Sleek redwood dugout canoes have transported the Yurok people along California’s Klamath River for thousands of years. Called oohl’-we’-yoch, they are prized creations, considered living spirits by the Yurok people. They honor the sacred trees from which they were crafted and which come from the last remaining stands of old-growth redwoods in the world. Only 10 of these hand-carved canoes still exist—and today two of them float visitors on two- or four-hour river tours in what is now Redwood National Park.
More than your typical outdoor tours, Indigenous adventure operators like the Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours share ancient and living cultures that have intertwined with these landscapes since time immemorial. And travelers are increasingly interested in these Indigenous tourism experiences, particularly at our national parks.
The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 106th birthday on August 25 this year. Yet behind the birthday celebrations at parks around the U.S. is a painful and overlooked history: Creating national parks added to the forcible displacement of Indigenous nations from their ancestral and spiritual homelands.
Today, not only is that history in the open, but ownership of the narrative is changing. In 2016, the U.S. Congress created a clear path with federal support for Indigenous tourism entrepreneurs when it passed the Native American Tourism Improving Visitor Experience Act. In March of 2022, Chuck Sams, the first Native American to serve as director of the NPS, testified to a congressional committee about increasing Indigenous management of public lands. Sams announced 80 cooperative agreements on co-stewardship with tribes, with plans to create more.
Evidence of change is visible around parklands. Construction of the redesigned Desert View Inter-Tribal Cultural Heritage Site in Grand Canyon National Park is nearing completion. Four national parks–Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Grand Portage National Monument, and Big Cypress National Preserve–are co-managed by tribes. During COVID-19’s initial outbreak in 2020, the NPS took unprecedented steps to close park entrances on vulnerable tribal lands.
None of this has been easy. Native tribes and nations are sovereign, with rights to self-govern that are constantly threatened. Successful lobbying to operate in national parks is part of the ongoing Indigenous land rights movement to enforce centuries of broken legal agreements. Only the most persistent tour operators successfully negotiate the shifting labyrinth of federal, tribal, state, and park permits.
Despite the hurdles, there is progress. “We are still here,” says Hoppow Norris, a captain in the Yurok’s redwood canoe tours. “And not only are we still here, but we are no longer hiding who or what we are. We are in the midst of a cultural revitalization and only we, the people of these lands, can get in the way of that.”
The road to empowerment in Montana
Watching the clouds spill over Montana’s Logan Pass at the peak of Glacier National Park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road can be a spiritual experience. For the Blackfeet, who have inhabited this place for over 10,000 years, these peaks are the backbone of the world.
“We want people to understand that they can travel through a national park and it looks the way it looks because of our connection and our protection and our stewardship,” says Derek DesRosier, general manager of the Blackfeet family-owned Sun Tours of Glacier National Park.
The U.S. forced the Blackfeet to cede the territory that became Glacier National Park in what Derek DesRosier’s father, Ed, calls the “Disagreement of 1895.” Almost a hundred years later, when Ed DesRosier got his first tour permits, he faced a resistant park service. His first citation in 1992 for unofficial operation contributed to widespread protests and lobbying over the lack of Indigenous access in the national park. One year later, Ed DesRosier was finally granted authorization as an official tour operator, joining the limited number of approved guides in the park and across the country.
As Sun Tours celebrates 30 years of interpretive tours and custom hiking throughout all corners of Glacier National Park, Ed DesRosier reflects on the journey with hope. He sees the increasing interest in the tours and the growing entrepreneurial spirit in Blackfeet Country as a small part of the tribal empowerment he and others have been championing for decades.
Like other Indigenous-run adventure tours, Sun Tours is not only for non-Native guests. DesRosier’s familiarity with Glacier National Park comes from frequent trips as a child and he wants every Blackfeet member to have the same opportunity. His goal is to get them there through employment, field trips, and community events.
“A lot of Blackfeet people don’t really think about it as theirs,” says DesRosier. With the tours, “our own people learn more about who they are and recognize Glacier Park is our own.”
