In search of Winnetou: Constructing Aboriginal culture in the tourist encounter

Siegrid Deutschlander
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Calgary
July, 2006


In this study, I explore the representations of Aboriginal culture that German visitors and Aboriginal hosts construct at various Aboriginal tourism sites in southern Alberta. As part of the cultural domain, tourism sites have traditionally not been associated with claims that have a political impact on dominant discourses in society. The value of a Cultural Studies orientation, by contrast, is that it explicitly politicizes culture. Drawing on this insight, my analysis shows how Aboriginal guides and displays attempt to contest prevailing perceptions about Aboriginal culture. They enlist German "Indianthusiasts" in this process, whose search for "authentic" Aboriginal culture, and their rejection of Western practices, has made them open for alternative views. The Symbolic Interactionist perspective forms the methodological basis for my analysis of the socially constructed nature of reality. My findings are based on fieldwork and in-depth interviews with the participants at Aboriginal cultural tourism sites, during the summer; 2000--2002. Over the last twenty-five years, Aboriginal people have increasingly assumed control over representations of their own culture. I explore in what ways the Aboriginal perspective ("voice") appears at these sites and events, to what extent that voice is "heard" by visitors, and what factors work to obscure or highlight it. My readings of the data show that Aboriginal displays and interpreters make claims to invert the "primitivist discourse" in favor of Aboriginal culture, that authenticity is important at all sites, and that the discourses of entertainment and nostalgia work to mute the political potential of festivalized events. In the final chapter of this study, I argue that all aspects of tourism must be under the control of Aboriginal communities, and that touristic performances require ongoing internal discussions to define the boundaries of Aboriginal tourism and its place in Aboriginal society.