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River Cree Resort and Casino

In Alberta, Indigenous Blossoms with Winter Experiences

River Cree Resort and Casino

The Indigenous Tourism Alberta Gathering, held in early December, took place at the River Cree Resort and Casino, located just outside of Edmonton. (Photo courtesy of River Cree Resort and Casino)

Whether it’s getting up close to a herd of rare white bison, learning about the stars from the perspective of the original inhabitants of the prairies, or reconnecting with the land on snowshoes, Indigenous tourism has much to offer visitors who want to experience Alberta in a different way.

“Tourism, for us, is deep,” says Indigenous Tourism Alberta (ITA) CEO Shae Bird. “It’s about community, pride, and reconnection to the land and to each other. We’re opening the door to the tipi and inviting people inside.”

Recently, Indigenous tourism in Alberta was named to National Geographic Traveler’s prestigious Best of the World destinations list for 2023, in the Conservation and Community category. And the province placed three entrants in the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2022, a curated ranking that focused on Indigenous destinations.

Among the star locales is Métis Crossing, located on 688 acres and an hour-and-a-half drive northeast of Edmonton. An immersive attraction, Métis Crossing connects you to the children of Canada’s fur trade, and the culture they developed. With Indigenous issues receiving more attention than ever, the facility has made conversations a priority of its programming.


The incredibly rare White Bison is considered sacred to many Indigenous groups and is one of the stars of the Métis Crossing experience. (Garrett Iverson photo)

“We want to be a tool for reconciliation. We are a safe place to ask difficult questions,” says Métis Crossing CEO Juanita Marois. All that’s requested of visitors is they “come to us with open hearts and a genuine interest to learn.”

At a Christmas market hosted by Métis Crossing, people arrived to shop from the kiosks of artisans, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs. A series of musicians entertained the crowd, including a Métis fiddler, whose joyous, lively tunes invited listeners to kick up their heels and jig.

Discover More: Métis Crossing Adventures

Cultural experience provider John Ritchie of Hideaway Adventure Grounds led a group on a guided snowshoe walk through the woods. The Tales of the Trapline Experience explores traditional Métis winter activities and skills. At Métis Crossing and other Indigenous-owned tourism businesses, “It’s an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to hear the true history from an Indigenous perspective,” Ritchie says. Visitors gain “a better understanding of how Indigenous people interact with nature and learn to live in the bounty of what the land has.”

Other winter activities at Métis Crossing include snow tubing and cross-country skiing, with ski trails laid out by Spirit North, a national charitable organization (founded by Canadian Olympic gold and silver medalist Beckie Scott) that uses land-based activities to improve the well-being of Indigenous youth.

While the land is crucial to Indigenous life, so are the stars. Knowledge holder and elder Lilyrose Meyers can explain the traditional ways the stars have been used for the benefit of communities. In the Indigenous oral tradition, people passed down stories of the night sky and the stars, which acted as a map, compass, and calendar, as well as playing an important place in culture and spirituality.

Métis Crossing offers a number of choices for accommodation. The boutique luxury 40-room lodge features comfortable, beautiful rooms with very cozy beds — it is so peaceful, a number of people in my tour group commented on how well they slept. The lodge also includes six accessible rooms.

Educational Tours of Indigenous Alberta

At Elk Island National Park, a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve located approximately 40 minutes east of Edmonton, Indigenous activities take you deeper into the landscape. Keith Diakiw, a proud Métis and professional geoscientist, is a guide for Talking Rock Tours, which provides educational small group excursions that reveal Alberta’s geological wonders through storytelling.

“It’s science for the mind, stories from the heart, and history of the land,” Diakiw says.

A snowshoe walk along Moss Lake in Elk Island National Park is one way to get close to nature and Indigenous history in Alberta. (Photo by Maria Jose)

A snowshoe walk along Moss Lake in Elk Island National Park is one way to get close to nature and Indigenous history in Alberta. (Photo by Maria Jose)

He describes Elk Island National Park as a “pristine and sacred place” where visitors can experience the ancient past. To do so, I strapped on snowshoes and followed him along the Moss Lake Trail loop, through mixed boreal forest, up and down gently rolling hills, and beyond open grassland. A red squirrel captured my attention with its antics and Diakiw pointed out bison wallows that indented the ground. (Our actual bison viewing was done from the comfort of a tour bus, a thrill to see these magnificent creatures who call the park home.)

