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The Thoughtful Traveler’s Guide to Indigenous Tourism

By Ashlea Halpern

02.13.20

From the March/April 2020 issue

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Cooking souvas, a traditional reindeer meat dish, gives travelers a taste of Sámi culture in remote Swedish Lapland.

Photo by Anna Öhlund/imagebank.sweden.se.

Cooking souvas, a traditional reindeer meat dish, gives travelers a taste of Sámi culture in remote Swedish Lapland.

When communities share their culture on their own terms, everybody wins.

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Book indigenous-owned and -operated tours and accommodations such as these and your travel dollars will benefit the people whose culture you experience.

Candace Campo’s guided tours aim to not only teach visitors about the natural landscape but also invite them to forge a more intimate connection through the stories that define it.

Experience First Nations culture in British Columbia

Candace Campo, co-owner of Talaysay Tours and a member of Canada’s Coast Salish people, has been leading Talking Trees Tours through Vancouver’s Stanley Park full time since 2016. During the 90-minute outing, Campo recounts the culinary and medicinal uses of the plants encountered along the hike. Her stories often incorporate folklore. For example, the western hemlock she notes, is identifiable by its small pine cones and droopy top boughs. Why? According to Coast Salish legend, the tree was so eager to get his cones from the Creator, he tried to jump the line. The Creator sent him to the back of the queue, head hung in shame and destined to receive the fewest and smallest cones. Hearing these First Nations tales from someone who was raised on them helps travelers see the forest through fresh eyes. When staying in Vancouver, book a room at the Skwachàys Lodge and Residence, Canada’s first indigenous art hotel. Its 18 rooms were designed by Aboriginal artists, and a first-floor gallery immerses guests in the region’s First Nations heritage. The hotel can also arrange for visitors to experience a smudging ceremony or sweat ceremony led by First Nations elders. —Elaine Glusac and Susan Portnoy

The Skwachàys Lodge and Residence is a boutique arts hotel that combines both comfort and heritage.

In Her Own Words: Candace Campo

Co-owner of Talaysay Tours and a member of Canada’s Coast Salish people

“When you walk in the forest with someone, it’s the deepest conversation you can have. We accomplish a great deal in communicating our culture, worldviews, our people’s history. We have so much scientific understanding of our forest, but it’s not recognized because it’s explained through storytelling. So I tell the story of the western hemlock, and afterwards you will always be able to identify the tree. We want to bring joy and a very authentic educational experience to our guests, but we also have a mission: We believe we are the land and the land is us, and we hope to reach our guests and have them see, through our cultural lens, that whatever we do to the land, we do to ourselves. We hope that our guests connect to the land to understand the forest in a more intimate way. When you have that deeper understanding and that deeper connection, you relate more to the forest and will be prone to protect and secure it for future generations. Having a quiet, peaceful walk in the forest is medicine for everybody, in addition to all the cultural sharing. Just walking and talking: It’s a form of meditation.” —As told to E.G.

The first of the Sani Isla Kichwa arrived in 1922 from the Napo Province.

Hike, cook, and weave with the Sani Isla Kichwa in Amazonian Ecuador

Deep in the Amazon, the indigenous Sani Isla Kichwa community operates Sani Lodge, one of the few 100 percent community-owned ecolodges in Ecuador. Founded near the Napo River with the goal of defending the local culture and land against oil companies’ pressure to prospect on its territory, this remote inn makes cultural immersion a top priority. Indigenous guides lead activities such as jungle hikes, bird-watching trips up the river, and demos of ancient Kichwa hunting practices. The lodge also partners with the Sani Warmi Artisan Project, a social enterprise empowering local women to earn an income through crafts such as fiber weaving. Guests then visit the artisans’ studio to sample Kichwa food-making and learn handicraft techniques. —Yulia Denisyuk

The Desert Embroidery Visitor Center allows women to claim their independence and explore entrepreneurship.

Learn embroidery from Bedouin women in the Israeli desert 

The nomadic Arab Bedouin women of southern Israel’s Negev desert used to play a central role in their society, tending to children and livestock and planting seasonal crops. This lifestyle has eroded as modern-day Bedouins moved to cities and towns. The Desert Embroidery Visitor Center in Lakiya, the first social enterprise in the Negev desert region run by Bedouin women, offers them the opportunity to reclaim their influence—and earn income—by embroidering products, acting as guides in the visitor center, serving meals, and running workshops. Call +972 865-13-208 or email rikma@lakia2.org for details. —Y.D.

