THE LAND IS PART OF ME
Indigenous tourism operators share history and personal connection on their traditional territory.
Teri-Lee Isaac had the idea for about 10 years. As the Selkirk First Nation government’s heritage manager, she knew guests to the territory were interested in visiting Fort Selkirk Historic Site, an old townsite located at the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon rivers.
Travellers driving the North Klondike Highway would stop at the heritage centre, in Pelly Crossing, where they’d learn about Fort Selkirk’s historical significance and ask about getting there. The site, though, is only accessible by boat and no locals offered tours at the time.
“It was always in my mind. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this one of these days,” says Isaac, a Selkirk First Nation citizen and member of the Wolf Clan. “Finally, I did it.”
In 2021, Isaac launched Tutchone Tours. She offers boat rides down the Yukon River to Fort Selkirk, where she tours visitors through the village, including its old churches, trappers’ cabins, Selkirk First Nation caches and homes, and cemetery. Isaac spent summers there as a kid, while her grandmother cooked for the Yukon government and Selkirk First Nation crews conducting preservation work on-site.
“Fort Selkirk is where our people came from,” Isaac says.
Long before settlers arrived in the Yukon, it was an important place for the Northern Tutchone people. Historic trails led to Fort Selkirk from other regions of the Yukon, and Tlingit people would come there to trade. In 1848, it became a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and it was a busy settlement during the Klondike Gold Rush.
“Our vision is to become a successful business that employs local Indigenous people and makes a financial contribution to the economy and wellness of our community, while providing visitors with a quality experience that enhances their appreciation and understanding of the history and lifestyle of the Tutchone people, the fur trade, and the Yukon’s rich natural resources,” says Isaac.
“People want to travel with the people of the land, and I knew that I could do it. To see the beauty of the land … but also to connect that to the history and to the stories of the Gwich’in people.” Bobbi Rose Koe, owner of Dinjii Zhuh Adventures
Before the pandemic, the Indigenous-tourism sector in Canada was growing. According to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and the Conference Board of Canada, it was outpacing overall Canadian tourism activity.
Indigenous tourism has many benefits. The World Tourism Organization says those include promoting cultural interaction and revival, boosting employment, empowering communities, and enabling people to maintain their relationship with the land.
In addition to Tutchone Tours, the Yukon is home to several First Nations-owned tourism businesses. Dinjii Zhuh Adventures—a river-guiding company launched last year—is another one.
Owner Bobbi Rose Koe is Teetl’it Gwich’in from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and now based in Whitehorse. She started her business with a few goals: training other Indigenous river guides; bringing her people back into the Peel River watershed, an area within her traditional territory; and guiding visitors on paddling trips.
“People want to travel with the people of the land, and I knew that I could do it,” Koe says. “To see the beauty of the land … but also to connect that to the history and to the stories of the Gwich’in people.”
For years, she advocated for protection of the Peel watershed when the Yukon government tried opening it up to development—a battle that ultimately went to the Supreme Court of Canada. Having paddled in the Peel several times, she wanted others to feel how she felt travelling on the region’s beautiful rivers.
In 2019, Koe enrolled in EntrepreNorth, a program helping northern entrepreneurs launch their business ideas; Isaac was also in her cohort. It provided the kickstart both women needed.
Meta Williams was one of the EntrepreNorth mentors they worked with. Williams—a Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation citizen—and her partner, Harold Johnson—a Champagne and Aishihik First Nations citizen—have operated a traditional museum called Long Ago Peoples Place since 1995.
Meta Williams (left) operates Long Ago Peoples Place in Champagne, west of Whitehorse.
Located one hour west of Whitehorse, Kwaday Dun Kenji, as it’s known in Southern Tutchone, is a recreated traditional Southern Tutchone camp. There, Williams and Johnson offer tours.
“[Visitors] get that opportunity to really look at how our First Nations people lived on the land before contact, before the gold rush, and before the Alaska Highway,” says Williams. “It’s taking them totally in-depth, to our worldview, our social structure, how we conduct ourselves on the land, on the water, how we converse with the animals…. So, it really does give you an appreciation for where we come from.”
The pandemic affected all three businesses, reducing their clientele to largely locals. “It gave you time to reflect on many different pandemics that your Elders had shared stories about,” Williams says.
Isaac had intended to launch Tutchone Tours in 2020, but pushed her opening back a year. She was able to get funding through a government pandemic program and gave nine tours last summer.
Koe’s first trip through Dinjii Zhuh Adventures last summer was a two-week paddle on the Beaver River with youth from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun. Now, she’s fielding inquiries from people across the country and abroad.
“For a long time, Indigenous people have been living on this land and we’re one with it,” she says. “So, I’m part of the land and the land is part of me.”
This was top of mind when Koe was coming up with a name for her company. Several people suggested Dinjii Zhuh—pronounced din-gee joux—and she asked her Elders about its meaning.
“It means a person who walks one with the land,” Koe says. “It’s beautiful. The name came from the people.”