Edmonton is Elk Island National Park, a place that played an important role in conserving some of North America’s last remaining plains bison. There visitors can camp under a blanket of stars, try to catch a glimpse of a beautiful bison while enjoying the multitude of trails, and interpretive programs, including one about how to make pemmican, which is a traditional Indigenous food.

Speaking of bison, in a step toward reconciliation, Parks Canada endeavoured to transfer several pregnant bison from Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park where staff are hopeful that they can be reintroduced to roam the area as they would have done prior to Europeans landing in what is now called Canada. Bison were an incredibly important part of Indigenous people’s culture in Alberta but were hunted to near extinction once settlers arrived. Treaty 6 elders blessed them before their journey to Treaty 7 territory and it must have done a lot of good because 10 healthy calves were born this spring! In the same spirit, bison from Elk Island National Park were also transferred to Blackfoot territory in Montana. Bison were essential to keeping the prairies healthy so the hope is that by returning them to their rightful home, the ecosystem will be healthier and Indigenous peoples can experience a physical tie to their culture.

Petroglyphs in Southern Alberta
Petroglyphs in Southern Alberta
We’re not done talking about bison just yet, another important place to view them in Northern Alberta is Wood Buffalo National Park. There a small herd of woods bison have been successfully saved from extinction and the park has the longest standing tradition of subsistence use by the Indigenous peoples who hunt, trap and fish within the park boundary. A designated UNESCO world heritage site, the park is also a dark sky reserve, home to the world’s largest beaver dam, and the only natural site of the endangered whooping crane. Parks staff work with the local Metis community to give them the opportunity to share their story through projects in the park. As an added bonus, National Parks are free in Canada in 2017 because of the 150 years of Confederation celebration.

Other opportunities for Indigenous Tourism in Alberta

While the aforementioned places and activities offer a chance to experience Indigenous culture, it’s important to note that there are many more opportunities than you may be aware of, such as Indigenous Craft Fares, drumming circles and powwows. For those who may not know, a powwow is a meeting to celebrate Indigenous, food, history, music and dancing, both amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Powwows are typically open to all to attend and occur at least annually for most communities. If you are interested in attending a powwow, check this site, or the website of the Indigenous community nearest you and try a new experience without having to travel too far. I have had the tremendous fortune of attending a few powwows and I can personally attest to how both fun and important to reconciliation they are.

Indigenous Tourism in Canada

All across Canada there are interesting and informative places to visit and people to meet who can share their culture and history with you. The good folks over at the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada have created a Guide to Aboriginal Tourism to Canada which is a great place to start if you’d like to experience some Indigenous culture throughout Canada, and there has never been a better time to do so. All my relations.

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