The indigenous peoples’ fight to restore travel rights

old paths are being repurposed into modern bicycling, hiking, and rafting routes, which is helping to fuel the growth of Native and First Nation tourism across North America. Specifically, this movement is being driven by the conversion of old trails.

Indigenous leader Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca Tribe, who refused relocation to “Indian territory” in Oklahoma in May of 1877, were marched there at gunpoint by the US Calvary from their home in Nebraska, which was around 500 miles away from Oklahoma. When they finally arrived, it was already too late in the year to sow crops, and the community would have to brace themselves for a terrible winter. Because of this, one-third of the Ponca people passed away (including Standing Bear’s son and daughter), and almost all of those who managed to survive were either sick or crippled.

Standing Bear traveled back to Nebraska to fulfill the final wish of his son and bury him in the state, but he was quickly taken into custody for violating the Ponca people’s recently established reserve there. At the momentous trial that took place in 1879, the chief powerfully persuaded the judge that Native Americans were entitled to the same rights as other Americans, despite the fact that the United States government argued that Standing Bear was neither a citizen of the United States nor a person. As a result, Standing Bear was freed.

After coming to a halt in the quaint community of Beatrice, located in the southeast corner of Nebraska, I walked out onto the Chief Standing Bear Trail, which is a 22-mile limestone path that follows the course of the Big Blue River. The road follows the footsteps of historic Native American hunting and trading routes, and it also marks the beginning of the route that the Ponca were later marched on when they were relocated from their native land. I tried to picture the difficulty of their journey as I looked out over the fields and forests that surrounded me.

The legend of the Ponca highlights a stark reality that is sometimes disregarded, namely, that many of the paths that are used for hiking and biking in the United States today were initially blazed by indigenous hunters and traders hundreds of years in the past. After their land was seized from them, the state and federal governments converted some of these paths into roads and railroads. (For example, the Ponca’s Trail of Tears path was repurposed at a later time as a portion of the Union Pacific railway line that no longer exists.)

However, during the past few years, indigenous communities, state governments, and non-profit organizations such as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy have been reviving these old Native American trails by transforming them into modern bike and pedestrian pathways. This process has given these paths a new lease on life. Tribes are increasingly recovering their ancestral landscapes as more Native groups are developing more chances for slow tourism on their territory or in areas that are closely tied to Indigenous history. Some examples of slow tourism include hiking, cycling, and paddling.

Ponca Tribe member and executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs Judi gaiashkibos stated that “all of these trails were trails that were here before,” and that “most trails throughout American Indian country that people are using now for slow tourism, were our trails, wherever you go.” She said that the Ponca now own the Chief Standing Bear Trail, and that there are educational kiosks and markers positioned along the trail to assist teach the narrative of the Ponca people and their culture. Gaiashkibos wants to entice tourists “to come hear new stories, to slow down their lives, and to be connected to the land,” so that they can stay at their lodge.

The number of people visiting North America to experience indigenous culture is increasing. Native tourism is a $14 billion sector in the United States, while it contributes close to $2 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). Tribes are progressively making use of their most valuable assets, which are their people and their land, in order to push this trend.

The almost finished 135-mile Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) in the state of Washington is quickly becoming one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations that does not allow motorized vehicles. It extends from Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean and provides runners, cyclists, and walkers with breathtaking vistas of the Olympic Peninsula’s snow-capped peaks, temperate rainforests, and glacial lakes. The trail runs from Puget Sound to the Pacific Ocean. At one point in time, this was a foot track that connected a number of different tribal towns. It was built on an abandoned railroad. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is one of the groups that fall into this category.

Today, the route passes through the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Government North Campus and their 7 Cedars Casino. Educational signage can be seen along the trail, and the Native Art Gallery, which offers the work of Native American artists, books, and souvenirs, can be found at the end of the trail. It also goes by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Library, which is a cultural resource that is available for use by both tribal members and visitors to the tribe. The books in the library were authored by Native American authors.