Reindeer are important animals for the Sámi, who live in parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia.

Sled with Sámi reindeer herders in Swedish Lapland

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Respect for nature runs deep among the Sámi, the native people of far northern Europe. Nutti Sámi Siida, located in a remote corner of Swedish Lapland, was founded after two Sámi reindeer herders started offering corral tours as a way to help feed their animals during a particularly bad winter. It now offers stays in five wooden cabins at Reindeer Lodge plus a thoughtful list of day trips and activities, such as aurora chasing and reindeer sledding in winter, and watching newborn calves take their first wobbly steps in spring. nutti.se —Y.D.

In His Own Words: Nils Torbjörn Nutti

Owner of Nutti Sámi Siida and a Sámi reindeer herder from the Saarivuoma community

“Reindeer herding is more about our culture—a lifestyle deeply connected to nature—than it is about business. We’ve been affected by climate change. Unpredictable weather patterns create ice layers in the soil, making it hard for the reindeer to dig through snow to reach lichen, their main winter food. We had to start feeding reindeer with pellets instead. Pellets cost money, so we began generating additional income by taking travelers into the forest to meet our reindeer. The herding business got a new direction, in many ways forced by the changing climate conditions. It’s a way for us to continue our ancestors’ traditions while adapting to changes. In winter, our guests live close to the reindeer out in the woods, where silence rules supreme. We are proud to share the ancient tradition of reindeer sledding with our guests; it helps us keep up our own Sámi culture. It is about being hands-on: not sitting in a sled, but working with reindeer as you’re lassoing, taming, harnessing, leading them. Tourism to Sápmi must be done in a way that respects nature and the people who live here without destroying these elements for generations to come. Done in a sustainable way, it supports us by helping us feel proud, generating income, and providing experiences for visitors from near and far.” –As told to Y.D.

The endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin is a fishing partner for people in Myanmar.

Fish with dolphins and Hsithe villagers in Myanmar

In the waters of the Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s largest river, fishermen from the village of Hsithe tap teak sticks on the sides of their boats to summon their fishing partners: dolphins. Following these tapping cues, the dolphins locate schools of fish and help herd them into the fishermen’s nets, snatching snacks for themselves along the way. This previously widespread tradition has dwindled in recent decades: The Irrawaddy river dolphin is now endangered due to pollution and loss of habitat, as depletion of fish stocks further threatens the traditional net-casting lifestyle. But through a collaboration with the Harrison Institute, a U.K.-based NGO, the Hsithe community recently opened the 12-guest Dolphin Ecolodge. Activities include riverside cooking classes and walking tours, but the most fascinating way to support the villagers is to join them on a fishing trip with their finned colleagues. —Y.D.

One of the offerings from indigenous-owned African Bush Camps, Kanga Camp overlooks a remote watering hole frequented by elephants.

Safari in African camps run by and for locals

For African Bush Camps founder Beks Ndlovu, engaging with local communities isn’t just a responsibility—it’s personal. A member of the Ndebele people, Ndlovu was born and raised just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, only 39 miles from Somalisa, the first camp he launched in 2006. Since then, Ndlovu has grown African Bush Camps into a portfolio of 15 properties in Zimbabwe and neighboring Botswana and Zambia. The communities near each camp benefit from the company’s ABC Foundation; ongoing projects include operating centers for vocational skill-building and classrooms for differently abled kids, as well as creating boreholes for improved access to fresh water. Guests of ABC benefit, too, as they connect with locals through visits to schools and community centers. —Jennifer Flowers

A traditional dancer from the Blackfeet Nation, whose ancestral lands include Glacier National Park.

