One arena in which indigenous peoples are being encouraged to become more active in their communities is with regard to ‘cultural tourism’. Heritage sites are springing up across the world, catering for the interests of local and foreign visitors keen to hear stories of alternative lifestyles in communities hitherto marginalised. Government aid is frequently provided, for these sites have the potential to bring employment, pride and engagement in regions that might need such a boost.
This is a well-known phenomenon with much to commend, although it is always worth questioning the extent to which this really benefits the indigenous people concerned? This article is based on fieldwork I carried out at the ‘Xatsull Heritage Village’ in British Columbia, Canada in the summer of 2013. The village is run by members of the Shuswap Nation and is accredited by The Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (AtBC). I was keen to explore the attitudes of managers, hosts, guides and tourists regarding such matters as: ‘authenticity’, ‘spirituality’, and the nature and value of ‘encounters’. I carried out this project as part of my MA in Indigenous Studies based at The Arctic University of Norway.
Much has been written on this general topic – hence of course the familiar ‘terms of engagement’. Yet most has been written from the point of view of government agencies anxious to promote such activity or through the eyes of western tourists. Some concerns have been expressed about the loss of integrity on the part of indigenous peoples. This might be called a generally ‘top-down’ approach, which has tended to stress benefits in largely economic terms, seeing the satisfaction of tourist needs and expectations as key. By use of fieldwork, my concern was to highlight the views of all parties involved, and pay particular attention to what the hosts – or indigenous peoples – get out of the work. Indeed, I sought to go further, examining the experience in the round, highlighting the value of cultural encounters to all on site.
The key interests driving my research concerned what the site actually offered, how it was promoted, what events are made available to tourists, and the match between expectations of tourists and what was provided. I was particularly interested in how it was all perceived by managers, guides and tourists; what compromises were necessary to make the ‘commercial’ venture work; and whether the issue of ‘authenticity’ was a problem. This spilled over into concerns about invasion of privacy, particularly given the hunt of many tourists for ‘spirituality’. My questions always sought to gain the perspective and feelings of those I interviewed, and this eventually turned on what they all saw as meaningful encounters.
I had many initial reservations, but my main conclusion is that ‘cultural tourism’ can be a form of revitalization for indigenous peoples, a force for good and empowerment. My fieldwork at the Xatsull Heritage Village was an illuminating experience. I visited with an array of preconceptions drawn from wide reading in the field of ‘cultural tourism’, hence my questions about ‘authenticity’ and ‘spirituality’. I was full of concerns about how ‘real’ it would be, what the tourists and their hosts would be like? Would I be let down by the experience? Yet I hope I have returned with a more sophisticated understanding of cultural traditions and how they are preserved and mediated over time. I am now less anxious about matters like ‘authenticity’, and ‘invasion of privacy’ with regard to ‘spirituality’. I also suspect that the differences between hosts and guests are perhaps not as large as we might assume: both groups of people were interested in gaining from shared encounters.
Everyone I met on site spoke appreciatively of the value of the cultural exchanges that were constantly occurring. And this applied to the hosts and guides as much as to the visitors. Everyone seemed to appreciate the need for mutual respect in his or her various encounters. The tours sparked interesting and appropriate questions and often led to wide-ranging discussions. It now seems to me that ‘cultural tourism’ is not necessarily about a visitor viewing a static, ‘replica past’ that is fixed in a particular time warp. It can be a process by which visitors and hosts alike mediate a living tradition. And that process has great value for the indigenous people involved, for it helps to preserve their tradition and past and to renew it through younger generations. It is thus part of the struggle of indigenous peoples to regain rights and dignity that may have been lost. The heritage sites offer valuable ‘space’ in which freedoms can be exercised and demons exorcised. It is noteworthy that the good practice endorsed by The Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia (AtBC) considers control of sites by the indigenous people concerned as a critical point to success. A feature of these sites is the maintenance of an oral tradition frequently overlooked in the standard schooling offered in the country and provinces.
In contrast to some scholarly literature that is preoccupied with the search for ‘truth’ and ‘historical accuracy’, I argue that ‘authenticity’ – with regard to living cultures – is a concept that is best articulated and negotiated by the individual. It is a process of understanding that cannot be viewed in the same way, as say, a painting or a museum object. I suggest that power structures are at play when one group decrees the authenticity of another, and in so doing, renders something else ‘inauthentic’. In the same way, notions of ‘spirituality’ are best approached through the eyes of an individual and his/her experience; much is in the eye of the beholder. A site can provide and encourage a setting for spirituality, but it is up to individuals whether they make any connections. There are no guarantees, nor are expectations exaggerated.
In my experience, the visitors to this site came with open eyes and realistic expectations; they were not dewy-eyed romantics. When events involving craftwork, singing and cookery were put on, people participated as they wished. Nobody was forced to do anything, and people were free to wander the site as they liked. There was no feeling that these events were specially staged. In this way, unlike what sometimes occurs in Europe, the presentation of the past was not somehow ‘devalued’ by the manner of presentation – what many have commented upon as the ‘Disneyfication’ of the past. Nor therefore is there any sense that the indigenous people have ‘sold out’ in putting on the events that they offer. This is interesting in debates about ‘indigenous tourism’, for scholars have been quick to criticise as if this is the case, which is perhaps rather patronising.
Helen Jennings has an MA in Indigenous Studies from The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø).