Indigenous-Led Tourism in Service of Community, Culture and Country

Bobbie Bigby - IIRC20
Thursday, November 19, 2020

Throughout much of its history as a mainstream global industry, tourism has long had a complicated and often exploitative relationship with Indigenous peoples, traditional cultures and Indigenous connections to country. From the challenges posed by unregulated visitor access and pollution of sacred lands and waters to the threats of cultural commodification, tourism has certainly garnered a troublesome reputation for many Indigenous communities, even while it provides an income source for some. In light of these ambivalent and difficult dynamics born from colonial histories and inequalities, Indigenous peoples are increasingly re-defining and transforming their engagements with tourism. Fundamentally at the heart of this transformation is a shift towards Indigenous control of all aspects of tourism development, from the visioning and strategizing to the implementation, re-telling of histories from an Indigenous perspective and the uses of tourism revenues. Native Alaska tourism scholar, Alexis Bunten, characterizes this shift as an embodiment of the notion of ‘Indigenous capitalism,’ a term that she defines as, “a distinct strategy to achieve ethical, culturally appropriate and successful Indigenous participation within the global economy” (2010, p. 285).

Taking inspiration from values and visions set out through the overarching concept of ‘Indigenous capitalism,’ this paper aims to provide an overview of some leading scholarly perspectives on utilizing Indigenous-led tourism as a tool for Indigenous agency in both theoretical terms as well as in practice. Pascal Scherrer’s (2020) examination of Aboriginal-led tourism in the Kimberley region of Northwest Australia highlights a ‘culture conservation economy’ model and the benefits that this Aboriginal tourism program brings to the local Dambimangari community and connections to its unique culture. Kelly Whitney-Squire’s work in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia illuminates the ways that tourism can be tailored to the aims of Haida language revitalization in the community, allowing usage, visibility and relationships to this highly endangered language to be strengthened (Whitney-Squire 2014; 2016; 2018). Finally, research done by Higgins-Desbiolles (2009) and Whyte (2010) both speak to the ways that Indigenous-led tourism can be in service of strengthening stewardship, consciousness and connections to country for maintaining the health of land and waters, as well as the relationships between these living environments, local people and visitors. In addition to the theoretical frameworks and examples presented from these different scholars, this paper also brings in brief case studies from the author’s PhD research with Aboriginal communities in Northwest Australia as well as among her own tribe in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation. These cases further highlight the evolving relationships between Indigenous peoples and tourism in terms of connecting and strengthening links between the community, traditional culture and the living natural world.