The guest list at Roberta Olson’s Haida Gwaii home reads like a who’s who of the world’s elite – a Japanese princess, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, environmentalist David Suzuki. But she is just as welcoming of schoolchildren from the local Grade 2 and 3 class. Her dinner table overlooking the water in Skidegate is a popular draw for those wanting to experience Haida culture.
For 20 years, Olson has opened her home to VIPs, tourists and students, a way of sharing the food gathering traditions she grew up with “so they know what our culture is about and what we eat and how we survive and it’s just good for you.”
Aboriginal tourism is quickly growing in B.C. Last year, the industry saw revenue of $50 million and next year, Aboriginal Tourism BC projects it will grow to $68 million. It’s not a new business, but in the past 10 years it has branched out beyond gift shops in Gastown, and into the unique communities across the province.
“Part of aboriginal tourism is that reflection of the aboriginal identity whether you’re Haida, Coast Salish, or Squamish you create the experiences that are reflective of your community and that community’s values,” said Brenda Baptiste, chair of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC.
Baptiste estimates the industry employs approximately 3,000 people, many of them young First Nations, who are enthusiastic about sharing their culture with others.
“It’s pushed me to learn about my culture more as a young Haida person. I feel really empowered that I’m the one that gets to give them a positive view of not just about Haida people but about First Nations culture as a whole,” said Alix Goetzinger, a cultural ambassador at the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate.
According to Goetzinger, many visitors arrive with one perception of aboriginal people, but they leave with another.
“People that come here come with prejudiced ideas and concerns about our people. Some people use really derogatory terms. They still call us Indians when they come here. And when they leave they have this enlightened view and they realize who we really are and that our culture is worth protecting,” she said.
Haida Gwaii has been on the bucket list for many of the tourists visiting Haida artist Christian White at his carving studio in Masset. They have come not just for the natural beauty of the islands, but for the history and culture as well.
“Coming from San Diego, I’m not really aware of the culture here and I think it’s very important to understand the people,” said American tourist Paul Henkart.
Marilynne Harris of Sidney, B.C., agrees.
“I’ve travelled a good bit in the world and here I live on Vancouver Island and I haven’t even explored this fascinating First Nations culture…It’s very important to honour and respect the people who were first on the land.”
White, a carver for nearly 40 years, sees tourism as a way for his people to preserve their traditions into the future
“In a way we’re doing it for ourselves because it’s our way of carrying on the culture…it just happens that tourism is on the side, it just happens that it’s there too.”