Nestled on a hillside just east of Osoyoos Lake, the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is a hub of knowledge.

Visitors to the centre, which sits about 250 kilometres east of Vancouver, can enjoy Syilx Okanagan art and watch two short films about the life and oral stories of people of the Syilx Okanagan Nation Osoyoos Indian Band. The centre is surrounded by a network of walking trails through the desert and seven square kilometres of conservation land.

And as part of its mandate, it maintains an old reconstructed Syilx Okanagan village and an outdoor desert nature exhibit.

“What the centre was built for was to preserve and to share our traditions, our language and our culture, and to educate people, whether it be our own band members or those that are just coming in and want to learn,” said Jenna Bower, a nation member and the centre’s general manager.

Bower directs the centre’s myriad programs, researches local wildlife, co-ordinates grant funding and occasionally guides tours for the non-profit charity. Keeping the centre running is a busy balancing act, Bower said.

Jenna Bower manages the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, guides tours and performs traditional dances. Photo submitted by Jenna Bower

While the centre charges admission for its exhibits and shows, Bower said it relies on grants to fund its conservation efforts. The centre is home to a rattlesnake research facility and offers a place for local knowledge keepers to help the Okanagan Nation Alliance protect wildlife, like chinook salmon.

“We desperately rely on grants to be able to keep our doors open,” Bower said. “Nobody ever builds a museum and expects it to make money, and we're not really here for that. We're more for preserving and educating.”

Now, the centre could be in line for a boost from Ottawa. The federal government is offering grants of up to $25,000 directly to small businesses that support Indigenous-led tourism across Canada. And while another expert says the funding may not be enough to ensure the long-term growth of the industry, Bower said the funding is great news for now.

Feds give #Indigenous tourism a boost. #cdnpoli #IndigenousTourism

During the pandemic, many Indigenous tourism businesses struggled, said Tarra Wright Many Chief, an Indigenous tourism consultant, who agrees the funding will be a good support. However, she noted the industry would benefit from long-term, multi-year support.

“[Funding] gives you that reinforcement that means you can continue to add to the total amount of experiences, which increases the amount of demand for Indigenous tourism,” she said.

Individual grants can be a burden for small businesses to apply for, while multi-year funding and contracts with provincial tourism organizations can help a small Indigenous tourism project grow into a sustainable business, she said.

Previously, Wright Many Chief, a member of the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) of the Blackfoot Confederacy, ran her own Indigenous tourism business near Calgary. She offered guided walking tours of nearby Nose Hill Park and St. Patrick’s Island and explained the cultural and historical significance of each location to clients.

“It was inspiring to be able to share, but also inspiring to see how engaged people were and how much they wanted to learn; and feel that they were part of reconciliation,” Wright Many Chief said.

In 2022, the federal government announced a new $20-million Indigenous Tourism Fund aimed to help the industry recover from the pandemic. Now, half of that funding is being offered through the funding stream to small businesses.

Ottawa will administer funding alongside non-profit group Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and provincial and territorial Indigenous tourism organizations.

Indigenous tourism businesses with less than 100 employees will be able to apply for non-repayable contributions of up to $25,000 through the Indigenous Tourism Fund’s new micro- and small-business stream.

For Wright Many Chief, running an Indigenous tourism business meant she could share history on her own terms with Calgarians and visitors.

“For so long, the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada has been told through a colonial lens,” she said. “Over the past several generations, Indigenous people haven't been able to tell their story, to tell their history… It's time for these two groups to reconnect through education.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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