Tourism Steeped in Tradition

It’s been said that adventure lies in your own backyard and it’s a sentiment that’s been embraced by Indigenous outdoor adventure company Painted Warriors.

Nestled in the rolling hills at the base of the Rocky Mountains about 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary, Tracey Klettl and Tim Mearns are co-owners of the 82-acre ranch that provides visitors with an immersive experience based on the traditional and modern day lifestyle of the Cree and Saulteaux people.

“We created our company with the intent to preserve some land-based skills that are being lost,” says Klettl.

From numerous tour packages to retreats and survival weekends hosted at the rustic facility, there’s a long list of activities to experience at the Painted Warriors ranch, including horseback riding, survival skills, animal tracking and archery. Overnight stays can be booked in Metis-style trapper tents and Painted Warriors offers year-round activities, for anyone brave enough to test themselves against the elements.

As a 100 percent Indigenous-owned business, Painted Warriors also shares close ties to the surrounding community and Klettl is proud of the partnerships her business has formed with local Indigenous operators from Morley, Siksika and BY Jessica Barratt the Blood Reserve (Kainai), as well as with other Indigenous tourism organizations.

“We really try and build the understanding that we are stronger when we work together,” says Klettl. “We have had some amazing interactions with our guests … reaching the bridge of understanding and realization that deep down we are all missing that connection to not only the natural world, but the human connection as well.”

A diverse and rich history of Indigenous cultures and tourism allows residents to get out and explore activities within their own community. Photo courtesy of Indigenous Tourism Alberta.

There’s no shortage of Indigenous tourism experiences in Alberta that offer that connection.

From outdoor adventure activities like hiking, fishing, archery, rock climbing and horseback riding to hotels, bed and breakfast suites, campsites, restaurants and casinos, there are Indigenous-owned businesses in nearly every facet of tourism in Alberta. Many experiences blend the rich history of Indigenous people with modern elements to provide unique products and services.

“We’re fortunate to have a diverse and rich history of Indigenous cultures and tourism that allows residents to get out and explore Indigenous businesses and activities within their own community, as well as across Alberta.” —Shae Bird, executive director with Indigenous Tourism Alberta

“There is an increased appetite amongst Albertans to expand their understanding of the history and cultures of this province,” affirms Shae Bird, executive director with Indigenous Tourism Alberta, an organization committed to the vitality of Indigenous tourism businesses across the province. “We’re fortunate to have a diverse and rich history of Indigenous cultures and tourism that allows residents to get out and explore Indigenous businesses and activities within their own community, as well as across Alberta.”

Any Albertan who has visited Grey Eagle Resort and Casino, one of five such Indigenous-owned casino destinations in the province, certainly knows this is true. There, visitors benefit from a robust selection of casino games, dining and other entertainment amenities, all against an authentic backdrop of thoughtful Indigenous cultural experiences that is tied closely to the surrounding Tsuut’ina Nation.

The casino sits to the southwest of Calgary on Tsuut’ina land, and includes a 4.5-star hotel and the world-renowned Little Chief Restaurant. The site’s event centre has hosted top comedians and bands, as well as events during the Calgary Stampede. In addition to the modern-day activities, Grey Eagle Resort and Casino also prides itself as an Indigenous-owned business that tells its own story and partners with other businesses on the Nation.

“All guests’ experiences are unique, and their takeaway is always positive, whether they are listening to an elder storyteller in our Grey Eagle tipi, or attending a corporate event where singers and dancers welcome them to Treaty 7 Territory,” says Tamara Littlelight, sales manager with the resort’s hotel. “Community is always at the forefront of our mandate. It is an honour to work for Grey Eagle Resort knowing that what we do here allows the Tsuut’ina community to flourish and grow.”

Indeed, the casino partners with Tsuut’ina community organizations to redistribute a share of their proceeds with locals.

“The Grey Eagle casino, hotel and event centre are all world class facilities, and provide important revenue and employment for the Nation,” confirms Chief Roy Whitney of Tsuut’ina Nation. “They generate funds which support our social well-being programs, language and culture, community services and public safety programs including the Tsuut’ina Nation Police and Fire Department.”

Bearing not only the promise of unparalleled cultural experience, but also providing a steady, direct stream of revenue for Indigenous businesses and communities, Alberta’s Indigenous tourism sector exemplifies the true essence of what the province’s one-of-a-kind heritage and landscape has to offer.

Paying It Forward

The reciprocal nature of Alberta’s Indigenous tourism businesses showcases the importance of tourism to the overall vitality of the province’s economy. Indigenous tourism in Alberta was valued at $166 million of the province’s total GDP in 2019 and most, if not all, of the profits were invested back into local businesses. During 2020, Indigenous Tourism Alberta committed up to $7,500 to any of their 70 member businesses to offset costs associated with the shutdown of the global tourism industry due to the pandemic.

“Our goal at ITA is to help these businesses, and our industry as a whole, remain competitive to accelerate our recovery and contribute to the diversification of our provincial economy,” says Shae Bird, executive director with Indigenous Tourism Alberta. “Indigenous tourism has the power to change perspectives, preserve culture, language and traditions, all while increasing economic viability through the province of Alberta.”

By late-2020, ITA had supported 37 Indigenous-owned businesses with a total of $200,000, including Painted Warriors. The company was able to bring back Indigenous staff members and carry on with programming over the summer thanks to the stimulus funding from ITA.

“We are lucky and blessed to be a part of Indigenous Tourism Alberta,” says Tracey Klettl, co-owner of Painted Warriors.