On the day that I started exploring Canada’s first Indigenous tourism corridor, Kevin Seesequaisis said something succinct and profound during a panel circle — “Canadians were denied a rightful education to who we are as a people.” Travel, he suggested, is one way to change that.
The community and tourism development officer for Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation then wished us many “wow moments” as we road-tripped across Saskatchewan to see what Beardy’s, the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, and Wanuskewin Heritage Park offer travellers under the umbrella of Kichiota Indigenous Destinations.
Seesequaisis provided his description of a wow moment: “Wow — holy smokes was I wrong. These people are so nice. They’re funny. Their food is delicious. The land — this is beautiful. Her smile. His dancing. In particular, wow was I wrong.”
As his fellow panelists Michela Carrière of Aski Holistic Adventures and artist/educator T.J. Warren stressed, Indigenous people are not historical figures, Disney-fied characters or one homogenous group, but are “relevant, contemporary, alive, still here.”
Let’s count the day at Wanuskewin as a 12-hour wow moment.
Run by a non-profit organization and turning 31 this year, the “park” just north of Saskatoon has so much going on that it’s strangely difficult to describe. Under chief archaeologist and park co-founder Dr. Ernie Walker, Wanuskewin is the longest-running archaeological site in Canada and is gunning for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Nomadic Indigenous groups from across North America came together here for 6,000 years and so there are two buffalo jumps, a medicine wheel, and petroglyphs discovered by the conservation bison herd. There’s also a myriad of trails plus a gorgeous cultural complex with a café that serves goose soup, a gift shop, and both permanent and rotating exhibits.
But when I think of Wanuskewin, I hear Cree fiddler/archaeology student Jordan Daniels playing and tapping his feet. I see Tianna McCabe joyously performing an “old-style fancy dance” powwow number after explaining the deep significance of her homemade outfit. I remember what I learned about kinship, happiness, and respect during “tipi teachings” with Kami Alexson.
MORE WANUSKEWIN: Bison Credited with Ancient Find
I can still taste the fried bannock dolled up with birch butter, chokeberry syrup, and berry stew that I ate at one of Wanuskewin’s Han Wi Moon dinners as I sat in a remote corner of the park overlooking the South Saskatchewan River at sunset. And I long for another portion of Métis chef Jenni Lessard’s bison tenderloin seasoned with yarrow and sage and served on nettle and potato purée with smoked bison and chanterelle broth.
“As a Métis person, when I eat bison, it feels like a direct connection to my past,” Lessard told us while introducing the meal.
Walker also joined the Han Wi Moon dinner, and presided over the storytelling that came after it. He said we were all now deputized. “Spread the word,” he urged. “There’s something special happening in Saskatchewan.”
There were similar culinary and cultural wow moments at the Dakota Dunes Resort, which opened during the pandemic on October 8, 2020. Just south of Saskatoon, the property is owned by the Whitecap Dakota First Nation. Its culinary experience began with two chefs from Moose Woods Home Fire Grill carrying a wooden board groaning with bison and other meat and side dishes to our table.
I’ve been going to powwows and eating bannock since I was a kid, but loved grilling my own on a campfire after powwow dance presentations by dancer Wyatt Brown and drummer/singer Elmer Tutosis. Earlier that day, Brown led us through Indigenous games designed to teach hunting skills by honing things like hand-eye coordination. The resort’s adventures coordinator Chris Standing also took us on an easygoing e-bike tour to the community’s sports grounds and we soaked in the magical peace of the area. There is a casino attached to the resort, but I didn’t even have time to poke my head in.
History — much of it dark — came alive during my week in Saskatchewan as people shared stories about residential schools, racism, treaties, and the pass system (which made people show travel documents to leave and re-enter reserves). We engaged in frank discussions about how Indigenous people have been dehumanized and never “brought to the table” — even with tourism.
“Indigenous tourism gives people the space to be proud of who they are,” said Ryan Rogers, communications manager for the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada.
“We want to be that reconciliation destination,” Seesequaisis explained. “People really need to come and visit us. We’ll joke with you, laugh, have fun, have food.”
Ninety minutes north of Dakota Dunes at Batoche National Historic Site, I got a belated education about how a thriving Métis community became the site of the 1885 Battle of Batoche during the North-West Rebellion. Batoche is the place where Louis Riel, a politician and resistance leader, was defeated. (His historic trial and execution occurred later that year in Regina.) At the Duck Lake Regional Interpretive Centre, I learned about another key battle and how the Métis coped with the harsh impact of the resistance and the demise of the bison.
Outside of the formal Indigenous tourism corridor, there were more wow moments as an informal art theme emerged.
In Regina, everyone is welcome to visit the art-filled First Nations University of Canada, which was designed by Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, who is best known for the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. There is art throughout the building — in the library, halls, and offices.
And don’t miss the MacKenzie Art Gallery, where executive director and CEO John G. Hampton is the first Indigenous leader to lead a Canadian public art institution. The gallery has a long history of Indigenous exhibitions and engagement with Indigenous curators, and says it is working on “decolonizing our institution.”
At the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, I spent indoor time with Tarah Hogue, the curator of Indigenous art, and outdoor time with Lyndon J. Linklater, the Indigenous relations advisor (who does double duty as the traditional knowledge keeper and storyteller at Wanuskewin).
“Generally speaking, museums — no disrespect to Remai Modern — museums in general, that’s where rich people go,” said Linklater. “What we want to do — we’re trying really hard — is we want to get people to understand that our museum is for everybody. When we talk about art, art belongs to everyone.” While sharing stories and teachings in a wigwam (tipi) set up on the grass, Linklater taught us to make tiny birch bark baskets.
He also noted approvingly how land acknowledgements have become the norm. “Canadians are becoming educated and learning about the history of our country. Canadians want a country that is very inclusive — a country where we get along with one another and work together,” he said.
My final stop along the Indigenous tourism corridor was the farthest north. There, at Fort Carlton Provincial Park about an hour north of Saskatoon, I previewed ambitious plans by Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation — through Pêmiska Tourism — to lease land from Saskatchewan Parks for glamping tipis and a marquee dinner troupe experience.
Seated with two community elders, I feasted on a catered meal of wild rice, roast bison, and Saskatoonberry bannock pudding. I was wowed by a joyful presentation of dance, music, and theatre and vowed to return as soon as the glamping is launched and the dinner experience opened to the public.
“I hope you see the value of this place and its ability to change hearts and minds,” said Seesequaisis, who was at last showing off his home community. “We’re not what you see in the media. We’re not all those negative statistics. We’re a thriving, beautiful culture. We have an incredibly rich and diverse history we want to share with the world. The world needs a little bit more of that Indigenous perspective and world view. Thank you for meeting our people.”
More About Visiting Saskatchewan
Where to Stay: Twenty minutes from downtown Saskatoon, Dakota Dunes Resort is located on traditional Whitecap Dakota Unceded Territory at the height of the South Saskatchewan River Valley Basin and surrounded by gentle sand dunes. There are 155 rooms and suites, the Moose Woods Home Fire Grill, an 18-hole golf course, and a casino. A Nordic spa is in the works. About 73% of the staff are Indigenous. Room rates: A recent search of website showed prices range from $127 to $259.
Address: 203 Dakota Dunes Way, Whitecap, Saskatchewan (see map below)