When the organizers of WITS Online asked me to moderate a panel that focused on Indigenous issues, I was excited… and yet, I’ll admit, I had some insecure reservations. I’ve been writing about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in travel for most of my five-year career and have made a name for myself as such. But even though I’ve covered Indigenous tourism and interviewed Indigenous peoples before, I know that I’m still learning about Indigenous rights, especially as it relates to tourism. More so, I want to do right by Indigenous communities, who have arguably been hurt the longest by the industry.
Despite my insecurities, I said yes, because if I’ve learned anything in my travel writing career covering DEI, it’s that the best things come out of uncomfortable situations.
In the “Practicing Allyship to Native & Indigenous People Everywhere We Go” panel, I spoke with two amazing women.
The first is the content creator of Redstreak Girl, Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst of the Lakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Diné from the Navajo Nation.
The second woman is the owner of Beendigay Marketing & Consulting, Dené Sinclair, a member of Peguis First Nation and a proud Anishinaabekwe.
During the panel, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one hesitant about participating. Sinclair told stories of being thrown out of board rooms because she was a woman of color speaking up for Indigenous rights, and Deschine Parkhurst worried about pushback from audiences who see her speaking up for Indigenous rights as “negative” towards the travel industry or content creators.
“It may come across that way but…these things are very important to us because…when I think about people coming into communities, on the Navajo Nation, like that’s my homeland, that’s where I’m from, that’s where I have family who still live, people who have to rely on the tourism industry to be able to make a living,” Deschine Parkhurst said. “So, it’s very close to me and that’s one of the reasons why my critique is so strong.”
In hearing these women share their stories, I realized that my discomfort around moderating the panel was insignificant compared to what Deschine Parkhurst and Sinclair, their family, friends, and communities deal with when it comes to travel and tourism.
So, I asked questions, I listened, and I took this panel as an opportunity to continue to learn and push past my discomfort.
If we want to make travel better, if we ourselves want to be better and be good allies to Indigenous communities, we must ignore our discomfort and decide to take the journey to allyship. This part of your allyship journey is as simple as scrolling down and reading the rest of this piece, but in the future, it may be harder and become more uncomfortable.
Your allyship to Indigenous communities will require you to take action, to speak up, to take risks for the betterment of Indigenous peoples, in tourism and beyond. That’s what allyship is: being uncomfortable and still doing the right thing.
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The Historical Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Tourism
If we are to be good allies to Indigenous communities, we need to understand the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and tourism.
Sinclair brought this point up during the panel: “The origins of travel in North America are inherently extractive towards Indigenous people whether we like it or not, and whether we agree with that or not, that’s the truth.”
By ‘extractive,’ she means: “To a lot of our communities and to a lot of my relatives, tourism is an extracted industry where people come and they take what they want and they leave.”
Rather than visiting an Indigenous community and extracting resources, experiences, energies, items, or time from those who live there, ask yourself — how can I give back? What can I contribute as a visitor to this community? How you interact with Indigenous communities today is extremely important, as you wouldn’t want to contribute to the tourism industry’s long history of harming Indigenous communities.
Sinclair shared a major example of this: “The reality is that my community was forcibly relocated in 1911 to make way for settler occupation. So, my ancestors were forced to leave the land that was ancestrally part of our family, and now there’s a beautiful town there that has a great tourism industry.”
Sinclair’s community is not the only Indigenous community to have had this type of experience. There are plenty of stories about Indigenous communities being forcibly relocated to make way for hotels, having their land taken to create areas for tourism entertainment, or having their culture, practices, and homes exploited by non-Indigenous tourism companies.
On the individual tourist level, you can find anecdotes of travelers using necessary resources that Indigenous communities need, culturally appropriating Indigenous customs, vandalizing or littering on Indigenous lands, using non-Indigenous guides at Indigenous destinations, and not following sovereign tribal laws.
We must recognize these aspects of the past and how they intersect in the present if we are to be agents of change for the future.
Recognize Indigenous Lands and Rights
In addition to understanding how extractive tourism has been to Indigenous peoples, we should also do one important thing: recognize Indigenous lands.
“As a creator, recognizing Indigenous lands is a great place to start,” said Deschine Parkhurst. “Recognizing Indigenous lands is definitely important for helping individuals — the creator and their audience — to become more aware of Indigenous peoples and communities of past and present.”
During the panel, Deschine Parkhurst brought up a good example of how a brand failed at this very thing. In 2019, Barbie visited Antelope Canyon in the Navajo Nation as part of a sponsored partnership with Visit Arizona. In Barbie’s social media posts, she didn’t recognize Antelope Canyon as being Navajo Nation land (not even in a hashtag!). This was a failure on the part of Barbie’s team and Visit Arizona.
Whether the lack of land recognition was deliberate or not, this example showcases the long-lasting effects of colonialism, unconscious bias surrounding Indigenous lands, and the fear surrounding the acknowledgment of Indigenous rights and lands.
Deschine Parkhurst delved into this when she said: “One of the biggest barriers that I see of including Indigenous women, Indigenous people, inside the travel industry is that there’s a barrier. It’s like [this idea that] Indigenous rights or the fight for Indigenous rights are bad.”
