How To Be An Ethical Traveller On Indigenous Land

From learning how to dot paint at a new Aboriginal-led arts program in Australia to taking a medicine walk right here at home in Canada, we are witnessing a surge of interest in authentic Indigenous tourism among travellers, here’s a look at How To Be An Ethical Traveller On Indigenous Land.

In fact, almost half of travellers worldwide surveyed by Destination Canada and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada expressed interest in Indigenous cultural experiences when visiting our “home on native land”. And it makes sense that travellers are now rallying to walk alongside the first peoples of the land they are visiting, whether it’s abroad or in another province, rather than over them. The hundreds of Indigenous Nations in Canada have been welcoming outside visitors to their lands since European contact, after all.

While having more people experience true Indigenous culture and tradition is great to spread awareness of our world’s first people, not to mention providing economic self-determination and development to the respective communities, it also begs the question: do you ever stop and think about protocol when exploring Indigenous land?

Think about it. When was the last time you asked if you could take a picture of a certain site that holds spiritual meaning to the traditional owners of the land, such as at certain sections of Uluru in the Australian Outback or Chief Mountain (Ninistakis) in southern Alberta? Instead, you probably took the shot and shared it on Instagram without thinking twice.

As travellers, we know that it’s our duty to be respectful to any culture we interact with, whether it’s on a road trip through Canada or that big bucket list trip abroad. This is why it’s crucial that we also recognize our responsibility to be an ethical traveller, especially on Indigenous land.

 Indigenous woman Sarain Fox

I had the pleasure to recently chat with Sarain Fox an Anishinaabekwe activist, artist, co-host of docuseries Future History and the newest partner of the TreadRight Foundation – a not-for-profit created as a joint initiative between The Travel Corporation’s family of brands working to help safeguard the planet, wildlife and people for generations to come – on what it means to travel respectfully on Indigenous land and how to create meaningful travel experiences. Sarain just returned from Australia, helping The TreadRight Foundation launch that Aboriginal-led arts program I mentioned in this post’s opening sentence, where she too had to learn how to observe the local customs and traditions, being a visitor to Aboriginal territory in another country.

Through your hosting duties on both Future History (airing on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and VICELAND’s RISE, you’ve traveled extensively. What’s the one destination that stands out?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to explore the world and for my hosting responsibilities, visit Indigenous communities which, while they may physically be thousands of kilometers away from my own homeland in northern Ontario, always feels like visiting home. But out of all the incredible destinations that I’ve been to, the Big Island of Hawai’i, specifically witnessing a volcano eruption, is the one that’s seared into my memory. I remember the lava started to flow while we were there – we were simply watching nature just take over. But what struck me the most was what accompanied the lava flow: all the stories that came from the local Hawaiian people. You see, to them, it’s not just lava flowing from a volcano, it’s part of their creation story. I felt incredibly grounded at that moment to be surrounded by their community and learn their beliefs and practices. I mean, don’t get me wrong, come to Hawai’i for well, its stunning beaches and Aloha vibes but stay for the local people. Nānā i ke kumu (look to your source, find your truth).

Congratulations on being The TreadRight Foundation’s newest partner! How are you involved and how do you plan to “Make Travel Matter”, which is at the heart of the foundation’s ethos?

I am so proud to partner with an organization with a proven track record of meaningful impact. To date, The TreadRight Foundation has supported some 50-plus sustainable tourism projects worldwide, including the new initiative with the KARI Foundation in Sydney, Australia. The foundation has three pillars in which they work to #MakeTravelMatter and I represent ‘People’ helping TreadRight tell the diverse stories of all of the projects that impact culture and traditions of, oftentimes Indigenous, communities they visit. As an ever-curious explorer, I am always looking for ways to connect with other Indigenous populations around the world. I have been an ambassador for the foundation’s first-ever ‘People’ project in North America, The Manitobah Mukluks Storyboot School, which is based in Toronto at the Bata Shoe Museum. TreadRight has supported the school since its inception in Toronto by helping to support the weekly classes that focus on moccasin and mukluk making and valuable cross-cultural dialogue between Indigenous and settler youth.

For the past three years, students from all walks of life have graduated with the knowledge that for many Indigenous youths, have been passed down from their ancestors. But much like the new Australian initiative, the school represents much more than just a beading class. Bead by bead, stitch by stitch, students are reconnecting with thousands of years of tradition and fighting for cultural resilience. The Toronto school has been so successful that the TreadRight team and I were able to take some of the learnings from the Canadian program and bring them to our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Australia to see how it can benefit their communities.

But what gets me the most excited about this partnership with The TreadRight Foundation is the exploration of why we travel. Travel should create meaning in your life. It’s about going beyond the comfort zone. When you get to a certain point in your career, people often cater to your comfort zone. But I think it’s important to learn constantly by pushing the limit and have truly immersive experiences. In my view, unless you’re immersed in a culture, you’re not really visiting a destination. When you connect human to human, you allow for ‘nation to nation’ building. And those personal connections create meaning and for me, that’s how you can #MakeTravelMatter.

You mentioned the new Aboriginal-led arts initiative you helped launch in Australia. Tell us more about it and what you hope it will achieve?

The TreadRight Foundation’s newest initiative is in partnership with the KARI Foundation in Sydney (Australia) and I am so proud to be a part of it. The KARI Foundation is one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal service providers and this new cross-cultural art program will showcase to people travelling with some of The Travel Corporation’s family of brands – TreadRight was created as a joint initiative with The Travel Corporation – an authentic cultural experience when travelling on an Australian itinerary that visits Sydney.

Visitors will have an opportunity to join in on a class where they will be taught by KARI’s in-house Indigenous artists, take part in dot painting boomerang classes, and learn about the symbolism entwined in Aboriginal culture. This will be an experience that allows for a better understanding and appreciation for the community and uses the power of Indigenous crafts and art to connect travellers to unique and authentic experiences. The project supports Sydney’s Aboriginal community by offering them an opportunity for economic self-determination whereby TreadRight’s grant will provide employment for KARI staff and artisans.

I am excited that Contiki, the youth adventure travel company exclusively for 18 to 35-year-old’s (like myself), will be the first to offer this immersive experience beginning in 2020 – with plans to roll this out to Trafalgar and AAT Kings (the leading guided holiday company providing a wide range of day tours, short breaks and guided holidays in Australia and New Zealand) in the future.

To me, this initiative will directly impact the ways in which travellers see and interact with the Indigenous population. Creating a program where local artisans and cultural practitioners can share their own stories and art forms while creating vital economic freedom with the sale of the traditional pieces. But this represents much more than an arts program. This will help to support the revitalization and sharing of Aboriginal culture. Inner-city Aboriginal people often have less access to their own culture.

By supporting a program that allows young leaders in the community to teach and share not only amongst their own but with a global community, will allow for new perspectives and valuable access to meaningful engagement for travellers and an opportunity to learn and be fully immersed in the culture.

What are some of your top tips for readers looking to visit Indigenous land and who want to adhere to and respect local traditions?

First of all, you’ve completed the first and most vital step which is to have even thought about respecting local Indigenous traditions and customs in the first place. I truly believe that it’s an incredible privilege to travel and to interact with other cultures and communities, and if you travel with humility and curiosity rather than pre-assumptions and unawareness, you will easily be able to connect with the communities you visit.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Oftentimes we make the biggest mistakes when we try to pretend like we know and have all the answers. When you’re engaging with Indigenous communities, find someone you can ask what the appropriate protocol is. There are hundreds of Indigenous Nations just in Canada alone, many with distinct traditions and customs from one another – like my own where women wear skirts in sacred spaces. We have our own stories and for too long, we haven’t largely been allowed to tell the stories ourselves. So, creating opportunities for learning and exchange – that notion of nation to nation-building – is extremely important.

Don’t do it for the ‘gram. I know for many, that’s a hard feat to accomplish. But I’ve seen so many travellers end up in the middle of a really sacred place and not knowing where they are simply because they’ve been so stuck on this idea of sharing it with their followers. Next time, put down your phone, stand back and take in where you are. Pay your respects to and learn about the land you’re visiting, rather than just taking a meaningless selfie. And of course, if in doubt, ask someone from the community if you are allowed to take a shot of the land or space. You might not realize that you’re on sacred territory.

Treat Indigenous land like you would with non-Indigenous sites. I always like to ask: you wouldn’t climb the Vatican or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, so why is it OK to do so at sites sacred to the local Indigenous people – such as at Uluru in Australia, considered sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area? The same rights that you would give anyone from The Vatican need to be given to our sacred spaces. We may not often have physical buildings to represent the sacredness of the land, but we do consider the wilderness that our peoples have lived off of our version of churches/temples/mosques/synagogues. To us, those are just as important as a sacred monument.

Finally, nothing about us without us. It’s a saying I always like to use. If you ever have a question about whether or not something is appropriate, trust your gut. Most of the time, the answer is likely a big no.

You talk a lot about “reconcili-ACTION”. What’s the meaning behind this concept (as opposed to “reconciliation”) and how do we continue to embrace this, long after the travel high (that we often get immediately after returning home from abroad) wears off?

Reconcili-ACTION is a term I heard from people in my community after seeing the effects of the ‘reconciliation fatigue’ we were all experiencing. During Canada’s 150’s anniversary of confederation, most of my Indigenous friends, many of whom are artists, were being asked to enter non-Indigenous spaces to celebrate Canada and help Canadians feel better about our relationship – to help reconcile and define a way forward. I learned that Canada isn’t quite ready for that yet. Reconciliation is a tall order when the systematic issues that plague our communities are still alive and well; our children are still being apprehended at alarming rates and we have limited access to our culture and languages.

My uncle, Senator Murray Sinclair who served as a Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is also a member of my lodge – the Midewiwin lodge – which only survived this long because our ancestors managed to keep it alive totally underground. What he learned during that time is that Canada needs to confront the truth of what it has done to Indigenous people before reconciliation is possible. We’re still in the truth phase. In that phase, active truth-seeking and acknowledgment is essential. We need to see some action on dismantling harmful systems based on that truth. We need to see our languages revitalized, our cultures and our children returned to us. Instead of reconciliation, we need reconcili-ACTION – action being the key word.

In terms of how we, world explorers, can continue to learn and truly #MakeTravelMatter: listen to the narrative. When others share their knowledge and stories, you have the freedom to share it as well, but remember, it’s not yours to own. When you travel, you don’t take ownership of the culture or the experience. Think about it like lending, they lent you the experience. Be conscious of how you take from others.

It comes down to this easy saying: take only pictures, leave nothing behind. Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself about doing everything right. The trick is to stay humble and always have an open mind to learn.

Could not agree more! Thank you Sarain, you are an inspiration.

How To Be An Ethical Traveller On Indigenous Land

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