A new adventure narrative in Alaska
Stacey Simmons laughs as two bald eagles dive at a young brown bear that strayed too close to their nest. For Simmons, director of operations at the Kodiak Brown Bear Center (KBBC) in Kodiak, Alaska, it’s common to look out the window and see such a scene. While day-trippers can watch bears from decks above the falls at Katmai National Park, here on Kodiak island, overnight guests immerse themselves in wildlife, lakes, rivers, petroglyphs, and archaeology.
“Indigenous tourism is exciting to me because we get to control the narrative,” says Simmons about the KBBC, which is owned by the collective communities known as the Alutiiq people, to which Simmons belongs. “We know what we should be sharing, and we know what things we shouldn't that are sacred to us.”
Indigenous-led experiences move away from the common adventuring language of conquering peaks, cliffs, rivers, and wildlife to focus on belonging to the landscape. Simmons recalls visitors’ awe as they fly over Karluk Lake and the surrounding mountains and streams, spotting bears feeding. “Guests understand they're on very important land for our people. The fish, the berries, the bears, the deer, everything. This ecosystem is the heartbeat of what our people live on.”
Owning and sharing that narrative also helps build pride and sustain culture. Experiences like those at KBBC support food banks, higher education scholarships, language classes, elder support distributions, and burial assistance.
“Like other Native people, my grandma got in trouble for speaking Alutiiq in her class,” says Simmons. “People stopped calling themselves Alutiiq or Sugpiaq and stopped learning the language. Because we were ashamed or beaten. Now we're really working on our community, this huge revitalization.”
Paddling into opportunity in Wisconsin
Wisconsin forest tops the towering red sandstone cliffs that rise above kayakers as they ply through shallow, aquamarine waters that rival the Caribbean’s vibrant hues. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore offers secluded sea caves and well-preserved shipwrecks in addition to crowded beaches and marinas. Over the last few years, more adventurers are choosing to ditch the crowds and hear the stories of the Red Cliff Band of the Ojibwe with Apostle Islands Rustic Makwa Den.
“People who come to us want more than cliffs. They want the stories we were raised on,” says Troy Gordon, owner and member of the Red Cliff Band. “You can’t get that anywhere else.”
For Native guides, the process of sharing can be cathartic. Gordon is emotional as he relates how an auto-immune disease sidelined him several years ago from personally guiding kayak tours. He knows and misses the power of those vulnerable moments.
More than getting the boat into the water and caves, there is a charge of connection between the guides and guests when sharing the sacred, hereditary landscape. Gordon doesn’t pry when he sees guides and guests hugging after tours. “Those conversations can get intimate out there.”
Despite multiple challenges, Gordon and his wife, Karen, put everything into their kayaking business to create wages for their family and friends and opportunities for their children. Gordon recalls when they snuck out to watch their then-14-year-old son guide his first tour, a small-group night kayak of the glowing, deserted sea caves.
The couple went out without him knowing, hiding behind a wall at the local dock to take pictures to gift guests to “spice up his tour.” Instead, they found themselves just listening in awe as their son confidently guided the group out. “Success,” he says with pride, echoing the hope of many Indigenous tour operators. “Our kids’ success. It’s all for them.”
8 Indigenous tour operators in national parks
Big Cypress Reservation: Plan ahead with this operator for camping and hiking excursions near Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, Florida.
Sun Tours: Take an interpretive tour or plan a custom hike with this operator in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Grand Canyon 9 Rapids: This operator offers the only motorized overnight white water rafting trip on the Colorado River Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Kodiak Brown Bear Center and Lodge: Immerse yourself in the great outdoors with wildlife viewing, fishing, and hiking near Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation: Hike and camp with Navajo guides in Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona, and Monument Valley Tribal National Park, Arizona and Utah.
Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours: Learn about the wildlife, geography, and history of the Klamath River canoeing in Redwood National Park, California.
Wellknown Buffalo: Go camping, hiking, and horseback riding with this tour operator in Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana.