Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours
Indigenous Tourism: A Journey In Reconciliation
People, Water, Land
For the Homalco People, culture is rich with stories, rooted in language, and inspired by the land, wildlife, and traditional practices. Each of these elements is woven into the remarkable cultural and marine tours at the heart of the Homalco Nation’s award-winning Indigenous Tourism business.
Homalco’s Wildlife & Cultural tours take place in their traditional and ancestral territory of the stunning Bute Inlet, where Xwe’ malhkwu guides lead guests on an immersive day of grizzly bears, Salish Sea wildlife and cultural discovery. The Homalco people have been the stewards of these lands and waters since time immemorial.
Their newest tour, People Water Land, expands Homalco’s tourism offerings beyond the Grizzly-viewing season. Guests travel through the Salish Sea to the Bute Inlet while watching for whales, porpoises, sea lions, eagles and other seabirds.
Once in Orford Bay, visitors experience an interpretive walk with an Indigenous guide to learn about bears and traditional uses of the land, plants, and cultural practices like stripping cedar bark. Later, they search for feeding bears and ancient petroglyphs during a zodiac boat tour of the estuary.
Guests leave with a deeper understanding of the traditional Coast Salish ways of life. Transformed by the songs, stories, and breathtaking beauty of Bute Inlet, they have a lasting connection to the Homalco people, water, and land.
Connection to Culture
Indigenous tourism companies, such as Homalco, immerse visitors in their stories, culture, and ancestral knowledge. But as Homalco Chief, Darren Blaney, told us, the connection between storytelling, tourism and reconciliation is a multifaceted one.
“[Residential] School told you that you are First Nations, so we’ve got to make you into a white person because your teachings and First Nations identity is not worthwhile,” he shared. “Our tourism is based on being First Nations. It’s based on the teachings, based on connecting to the environment and living in alignment with it.”
At Homalco, guides participate in a comprehensive training program, covering everything from customer service and bear safety to language, songs and stories. As part of their learning, guides accompany Elders to Orford Bay to learn the traditional way of life and connection to the territory. All the while, building confidence and stoking their passion for cultural discovery.
Brenda Hansen, a new guide, spoke of how the training has been a “healing” process for her, helping her connect with her people and culture in a new way. “With our history of Indian Residential Schools and the intergenerational impact, I never lived in my community. But, we are all connected in one way or another. Not just as human beings but as real brothers and sisters, like a family…for me, that’s new, and it’s a really wonderful experience.”
Not only are singing, drumming, and dancing cultural offerings in Indigenous tourism products, but they are also forms of language and cultural revitalization. After centuries of suppression, Homalco Cultural Guides, like Janet Wilson and Cheyanne Hackett, are helping to revive a language and culture that edged on extinction.
“Tourism has a huge part in healing and being healthy,” Wilson said. “The money helps get us going on a good path, and the cultural teachings from elders, the feasts, potlatch, and harvesting our traditional foods from our land… it gets us standing loud and proud.” She added, “I stand a lot prouder now.”
Cheyanne Hackett visited Elders from sister Nations to help build the vocabulary that the guides use today. Éy7á7juuthem (aya-ju-them), referred to as ‘Mainland Comox’ by linguists, is the language of the Homalco, Klahoose, Tla’amin, and Comox Peoples.
“We didn’t know all of the words for the animals, places, and things,” she told us. “Now we have a voice with our language, and we spread Homalco culture across the world,” she exclaimed. Just that day, Hackett had shared her language with visitors from France through the help of an interpreter.
Later, Kelsie Robinson, Operations Manager, explained the collaborative effort behind Homalco’s cultural revitalization. “Our culture, our history was lost. So we were gifted five songs from Homalco’s sister Nation, Tla’amin,” he explained. “They taught us a traditional welcome, too. And after, there was a feast to celebrate …it was the first feast many had been to.”
“I think that’s reconciliation,” affirmed Chief Darren Blaney. “Kids having self-esteem is reconciliation, them learning the language is reconciliation, connecting back to the territory – that’s all reconciliation. And tourism does a good job pulling it all together because [the guides] get to earn a living while they are working and learning on our traditional territory,” he said. “The enthusiasm with that is exciting.”
Stewardship and Sustainability
For Chief Darren Blaney, the relationship between economic development and tourism is built on sustainability and respect for the land. The Homalco People have been stewards of Bute Inlet for centuries, a responsibility they take seriously today. A conservation fee of 15% is added to every tour Homalco sells, and regional partners, like Sonora Resort, charge and remit a conservation fee to the Nation as well. Every dollar of that fee goes towards their salmon stock and hatchery program.
“Salmon are a keystone species to our culture and our forests,” Blaney explained. “Our forests have the DNA of salmon in them… and more salmon, healthy salmon, means more bears. The salmon is a symbol of a potlatch – it gives wherever it goes – and we, and our visitors, give back through the hatchery.”
Homalco’s Orford Hatchery operation has been an ongoing project for the Nation. In rebuilding and managing the fish hatchery, Homalco plays a vital role in the conservation of salmon stocks. In conjunction with employment opportunities for Band members, they also provide Stewardship Training and the Essential Fisheries Field Skills Certificate program.
In the face of the climate crisis, Homalco’s traditional teachings hold valuable lessons in sustainability and stewardship.
“Our people had teachings, first salmon ceremony, giving thanks to the land and being managers and stewards of the territory and the salmon stocks,” Blaney explained. “It’s those teachings that will help… if we don’t lose it all to climate change. These teachings need to be passed on to our guests that come to our territory,” he stressed. “The guides aren’t just doing tours, they are educating guests about the planet, and how to be a steward of the land. If you take care of it…it will take care of you.”