How Indigenous tour operators are reclaiming their ancestral ties to national parks around the world
- December 2, 2022
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“If travelers want to support indigenous communities, they can work directly with indigenous companies and NGOs,” says Mahato. “In this way, perhaps more and more indigenous peoples can benefit from the park, from tourism and from conservation.”
In North America, indigenous communities are also looking for ways to benefit from tourism in national parks—even if their establishment has harmed tribes—and share their country’s history in authentic ways. Thirty years ago, Ed DesRosier of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana broke new ground when he received a concession contract with the National Park Service (NPS) — one of only two Indigenous-owned (and staffed) companies recognized as an NPS concession company Time. His company, Glacier Sun Tours, now offers half- and full-day interpretive cultural tours of Glacier National Park — former Blackfeet lands taken from a starving tribe in 1895 by a treaty that remains disputed to this day.
Glacier National Park is on former Blackfeet land; Indigenous company Glacier Sun Tours offers tours of the park where travelers learn about the history and culture of the tribe.
“Our mission is to educate people about the history of the country, how it evolved and how the Blackfeet lost the country – and to make them more aware of where we are today because of what happened in the past,” says DesRosier , who runs the company with his son Derek. “Travellers share a similar conservation ethic, allowing us to be a channel to expand and transcend the typical national park experience, where through our cultural connection they can learn to live in harmony with the earth.” A spectacular drive along the scenic Going- to-the-Sun Road, for example, coupled with a Blackfeet interpretation of the site, offers an experience only possible through the Blackfeet’s deep connection to the land they have farmed for over 10,000 years.
“The reason the land looks the way it does is because of Indigenous farming practices, our values of respect, and all the different tools that the tribe have used and learned as they have lived in one place and on through time lived in a sustainable way,” says Derek DesRosier. “The idea was that we live forever with the landscape and respect it as such. Because we knew that this is not only what is best for us, but also for all the other things we live with.”
Ed DesRosier is optimistic that the presence of Indigenous communities “is gaining more recognition among travelers and people who support national parks.” His long-term dream is to co-manage the park and return parts of the nearby land, such as Badger-Two Medicine, an unprotected state near the Blackfeet Reservation that is home to Blackfeet origin stories and is currently threatened by oil and drilling is . In the meantime, strengthening the connection between park visitors and the Blackfeet perspective remains a priority.
“I’ve always felt it our duty to share the values we hold dear about the country and our existence here,” says Ed DesRosier. “And that we continue to recognize ourselves as part of this landscape, which for thousands of years was the original home of our ancestors. As Blackfeet descendants of the ancestral connection, we’re still here and we’re still connected.” The least travelers can do is tune in and listen.
How you can support indigenous communities in and near the parks you visit
Visiting the ancestral land is a privilege; Travelers can start supporting indigenous communities by learning who used to live on the land. Native Land Digital, an indigenous-owned non-profit organization, has a digital map that makes this incredibly easy. (For further research before the trip, this guide from Survival International on Decolonizing the Language Used in Conservation is helpful in understanding the ongoing dilemma surrounding indigenous rights and conservation initiatives.) Once you know the nations associated with the country, you want to visit, research and book with indigenous and guided tour operators – and trust you’ll go home with a fuller picture of the destination.