Politicizing Aboriginal Cultural Tourism: The Discourse of Primitivism in the Tourist Encounter *

By Deutschlander, Siegrid; Miller, Leslie J. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Politicizing Aboriginal Cultural Tourism: The Discourse of Primitivism in the Tourist Encounter *


Deutschlander, Siegrid, Miller, Leslie J., The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


AS A TYPE OF SPECIAL INTEREST TOURISM, Aboriginal cultural tourism in Canada promotes the knowledge and understanding of First Nations people and their cultures. The research described below explores the tourist encounter between Native hosts and non-Native visitors at several Aboriginal tourist sites in southern Alberta. Our paper is a study in the politics of representation. In it we consider the ways participants construct and use notions such as "Indianness" and "Native culture" in the course of the tourist experience. Research(1) was conducted among the five First Nations of Treaty 7 (2) Data were derived from participant observation at various cultural sites, and from in-depth interviews with tourist visitors, Native participants and interpretive staff at the sites. Our analysis pays special attention to German-speaking visitors, who are a major interest group. (3)

Current Aboriginal cultural "attractions" are diverse and differ in the way they present Native culture to visitors. They include, in the area studied, powwows on all five reserves, interpretive sites (Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede), museums (Glenbow Museum), culture camps (Eagle's Nest, Eaglestar Tours, Spotted Elk Camp) and Sun Dances. Museums and other interpretive sites are open to the public year-round; tours can be self-guided or led by Native interpreters. Powwows-a weekend of dance competitions in various age graded and gendered dance categories-attract participants from across North America and are used as public occasions for honouring the achievements of community members. Powwows welcome everyone, including outsiders, and are frequently advertised along the nearest highway.

Culture camps are tipi villages where visitors may stay overnight and are operated on reserves by individual entrepreneurs. They cater to small groups of travellers (20 to 50 people) who book through travel agents, offer a variety of activities (horseback riding, canoeing, museum visits, etc.) and are much more interactive than visits to larger interpretive sites. The Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that is sponsored by Native community members, traditionally a female elder and her male consort (e.g., Peigan First Nation). In the past, Sun Dances were community events that were held to give thanks to the Sun Spirit for answered prayers (Dempsey, 1986). (4) Today, some Sun Dances represent semi-public events to which non-Native participants are invited; their participation is more tightly controlled, however, reflecting concern from Native elders about the commercialization of their spiritual heritage. The alleged inauthenticity of "staged tradition" at all cultural heritage sites is an important issue in t he tourism literature as well, as we shall see.

The Discursive Approach

The perspective taken in this study builds on insights from discourse analysis, the ordinary-language theory of Austin, Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, and cultural studies. We take it as axiomatic that we know the world through the ways we have to think and speak about it--and that we have no other way. By discourse, we refer to talk, to text (including visual representations) and to the large-scale cultural rhetorics--for example, the rhetoric of scientific objectivity, or the primitivist discourse which is the subject of our paper--which actors employ as interpretive resources in their concrete settings of use (see Holstein and Gubrium, 1994).

A fundamental premise is that language constitutes rather than reflects reality, and that actors use language strategically to accomplish their purposes in particular settings. In the parlance of social constructionists, language is a "claims-making" exercise; when we speak we are inevitably promoting a preferred version of the world and disqualifying others (Spector and Kitsuse, 1987). On this reading, Native interpreters at cultural heritage centres (for example) promote one version of Aboriginal history that can be set over against other accounts. …

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