Strips of black ash tree are intertwined and carefully bent to make a Mi’kmaw basket and Annie Clair says each strip and basket tell the story of how Elsipogtog is held together with elder knowledge, community members and children.
“The log itself has a heart, there’s an amazing connection to it,” says Clair, manager of the Mi’kmaq Basket Making & Heritage tour. “You’re grateful to be able touch it and make it with your own hands.”
Elsipogtog is debuting an Indigenous cultural tour this summer. It offers tourist a firsthand look at Mi’kmaw basket making, the story of the black ash tree, cultural practices like smudging and tee pee making, and Mi’kmaq teachings. The new cultural tour joins Metepenagiag and Esgenoopetiji First Nations as stops along the Indigenous Tourism Trail in New Brunswick.
Indigenous tourism enables Indigenous people to showcase their culture while making money. According to Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Indigenous tourism must be Indigenous led for the benefit of Indigenous people.
Clair, 48, is grateful for the teachings community elder Joe John Sanipass passed on to her and others about the Mi’kmaq craft of basket-making and she now wants to share his lessons with others. She is hopeful the world can take a glimpse into Mi’kmaq culture on the tour and learn from her community.
“They’re going to learn a lot about the medicines, the treaties and the making of the basket. The prayers, the ceremonies and smudging and our language, to encourage other people to learn their language,” said Clair.
Their first tour will be offered in the coming weeks and in preparation Clair and her team attended JEDI‘s Indigenous tourism plenary, held in mid-June in Saint John.
Keynote speaker Robert Bernard, the Nova Scotia representative for the
Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) offered advice and encouragement to Indigenous entrepreneurs to think about cultural tours. He did warn they had to be business-ready, preferably with a niche.
Indigenous cultural tours can contribute $300 million to the Canadian GDP, while offering jobs and training to communities, but to achieve that, tourism operators must meet national guidelines and authenticity standards.
“Indigenous tourism is the perfect opportunity into resurging our culture,” said Bernard, a Mi’kmaw from We’koqma’a First Nation, in Cape Breton who sees Indigenous tourism as a way to make money while also providing an opportunity to explore cultural roots, which means authenticating parts of Mi’kmaq culture.
“We’ve lost 70 per cent of our culture,” he said, explaining that because of residential schools and government policies, Mi’kmaq people are trying to rediscover their culture and may have borrowed aspects from other Indigenous people. For instance, after travelling to western Canada, Bernard wonders if jingle dresses and other flashy regalia were borrowed. Now he sees cultural tours as a pathway in eastern Canada to finding authentic Mi’kmaq culture.
“Indigenous tourism strengthens Indigenous culture.”
Bernard feels First Nations’ band leadership are so focused on “surviving and growing our communities,” other people need to take the lead on culture. Its a role he sees for himself, as a business consultant fluent in Mi’kmaq. His parents taught him Mi’kmaq, the importance of family, but not all of the culture. It wasn’t until adulthood, he started learning Mi’kmaq treaty rights.
Now 50, he’s hopeful the tours and the accompanying revenue can help communities stem the loss of language and culture brought on by government policies.
“I don’t think they realized how strong we are as a people.”
Bernard said the more a community knows its own history and roots the stronger the business venture. Knowledge is key to successful cultural tours and it might even lead to larger ventures.
“Who knows who’s going to come through your door looking for Indigenous culture,” said Bernard.
He said he’s seen what cultural tourism can mean to Indigenous people around the world, a greater pride in their history and money. Bernard said Canada is a world leader in cultural tours but New Zealand is still the benchmark for Indigenous tourism. And he’ll still fight for more communities to have cultural tours as an economic opportunity.
“I’m delivering on my purpose, when I make small changes happen.”