“They’re human rights and so when we view Indigenous struggles…as human rights, then it becomes imperative…to be able to include their voices in various different avenues, in different industries — travel, entertainment, pop culture, what have you.”
How to Be an Indigenous Ally Traveler
An Indigenous ally traveler is one that engages with Indigenous perspectives.
“As a traveler, I think the most important part is to recognize that, unless you’re including Indigenous perspectives into your destination story and into your experience, that you’re the one being deprived,” said Sinclair.
When seeking out these Indigenous perspectives on one’s trip, Sinclair reminds us to be good guests: “As a traveler, you have a responsibility to be a responsible guest in the places that you’re visiting.”
Deschine Parkhurst said this includes being respectful of the community, their practices, and recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations to make laws that benefit their community and their land.
“I think that part of travelers’ responsibility when they’re visiting Indigenous lands is also to realize that you’re a guest, and that doesn’t mean that you have the right to criticize the people’s lands that you’re on or to criticize the people’s culture in any way,” she said. “You’re entering into their space; you’re entering into our space.”
You can also be an ally by contributing in economical ways. “Your dollars make a difference to small businesses. Your experiences are enriched by learning the stories under the surface,” said Sinclair.
This could mean buying directly from Indigenous artisans (not from businesses that create knock-offs), eating at Indigenous-owned restaurants, staying at Indigenous-owned hotels, and booking with Indigenous-led and owned tours.
Representing the Indigenous Perspective
If we want to see the travel and tourism industry change and progress into an inclusive and equitable place, we need to include Indigenous perspectives at all levels of the industry.
“If you don’t have Indigenous peoples working for you, why not?” said Sinclair. “Diversity in leadership is important to model leadership and demonstrate equality, but even more important is the need for diversity of thought.”
“This isn’t just by including Indigenous peoples in leadership positions, but by creating new systems that invite and welcome Indigenous perspectives,” she added.
Indigenous perspectives in the travel and tourism industry are necessary, not just to make the industry more inclusive, but for the true betterment of Indigenous communities.
Deschine Parkhurst explained: “My identity as an Indigenous person, as a Lakota and Diné woman, is connected to the injustices and oppression that the communities I am part of experience. What this means as an Indigenous content creator is that I have a world view where my Indigeneity is centered.”
“My advocacy of issues related to sacred sites, protecting vulnerable Indigenous communities, and advocating for Indigenous rights is part of my being and not something that can be separated from how I interpret and view the world,” she said.
Indigenous peoples have the insight and knowledge to see how certain business practices can hurt or help their communities. It is through trusting and listening to Indigenous perspectives that a business can be a true ally and make a positive difference in the lives of Indigenous peoples.
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How Travel Industry Professionals Can Be Indigenous Allies
If we want to end the historical practice of the travel industry being extractive of Indigenous communities, we need to see people at all levels of the industry step up and do the work that comes with being an Indigenous ally.
“For those who work in the industry: don’t be afraid of Indigenous experiences and history in the locations you work in,” said Sinclair. “Work to include the whole story, your well-educated traveler wants to know more.”
If you’re in a position to create partnerships with Indigenous businesses – do it.
“Find partnership opportunities with Indigenous-owned businesses. What can you bring to a partnership to support another business and what value can a partnership add to your business?” Sinclair said.
Travel content creators can do their part as well. This may include interviewing Indigenous peoples on your blog or vlog, having Indigenous content creators take over your social media, or sourcing information and quotes from those who work at Indigenous tourism associations and businesses. It also means recognizing Indigenous ownership of a destination (refer to Native-Land.ca to see which Nation or tribe is the ancestral owner of that land) in a social post, blog, article, vlog, or podcast.
While Deschine Parkhurst understands that content creators, like herself, run a business and deserve to be paid, they may want to consider certain un-paid opportunities in which they can practice allyship to Indigenous communities.
“A lot of these tribal groups, as least in the United States, don’t have funding to be able to pay tourism influencers, but your ability to be able to provide a line of information about the land being Indigenous land, can go a very long way in helping to educate and make people more aware about the places that they are visiting or seeing,” she explained.
On the flip side of things, we need to see more paid partnerships between travel companies, destinations, and brands and Indigenous influencers and content creators.
“Hire us to create content! Partner and collaborate with us! Like and share our content! Pay us! Bring Indigenous folks into the decision rooms! Support Indigenous folks when we bring attention to issues that need to be corrected! Don’t push our concerns to the side!” said Deschine Parkhurst.
She added, “I’m using an exclamation mark for these statements because I’m excited [for] the possibilities and hope that continued conversations from groups such as Wanderful open doors and create opportunities for Indigenous content creators.”
If you’re like me, you’re equally excited. I encourage you to take this excitement and let it lead you to learn more about Indigenous rights, to give voice to Indigenous perspectives, and to have more Indigenous tourism experiences.
And if you mess up on the way?
Deschine Parkhurst offers this advice: “Be prepared to continue your work and journey in supporting Indigenous communities and be open to learning from missteps as this is a natural part of growth.”