Ethno-Tourism; Preserving Culture or Whitewashing History?

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod

Ethno-Tourism and Narratives of Colonization: A Comparative Analysis of Two Southern Alberta Museums.

By Natasha McLeod

What is Ethno-tourism?

Ethno-tourism is a relatively new concept in the ever-expanding global tourism market. A brief internet search of the term will result in a variety of hits, ranging from adventure and eco travel companies to official government websites to academic research. In each instance the definition of ethno-tourism varies slightly, depending on the purpose of its use. The travel site Dauntless Jaunter describes ethno-tourism as “travel focusing on exploration of indigenous populations and their respective culture and traditions” ( A paper published for the International Labour Office further defines it as “a specialized type of cultural tourism, attempts to give the tourist an understanding of the lifestyles of local people” (Van der Ree, iv). The first conception aligns more closely with the more popular, layman understanding of ethno-tourism. It is the latter definition that allows for the inclusion of activities and spaces that otherwise would not readily fall under this sector of the tourism market. The inherent assumption of ethno-tourism is that one travels to an “exotic” locale in order to immerse oneself in indigenous culture. This renders invisible the opportunities for local ethno-tourism in one’s own community. It also eludes the fact that since museum spaces traditionally house representations of ethnicity and culture, they too can be sites for the exploration of local populations. Taking into account these gaps, I have found it useful to generate my own definition of ethno-tourism as – any tourist attraction that is oriented around representing an ethnic group/s.

Ethno-tourism and cultural commodification

Serving as the guiding impetus for my research was a curiosity around the intersection of local ethno-tourism and cultural commodification. How do tourist sites transform familiar culture/s into economic resources? Do representations of ethnicity differ depending on who is presenting the cultural material? In order to answer these initial questions, I visited two musicological sites in Southern Alberta – The Galt Museum , Archives in the municipality of Lethbridge and Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park on the Siksika Nation reserve.

The Galt Museum

The Galt Museum resides in a turn-of-the-century building that was first used as a hospital and nurse’s residence. Over the past one hundred years it has undergone extensive renovations and expansions. With the current building boasting spectacular views of the Lethbridge coulees, attractive and modern conference rooms, event spaces, a fun and vibrant discovery hall that houses the permanent exhibit. Its artifacts and archival material have been either collected or donated. Those not on display are available to researchers by appointment.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (henceforth BCHP) opened its doors in 2007. It is an impressive, fully functional and self-contained tourist destination. The park hosts demonstrations and performances, tours of the surrounding area, an interpretive centre, permanent exhibit, indoor amphitheater, restaurant, gift shop, tepee village (available for overnight stays), library and archives, conference spaces, and research and conservation facilities. A thorough description of the stunning building and its symbolism are unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper, however a short excerpt from one of the center’s promotional pamphlets sums up the intention behind the facility’s numerous design elements; “The entire BCHP’s building design should be viewed as a reinterpretation of a vast range of Blackfoot culture, its sacred icons, and the everyday life of the Siksika people. With every design decision, whether on a site planning level, the building, or with an interior design detail, the building is intended to be a literal metaphor of traditional Blackfoot iconography (Design Metaphors and Concepts, 1).” Both The Galt Museum and BCHP advertise themselves as primarily museums (historical and cultural, respectively) and educational facilities that are explicitly localized in their purview. The Galt boasts an aim to preserve and share the collective identity of Southern Albertans, while BCHP seeks to promote and preserve the language, culture, and traditions of the Siksika Peoples. Representations of ethnicity are evident at both sites, however where it is foregrounded at BCHP, The Galt speaks to ethnicity more implicitly.

White Settlers

The perspective from which the Galt operates is that of white settlers. This is evident in a variety of instances. The first display a visitor encounters in the permanent exhibit is a digital video recording of white actors dressed as early colonial residents of Lethbridge, who “welcome” you to the space. Moving through the exhibit you learn about important British and Canadian figures, the local indigenous population (pre-colonization), the history of coal mining and industry, Canada’s involvement in both World Wars, Southern Alberta’s “welcoming” of Asian and European immigrants (and some of the hardships they encountered), and local native plant life (in that order). The celebratory slant and tone of the colonial history presented, combined with the tokenizing of non-White Settler cultures (ex. “The Chinese Restaurant” and “Buffalo hunters”), the implicit positioning of an us/them distinction (who does the “welcoming?” Who is being “welcomed?”), and the conflation of indigenous peoples with indigenous plant-life (physically manifested in the Kainai Arbour photo-display of local flowers), is all of which indicative of The Galt’s self-perceived ethnic identity as White Southern Albertan.

The differences between how Indigenous People and White Settlers are represented at each site is striking in comparison.

Where The Galt commemorates the vast achievements of White Settlers while ideologically placing Indigenous peoples as objects of the past, BCHP welcomes the visitor into the daily existence of Blackfoot people, both of the past and present. One’s experience of the (BCHP) exhibit can begin by entering a larger than life teepee displaying a diorama of a pre-contact domestic scene, or by walking through a visual rendering of the Indian Act on the other side of the gallery floor. From there you can move through the space any way you please. Unlike The Galt, there is no linear path that follows any sort of progress narrative. In the BCHP exhibit, a display on traditional buckskin suits will be next to a photo-collage of current local residents which will be next to a replica of the 1902 Treaty Payment Book. The overall tone at once invites both celebration and mourning, and reflection and contemplation.

Blackfoot existence is the singular focus.

Moreover, the one occasion where White Settlers are depicted is in the audio-recording of a voice actor reciting a historical speech. White Settlers are not tokenized or villainized, they are presented matter-of-factually and in historical context. Similarly, Blackfoot people, history, and culture are represented in context, as a peoples of the past, present, and future. Their ways of knowing, traditions, language, survival, evolution, resistance, persistence, and futurity are beautifully integrated into every aspect of the BCHP exhibit space. Beyond representational differences, what I found most compelling in each of these spaces were how the cultural and historical material was curated in such a way that it constructed a particular kind of narrative around colonization.

Gallery structures

Moreover, how the physical space itself both functioned to support the story being told and revealed for whom the story was intended. The various gallery structures in The Galt’s Discovery Hall are made of hard, durable, and brightly colored plastic. There are many interactive elements throughout the exhibit, with places to handle/play with objects or dress-up in costumes. All information panels are formatted and worded very simplistically and there is a mindful predominance of pictures and posters over text.

The Theater

There is also a small theater that shows brief documentary films on subjects like the history of the building or the biography of important early settlers. The gift shop takes up a significant portion of the entrance foyer and is stocked with toys, games, children’s books, local history books, artwork, Indigenous “trinkets” (I.e. dream catchers), candy, and various fashion apparel. Taken together, the material itself and the way it is presented, builds towards a very sanitized, fun, and pleasant experience for the young and youthful visitor. This is reflective of the historical narrative on display, that early colonization and the founding of Lethbridge was sanitized, pleasant, and owed to hard-working, industrious colonizers. There is no mention of the violence or crimes committed against First Nations peoples, any mention of racism is downplayed and talked about as a “problem of the past,” and there is very little contemporary Indigenous content. At the crux of my analysis, is where cultural commodification intersects with ethnic representations and these narratives of colonization.

Why does a space like The Galt construct and promote such a “white-washed” narrative of colonization?

My argument is two-fold – The first addresses culture as an economic resource. As an event space, The Galt presumably derives a large portion of their profits from rentals and unfortunately, the violent and horrific truth of early colonization does not make for the most romantic backdrop for a wedding. Similarly, The Lethbridge Association of Realtors will likely not choose to host a corporate conference in a space that confronts them with the fact that they are trading in stolen land.

Quite simply, the realities of our history as a nation, does not sell.

The second reason is closely linked to nation-building myths. The sanitized version of colonization presented at The Galt perpetuates Canada’s historical amnesia that allows for feelings of national pride, patriotism and Canadian exceptionalism. As projects of the state, traditional history museums cannot celebrate the efforts of White Settlers and by extension, the nation, while at the same time acknowledging the truth of our past or the shame of our present. Again, Canadian exceptionalism sells.


At BCHP, the historical and cultural material is presented in a way that the intention is clear; this is a place of education, contemplation, and reflection. Information panels take up the majority of wall space and are written to provide as much history and context as possible. Displays of artifacts are behind glass and expertly lit. The interactive exhibits are not simplified or patronizing, they each have a specific purpose over and above mere entertainment. A vast range of topics are explored in the space – hunting, the signing of Treaty 7, residential schools, dancing, language preservation, contact with colonizers, the near decimation of Indigenous people through the colonial project, and so on. The library and archives are readily available for public perusal.

The gift shop

And finally, the gift shop contains only expertly made Indigenous fine art and crafts. The narrative constructed throughout the space is one of resilience and perseverance in the face of ongoing violence and persecution. The interested visitor is made to feel welcome, engaged, and inspired, while at the same time learning the hard truths of our nation’s past. Importantly, the representation of Indigeneity is temporally fluid, diverse, connected (not conflated) with the land, and rooted in the phenomenology of Blackfoot people. The BCHP directly challenges nation building myths and Canadian exceptionalism by providing an alternative narrative, one that is arguably far superior in its truth-telling capabilities. By adopting a decolonizing museum practice, BCHP is taking on the imperative work of “…assisting [Indigenous] communities in addressing the legacies of historical unresolved grief [caused by colonization]. Doing this necessarily cuts through the veil of silence around colonialism” (Lonetree, 5). Furthermore, the reclamation of control over Indigenous representation and culture as economic resources for the benefit of the community, points to the incredible transgressive and transformative potential of cultural commodification through local ethno-tourism. The next step is for all Canadians to endorse and ensure the financial success of spaces like BCHP in order to prove that truth and reconciliation can possess just as much selling-power as Canadian exceptionalism.          

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