Developing Indigenous-Owned Experiences

Written byLaura Field
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A conversation focused on honoring, incorporating and learning from local indigenous groups to positively impact the community and the travel experience.

Key Takeaway:

Tourism should highlight indigenous culture bearers to enhance the communities’ pride in their heritage. Working with indigenous communities involves long-term trust-building.

Panelists included Sustainable Tourism and Hospitality Consultant, Anna Barrera and Tour Operations Manager at the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance, Alicia Hegland-Thorpe. They shared crucial insights into the power and potential of working with indigenous communities in tourism. The session was moderated by Regenerative Travel’s Katharine Millonzi.

Indigenous Culture Must Be Honored And Respected

Much of the narrative around Native American culture has from a colonial perspective. This has pushed a false image of indigenous people and has dishonored and exploited their unique culture.

We can see clear examples of the exploitation of Native American culture in Halloween costumes, the misunderstood use of feathered headdresses and the use of traditional medicines for profit. As Alicia put it, “Most non-indigeous people have never learned that each feather on a headdress of those who wear it is earned and given to them by their people as a sign of respect because of their bravery and leadership.”

Through being involved with tourism in these communities, Anna and Alicia understand their responsibility to Native American peoples to uphold their culture and change the false narratives that travel often supports. “Cultural tourism should highlight Native American culture bearers to enhance the communities’ pride in their heritage.”

Whilst it is a long road ahead with almighty change needed, Anna stressed the importance of building relationships to foster better practices for generations to come: “Working with indigenous communities involves long-term trust-building”.

Travel Can Harness Education For Powerful Change

Echoing a common theme in many of our 2021 Summit panels, this session highlighted the crucial role that travel plays in education. Education can be harnessed to regenerate cultures that are oppressed by the current systems in place.

Anna noted the importance of this when saying that “we believe that education has the power to turn people into powerful allies or advocates for Native Americans, which in turn strengthens their sovereignty. And by sovereignty, what I mean is the right to govern themselves.”

By prioritizing the educational benefits of travel and tourism, both for those who visit and the community that they are visiting, Anna recognizes the potential for handing the power back to native communities in the form of sovereignty. This sows the seeds for tourism to become a transformative experience.

In this way, Anna and Alicia’s work with indigenous communities becomes regenerative and instills positively impactful processes which are transforming tourism and will continue to benefit Native Americans in future.

Indigenous Ownership

A common theme throughout this session was the question and importance of ownership, both in the experiences provided by indigenous people and in the experiences gained by tourists and visitors.

First and foremost, the panelists agreed that the knowledge, culture, history and resources of indigenous communities must be honored and respected above all else.

Alicia noted that “this is not selling culture, it’s sharing culture and teaching history” where typically tourism has been to blame for taking experiences labeled as ‘indigenous’ away from the people to whom they belong.

The second element of this point is how indigenous stories are represented by tourists who visit a place and how this can result in misrepresentation on social media. Working with communities to understand and clearly define their boundaries and issues around representation should be a priority to be communicated to those traveling in a specific area.

Anna explained that community leaders understandably don’t want their culture to be misappropriated and are concerned that anything posted on social media can now remain in the public domain forever. “I think there are concerns about culture being put out there without control over that. So ownership and control are really important to our tribal partners.” Again, this practice stresses the importance of rewriting historic practices in the industry and aiming to foster integrative and respectful systems which inherently regenerate culture and traditions.

This panel discussion was part of the 2021 Regenerative Travel Summit

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