We finished our snowshoe outing warmed up with delicious herbal tea from Mother Earth Essentials, an Edmonton-based, Indigenous-owned business. The tea hit the spot after a 5-kilometre snowshoe trek and convinced me that I had to savour more. I could do that at the Mother Earth Essentials’ store in Edmonton, where the fragrant scents are powerful and evocative, taking visitors straight to the prairie and boreal forest. Mother Earth Essentials creates luxurious bath and beauty products from natural ingredients and traditional recipes based on a philosophy of respect for the environment. Founder Carrie Armstrong, who grew up in near Jasper National Park, learned about plants and their benefits from her grandmother, a Cree medicine woman.

“I really felt this desire to showcase the beauty of those teachings in a positive way,” says Armstrong, whose products are available at the Mother Earth Essentials store, and across North America in boutiques and stores, as well as in hotels.

Mother Earth Essentials’ teachings are rooted in the sacred plants of the medicine wheel (which symbolizes a balanced way of living and healing), including sage, sweetgrass, and cedar. Other plants — including wild rose, cranberry, black spruce, lavender, and peppermint — are also used.

Mother Earth Essentials

Increasingly popular Mother Earth Essentials incorporates natural ingredients with cultural meaning to Indigenous communities in its line of products. (Photo courtesy of Mother Earth Essentials)

Another small business that relies on ingredients from the earth is Rig Hand Distillery, the first craft spiritmaker in the greater Edmonton area. The family-owned operation has built partnerships with local Indigenous businesses, and produces vodka, gin, whisky, rum, and liqueurs. It has partnered with Mother Earth Essentials to create a cold-canned sparkling gin tea, Kikawinaw (Cree for “Mother Nature”) featuring Wildrose Gin infused into blueberry tea, and made with locally grown rosehips.

Complimentary tour and tastings are available during regular business hours at the distillery. Rig Hand Distillery donates its portion of the proceeds from Kikawinaw Gin Tea sales to support the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Dining Options with Indigenous Flavour

Pei Pei Chei Ow (pronounced pe-pe-s-chew and meaning “robin” in Swampy Cree) is a catering and education company that serves contemporary Indigenous cuisine in Amiskwaciwâskahikan (which means “Beaver Hills Lodge” in Cree and refers to the area that is now known as Edmonton). Founder and chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff, who grew up on Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario, explains that Indigenous food is distinct in each region of the country. “We are not all the same culturally, and the languages are very different,” he points out.

Pei Pei Chei Ow uses ingredients from a variety of small farmers. “It’s driven by what’s available seasonally and what speaks to us,” says Iserhoff’s wife, Svitlana Kravchuk, who is originally from Ukraine. And they use local foods, like berries. “A lot of beautiful food grows wild here.”

Located at Whiskeyjack Art House in Edmonton’s McCauley neighbourhood just north of downtown, Pei Pei Chei Ow is in an intimate setting with walls covered in art.

The menu included: bannock bites with charred tomatoes, whipped ricotta, and mint; pipon (which means “winter” in Cree) salad, with local kale, wild arugula, endive, mint, apples, and pine nuts; potato dumplings and fried quail; and Kokhom’s (“Grandmother” in Cree) blueberry cheesecake with bee pollen. The drinks, equally delicious, included Meenishapiy, a fermented sparkling berry drink made in-house.

“Eating good food is a privilege. I’m glad we can share that with others,” Iserhoff says.

Uncover Culture at Fort Edmonton

The award-winning Indigenous Peoples Experience, a permanent multimedia exhibit at Fort Edmonton, explores First Nations’ and Métis history, culture, and perspectives.

“We’ve been here since time immemorial, and we’re still here,” says Naomi McIlwraith, a Fort Edmonton supervisor, and researcher and writer with the Indigenous Peoples Experience. “There is meaning in everything. The Plains Cree and Lakhota Sioux terms — which translate to ‘All my Relations’ in English are wāhkōhtowin [Cree] and mitákuye oyás’iŋ [Sioux] — indicate the interconnectedness of all things: people, animals, and even inanimate things,” McIlwraith explains. “For example, the Cree people believe the spirits of our ancestors are dancing in the Northern Lights and that the spirits of our ancestors are in the rocks and stones. It’s a web of connection between everything in creation.”

There’s a strong environmental message in this concept, as well, explains McIlwraith, who is Métis. “We are all related. We think of everything as part of our family, our relatives, and so we have a stronger desire to look out for and care for [the Earth]. It’s a different sense of ownership. We don’t own the land. We are the caretakers of the land.”