Tour Glacier National Park with members of Montana’s Blackfeet Nation

Started with a single Ford van in 1993, Ed DesRosier’s Sun Tours explores the rich history of Glacier National Park’s indigenous Blackfeet people. A lifelong resident of the area and a member of the Blackfeet Nation, DesRosier has grown his family-run fleet to 11 vehicles that traverse St. Mary Valley, the Two Medicine region, the stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald, and the craggy summit of Logan Pass. Blackfeet guides take guests on half-day and full-day tours of the park’s important cultural and spiritual sites, explaining how local plants and animals intersect with Blackfeet hunting traditions and preparation of medicinal teas. Another key aspect of the experience: quiet moments to stop and reflect on the power and beauty of the surrounding landscape. —Justin Lancy

In His Own Words: Ed DesRosier

Founder of Sun Tours and a member of the Blackfeet Nation

“There’s no word in the Blackfeet language for ‘wilderness.’ In our relationship to the land, we believe everything is alive. Everything has a spirit. Our day-long eastern Glacier Park tours start in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. We travel through the ancestral homelands of the Blackfeet and the Kootenai Salish, who were here as well. We stop at sites of traditional villages and hunting grounds and also at new interpretive sites like the Iron Teepees overlooking the St. Mary Valley. Rolling hills, river valleys, alpine lakes—it’s probably the most diverse landscape anywhere that you can see in an eight-hour day. I grew up here and the beauty of Glacier Park was a part of my childhood camping trips every summer. We’d set up our tepee on the shores of Lower St. Mary and Two Medicine Lakes, and my grandma would tell us stories about plants she gathered for medicine. We’ve relied on our community to teach us what it takes to live here, and that’s the wisdom we want to convey to visitors. It’s a challenge to pass on what we know and to share it with people in a way that makes sense in their world. People want to learn about our buffalo-and-buckskin past, but it’s just as valuable to let them know who modern day Blackfeet are—and connect them to our future.” —As told to J.L.

The View Hotel at Monument Valley offers rooms, premium cabins, and camping options for guests in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Immerse yourself in Navajo Culture in Arizona’s Oljato–Monument Valley

Near the Arizona-Utah border, where the Southwestern desert horizon seems endless and red sandstone buttes reach to the sky, stands the only hotel in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Opened in 2008 by tribe member Armanda Ortega, the View Hotel at Monument Valley offers travelers unparalleled vistas of the “Mittens,” an iconic geological formation. In addition to hosting biannual marathons that raise awareness about issues affecting Native Americans, the lodge provides guests with a curated list of Navajo-owned tour operations approved by the Navajo Nations Parks. Through companies such as Dineh BeKeyah Tours and Monument Valley Safari, visitors go beyond sightseeing and learn the cultural significance of natural landmarks such as Sun’s Eye Arch or the YeiBiChei Spires, and hear from the Dineh themselves about local tribal customs and history. —Sara Button

Cacao pods, which house cacao beans, can be between 4 and 12 inches long.

Crush cacao beans with Maya farmers in southern Belize

Don’t just visit ancient Maya ruins on your trip to Punta Gorda—learn from the Maya people living today. Agouti Cacao Farm, a 30-acre organic farmstead and guesthouse in the rugged rain forest of Belize’s Toledo District, grows cacao and turmeric as cash crops, plus coconuts, mangoes, bananas, and other fruits for personal use. Agouti was founded by Eladio Pop, a 61-year-old farmer and father of 15. His entire family helps out, weeding the land, weaving traditional jipijapa palm baskets, and preparing generous Mayan-mestizo feasts for their visitors. They also offer chocolate tours—a rewardingly immersive experience for guests, who learn every step of the chocolate-making process, from hacking open a ripe cacao pod with a machete to hand grinding its freshly roasted beans. —Ashlea Halpern

In Her Own Words: Victoria Pop

Maya chocolate maker and daughter-in-law of Eladio Pop, owner of Agouti Cacao Farm 

“Cacao beans were our ancestors’ gold, but today farmers cannot use it as currency; they earn little income from the beans. Still, cacao remains an important part of our culture and our traditions. When a boy goes to engage a girl, for example, he takes a pound of cacao beans. And the ceremonial cacao drink is our main drink on special occasions. After the wedding is over, the first thing the bride and groom will do is drink cacao in a calabash cup—that is our champagne glass. It’s pure and signifies good luck to their marriage. We also drink cacao during planting and harvesting time. Or when a young mother has a baby, she’ll drink cacao with allspice to develop more milk. We believe cacao heals our womb. I didn’t learn how to make chocolate at home, but I was eager to learn [after marrying into the Pop family]. When it comes to our culture, I’m into it.” —As told to A.H.

>>Next: How to Photograph People When You Travel (Without Being Disrespectful)

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