Indigenous tourism operators hopeful as they look to post-pandemic future

·2 min read
A teepee overlooks the Bow River. Indigenous tourism operators say they are feeling hopefully as pandemic restrictions start to ease. (Terri Trembath/CBC - image credit)
A teepee overlooks the Bow River. Indigenous tourism operators say they are feeling hopefully as pandemic restrictions start to ease. (Terri Trembath/CBC - image credit)

As Dion Red Gun looks out over a valley on Siksika reserve land, southeast of Calgary, he paints a picture of his First Nation's long-standing connection to the land.

"Picture this valley, there was no trees … there was a whole sun dance ceremony where people gathered," he said

"Imagine, with their horses coming in." He pauses, before diving into an explanation of how buffalo jumps worked in the area, thousands of years ago.

Red Gun runs River Ranche Tourism, giving visitors an in-depth traditional experience from day trips to ancestral landmarks, canoe excursions to traditional meals.

Like many other industries, the past year has been a matter of survival for Indigenous tourism operators in Alberta.

"International visits just dried up. It was a dramatic or very traumatizing moment too," he said.

Red Gun said before the third wave of COVID-19 cases hit the province, things had somewhat recovered — students were being bused in to hand-make drums or harvest sweetgrass — but when cases started increasing, they were forced to close their doors again.

'High hopes'

It's not the first obstacle Red Gun has faced in his business. After the devastating 2013 flood, he rebuilt his lodge — at the same time he was relearning to walk, after undergoing surgery to address arthritis that had him using a wheelchair.

So it might be no surprise that now, he's feeling hopeful.

The province is investing more than $3 million in Indigenous Tourism Alberta, locals are booking family gatherings with River Ranche and some priceless artifacts — including Blackfoot leader Chief Crowfoot's regalia — are soon to be returned to Siksika from a United Kingdom museum, where they've been housed for more than 150 years.

And, 85 new Indigenous tourism operators have gone into business during the pandemic.

"Touches my heart," Red Gun said. "It gives me high hopes and very optimistic that it gives us the chance to continue."

River Ranche Tourism is planning cultural immersion programs like teaching beading, sewing, foraging and Indigenous cuisine as COVID-19 restrictions allow. The lodge also offers fly-fishing and river floats on the Bow River.
River Ranche Tourism is planning cultural immersion programs like teaching beading, sewing, foraging and Indigenous cuisine as COVID-19 restrictions allow. The lodge also offers fly-fishing and river floats on the Bow River.(Terri Trembath/CBC)

Shae Bird, the CEO of Indigenous Tourism Alberta, said the provincial investment will go toward helping its 138 members with development and marketing, in addition to other initiatives to recover from the pandemic.

One added layer of difficulty, Bird said, is that many communities shut down in order to protect high-risk elders from coronavirus transmission.

"But, fortunately, our industry has been incredibly resilient … people have had to be really creative," he said.

"We've seen incredible growth in our tourism membership. And we also know that there is incredible appetite from the Indigenous entrepreneurs and communities looking to get in the tourism space."

Red Gun said he's glad to show visitors a different perspective, and the beauty of what Siksika has to offer.

"Thank you for walking the lands that our ancestors once walked."