“We are creating some exhibit space inside the library that will allow the tribe the opportunity to tell the tribe’s story from the tribe’s perspective, with a focus not on somebody else’s narrative but on tribal priorities.” said Luke Strong-Cvetich, who serves as the director of tribal planning for the Jamestown S’Klallam.

Along the trail, the tribe is also successfully rehabilitating salmon habitat and cleaning up soil that was previously poisoned. According to Strong-Cvetich, the “crown-jewel” of the Dungeness River Nature Center is the recently expanded portion of the facility. “It is [an] educational facility-visitor centre on the Dungeness watershed,” which is the river that belongs to the tribe and a primary habitat for salmon. Guests will have the opportunity to gain knowledge regarding conservation and the significance of this watershed to the tribe, which has, for millennia, relied on healthy salmon populations.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho is also utilizing slow tourism as part of their effort to reclaim their land and their history.

The area that belonged to the tribe’s ancestors formerly encompassed five million acres and reached all the way from Spokane, Washington, through the panhandle of Idaho and into Montana. However, settlers began arriving in the area in 1883, and by the time the Allotment Act was passed in 1909, the Native Americans had only 345,000 acres to call their own. Additionally, the many hunting and commerce routes that they used became the corridors for interstates such as I-90 and the Washington and Idaho Railroad.

After the Washington and Idaho Railroad ended operations, a paved cycling track known as the track of the Coeur d’Alenes was established. This trail is approximately 72 miles in length. The trail goes all the way across the panhandle, and the tribe is responsible for maintaining 15 miles of it. Their Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel now uses this trail as part of their cultural tourism program. They offer everything from guided hikes along ancestral paths to tribal-led canoe and kayak tours on Lake Chatcolet to Indigenous-led guided cycling excursions across the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes (bikes are provided for guests). This trail is located in the vicinity of Lake Chatcolet.

Wasana McGowan, who is in charge of managing cultural tourism at the casino, stated, “We do not have a cultural center.” “So, what are our options?” We put the lands to use. We make use of the reservation that we are currently located on.

It’s possible that Grand Canyon National Park is the most well-known attraction in the American Southwest, but Grand Canyon West (often abbreviated as GCW) is only a four-hour drive to the west, and it’s situated on the Hualapai Nation reserve. Skywalk is a glass bridge that spans out 70 feet over the brink of the canyon and is owned and controlled by the Hualapai people. Visitors will see the same jaw-droppingly deep canyon with its gentle orange and pink hues as they did before, but they will also find the remarkable horseshoe-shaped Skywalk.

GCW guests get the opportunity to explore neighboring hiking trails, zipline from a height of 500 feet above the floor of a side canyon, and meet cultural ambassadors who provide insight into the history and culture of the Hualapai people. Guests are also given the opportunity to study on their own with the help of the brand new app, which includes videos, interviews, images, and maps.

“The tourists that visit here at Grand Canyon West, they know very little about Hualapai people and the land-base that they’re standing on,” said Loretta Jackson-Kelly, supervisor for the Grand Canyon West ambassador department. “The Hualapai people have been here for thousands of years,” “Because we are ambassadors for the Hualapai people, it is our responsibility to share our history and culture.”

But the route along the Colorado River is a different kind of trail, and it is the real centerpiece of the Hualapai’s tourism offers.

The network of the Colorado River has been connecting tribes and commerce for generations. It plays a crucial role in both the Hualapai people’s origin narrative and their identity. Its oxbow curves used to mark the limit of the nation’s ancestral land, which was approximately seven million acres in size. But with the discovery of gold in 1863, the United States government divided up that river and its access for mining, forcing the Hualapai people to live in exile until 1883, when they were finally able to secure a one million acre reservation for themselves.

Today, Hualapai River Runners takes visitors rafting down the Colorado River and trekking with tribe river guides to see sacred locations along the river. Both of these activities are available. According to Jackson-Kelly, “The Hualapai people are extremely proud to show off their backyard, which happens to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world: the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.”

Because of tourism, the history of both the river and the Hualapai people, along with that of so many other First Nations tribes located all over the United States, is finally being repeated through the perspectives of Indigenous people.

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