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Canadian Connection
Ancient Ways, Modern Adventures: Aboriginal Tourism In BC
Sue Kernaghan

Paddle a dugout canoe, ride a dogsled, jetboat through a canyon, explore 10,000 years of history — and don’t forget the bannock tacos and Pinot Blanc. Welcome to the new face of Aboriginal tourism in British Columbia, where ancient traditions speak to modern day art, cuisine and adventure. The result? Fascinating new things to see, do, and taste in the company of BC’s First Nations hosts. Here’s a region-by-region guide.

Start in Whistler, where cedar welcome figures draw visitors through the richly carved doors of the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.  Opened in 2008 in preparation of the two First Nations’ role in co-hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the museum, art gallery and cultural centre evokes both a Squamish longhouse and a Lil'wat Istken (earthen pithouse dwelling).

Admire weavings of cedar bark and wool against the sweeping mountain views of the Great Hall, catch rotating exhibits in the contemporary galleries, join a themed tour on anything from music to language and plant life, then grab some Lil'wat venison chili with a piece of homemade bannock, or fried bread, a favorite Aboriginal comfort food, at the on-site café.

Don’t Miss:

  • Exploring Indian Arm in a replica Salish ocean-going canoe. During the summer, First Nations guides withNorth Vancouver’s Takaya Tours recall legends, sing traditional songs and point out village sites as you paddle up the inlet.
  • Learning about life in the Fraser Canyon 1,000 years ago. At the Tuckkwiowhum (pronounced tuck-wee-ohm) Interpretive Heritage Centre in Boston Bar, pit houses, a sweat lodge and food caches recall the pre-contact daily life of the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) people. Self-guided tours run year round; in summer, you can camp in a teepee.
In BC’s south Okanagan, hot days, cool nights and dry soil make prime wine country. The Osoyoos Indian Band is a top producer, creating award-winning Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and more at the lake-view NK’MIP Cellars. Tastings and tours run year round; in summer, guests can enjoy Aboriginal-inspired cuisine at the patio restaurant.

NK’MIP Cellars, North America's first Aboriginal owned and operated winery, also employs the continent’s first Aboriginal winemaker: Osoyoos Indian Band member Justin Hall, who took the reins as assistant winemaker earlier this year. The winery is just part of a cultural destination developed by the Osoyoos Band: the NK’MIP Desert Cultural Centre celebrates the landscape and culture of Canada’s only desert, while Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa is an eco-friendly, pueblo-style hotel complete with a spa, restaurant and golf course.

Don’t Miss:
  • The Kekuli Café in Westbank, where the menu reassures: “Don’t Panic, We Have Bannock!” Named for a traditional shelter, or pithouse, found in many areas of BC, this year-round café offers tasty options that include wild salmon, buffalo and, of course, bannock. Post-meal, be sure to check out the authentic Aboriginal artist works on display.
  • The Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park in Kamloops, home to a museum, a 2,000-year-old archeological site, a summer village and four reconstructed kekulis, or cozy winter pit houses. It’s open year round.
Mush! With Northern Star Sled Dog Adventures in Quesnel, you too can learn to drive a team of Alaskan huskies through the snow-draped forests of BC’s Cariboo country. Warren Palfrey, who runs the kennel with his wife, Kate, is a professional musher (and Iditarod veteran) of Métis ancestry from Canada’s Arctic. Warren and his team offer everything from two-hour dogsled trips to overnight bush camp adventures; keeners can even train to do an old-fashioned Cariboo mail run.

Don’t Miss:

  • Discovering the northern reaches of the Fraser River (think hoodoos, petroglyphs, and abandoned village sites) with the Williams Lake-based Cariboo Chilcotin Jetboat Adventures; you can even try catching a salmon with a traditional dip net.
  • Seeking the elusive Kermode, or Spirit, bear in the Great Bear Rainforest. During late summer and early fall, join guides from the Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation-run Spirit Bear Lodge to explore this wildlife-rich coastal wilderness. Keep an eye out for whales, wolves, grizzlies and black bears, and learn about local culture and history in the village’s Big House.
To the Kwakwaka'wakw people of the northern Vancouver Island region, u’mista means “the return of something important.” The U'mista Cultural Centre and Museum, in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, displays something very important indeed: a collection of stunning masks and ceremonial regalia that was returned to the Kwakwaka'wakw people beginning in 1979 after being confiscated by the federal government earlier in the century. The centre, in a totem-fronted Big House, also boasts intriguing displays about Kwakwaka'wakw history and art, both historic and modern.

Don’t miss:
  • Paddling and hiking with Tofino’s Tla-ook Cultural Adventures. In summer, explore Clayoquot Sound in a Nuu-chah-nulth dugout canoe; in winter hike the Pacific Rim rainforest and shoreline with a First Nations guide.
  • Chilling out any time of year at Quadra Island’s Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge, where First Nations art and architecture meet such mod-cons as a hot tub, sauna and spa treatments.
Luxurious touches (think hot tubs, a mountain-view pool and a Les Furber-designed championship golf course) also feature at the St. Eugene Golf Resort Casino, a historic First Nations-owned resort in BC’s Kootenay Rockies region. The 1910 mission-style building at the heart of the complex was originally a residential school for First Nations children; now it’s home to luxurious resort rooms, a brand new 350-seat banquet pavilion, four restaurants, the Casino of the Rockies, and the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre, which celebrates the art, mythology and heritage of the area’s Aboriginal people.

Don’t miss:

  • Hiking, rafting, learning outdoor skills, and various intercultural sharing experiences with a First Nations Elder at CrossRiver Wilderness Centre, an authentic, off-the-grid, Rocky Mountain retreat.
  • Soaking in the luxurious hot springs-fed pool at Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park; Aboriginal people took to the waters here for centuries before Europeans arrived. Post soak, check out Paint Pots, another park highlight where iron-rich springs create multi-hued clay. Long used by local First Nations for artwork, ceremonies and trade, the Paint Pots are still sacred to the region’s Aboriginal people.
A wealth of history and culture is on display in Northern BC, where artifacts in Prince Rupert’s Museum of Northern British Columbia reveal over 10,000 years of settlement of the area, once one of the most populated parts of North America. The waterfront longhouse museum is home to an excellent collection of northwest coast First Nations objects, from intricately painted bentwood boxes to ceremonial attire.

Don’t miss:
  • Stepping back in time at the ’Ksan Historical Village and Museum in Old Hazelton, where the longhouse tour (April to September) in this recreated Gitxsan village interprets life and artifacts before and after European contact. The museum, which sits on the centuries-old riverbank site that housed the original Gitxsan village, is open year round.
  • Seeing BC’s newest First Nations museum, the Nisga'a Museum, or Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a. It opened in May 2011 in the village of Laxgalts'ap (Greenville), north of Terrace, to welcome home the Ancestors’ Collection: 330 artifacts returned to the Nisga’a from museums across Canada. On display together for the first time, the masks, robes, blankets and other works now rank among the world’s leading collections of Northwest Coast First Nations art. The museum is open May through September, but off-season tours can be arranged.
Whether you’re admiring art where it was made, sipping wine where the grapes were grown, or paddling a boat designed a millennium ago, seeing BC with First Nations hosts offers a powerful — and authentic — sense of place.

For more information on Aboriginal tourism in British Columbia, visit or For more on travel throughout British Columbia, call (800) HELLO BC or visit
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