Sharing aboriginal traditions: philosophy and business model of the Great Spirit Circle Trail

Great Spirit Circle Trail offers all the comforts of tipi glamping.

by Isobel Harry

M’CHIGEENG—It’s early morning at the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT) headquarters in M’Chigeeng First Nation and several young assistants in the aboriginal tourism business’ red polo shirts with the logo over the heart are bustling about getting things organized for the day’s visitor experiences.

Beside the log building on Highway 540 that houses admin offices and a shop is The Woodlands, a large forested clearing redolent with the scent of evergreens behind tall cedar posts.  It’s here that many of GSCT’s visitor offerings take place, around the fire pit with stones laid in the shape of a turtle, in the ‘glamping’ tipis set up on platforms in a far corner, and among the small plots of sweetgrass, berries and herbs.

The ‘teaching lodge,’ in the shape of a longhouse set up for storytelling, demonstrations and workshops, is where GSCT’s CEO, Kevin Eshkawkogan, settles in for a lengthy interview.

The Great Spirit Circle Trail is in its 20th year of hosting experiences designed to showcase “the history and culture of the region and its original inhabitants—the Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi peoples,” the Anishinaabek. Sitting in the shade of the lodge’s earthy interior drinking ice water on a very hot day and talking about current issues of tourism and economic development seems to embody the motto, ‘Experience the past, enjoy the present.’

“In 1997, First Nations’ elders and economic development officers on Manitoulin identified a need for aboriginal-run tourism,” explains Mr. Eshkawkogan. “Tourism was happening in First Nations but at the time it did not include First Nations in its design. Non-First Nations guides would share the history, culture and traditions of the Three Fires, often getting things wrong. The elders and others decided to get involved in the industry by developing a tourism strategy. GSCT grew out of that strategy in 2000, and today is a leader in aboriginal and cultural tourism.”

Kevin Eshkawkogan was a development officer with Waubetek (the business development corporation that provides support to Aboriginal entrepreneurs) when he was asked in 2003 to help with the Circle Trail’s development as a part-time volunteer.

“Then, there were four cabins to rent in Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, called Endaa-aang, or Our Place. The rental office was in the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF), with one employee.”

In 2006, the focus of the GSCT became “to develop more product,” continues the chief executive officer. “Tourism basically is concerned with food, accommodation, transportation and experiences. People were coming to us for nature and aboriginal experiences and our communities responded: Zhiibaahaasing First Nation built ‘the world’s largest peace pipe, drum and dreamcatcher;’ Sheshegwaning renovated Nishiin Lodge and hiking trails; Aundeck Omni Kaning continues to develop Endaa-aang; Sheguiandah is planning an interpretive centre, campground and trail; Whitefish River renovated Rainbow Lodge and added two more cabins; Sagamok purchased a fishing lodge near Ritchie Falls and has a strong tourism department headed by Matthew Owl, my predecessor at GSCT; Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve has its own tourism organization and their far-reaching vision recently saw the opening of Pointe Grondine Park, 7,000 hectares of scenic wilderness; M’Chigeeng became the largest investor in the Aboriginal-owned and run Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current, and is the seat of the OCF and the Great Spirit Circle Trail.”

GSCT’s experiences and packages can be customized and are geared toward “fully independent travellers and to group tours”—anywhere from two people to 400 who choose what they will do based on their interests and skills levels—learning how to make tea from fresh-picked herbs, or bannock over an open fire, how to distinguish which plant, trees, herbs and shrubs have medicinal, practical, edible or spiritual uses, listening to traditional stories, canoeing old trade routes or overnighting in a teepee.

“We engage all the senses, and the spirit,” says Mr. Eshkawkogan. “We connect with people on a spiritual or emotional level. It is not unusual for visitors to cry when hearing time-honoured stories on our canoe tours that are about these lands, this water. Our experiential tours are educational and interactive for people who come with open minds and hearts.

“When we think of our grandmothers’ homes, we think food, drink and visit. This is the spirit in which we welcome visitors.”

The Great Spirit Circle Trail’s guides are trained traditional heritage interpreters. All of the “soft adventure” tours are “big on safety.” In addition to their training, interpreters add their own personal touches like humour to help break down stereotypes. “If we tease you, we like you!” jokes GSCT’s CEO.

This year, the Great Spirit Circle Trail “has accomplished the goal of realizing its vision,” Mr. Eshkawkogan declares.  GSCT has been “swamped” this summer, offering two or three experiences a day. Partners Honora Riding Stable, with whom GSCT offers Legends of the Land on horseback and North Channel Cruise Line, that offers boat tours and meals with onboard Voice of the Drum presentations, report a similar upsurge in business this year.

“The benefits of the Great Spirit Circle Trail do not lie only with GSCT,” elaborates the CEO. “In addition to providing opportunities for every one of the member First Nations, we contribute through our membership in [and founding of] the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada, and in Aboriginal Tourism Ontario to the $15m impact that aboriginal tourism is having as a whole on northeastern Ontario’s economy. Many non-aboriginal tourism organizations also ask our advice on our experiences.

“Locally, through employment opportunities, we are helping young people to learn about themselves and have healthier and more respectful views of the culture; guides are training younger interns; we’re a business, we provide for ourselves while providing opportunities and services for others.

“The first thing the Great Spirit Circle Trail did was to establish cultural integrity guidelines for the business. We offer culturally authentic experiences and connection; we’re not trying to ‘convert’ anyone or sell ceremonies, we share stories and our traditional way of life on land and water.”

For this passionate CEO, having a position that is about “spreading knowledge and culture while developing the economy” has been a dream job. “Now it’s time to develop a new vision,” says the 10-year veteran of the Great Spirit Circle Trail about his plans to move on and help aboriginal athletes, in particular hockey players, realize their potential. “There’s always a need for fresh energy once long-term strategies have been implemented and are successful. I’ve done my role, and new people will pick it up and move it forward.” Preparations for the transition, which will take some time, have begun.

“Our elders say, ‘If you carry knowledge,’” says Mr. Eshkawkogan, “‘you share it.’” The Great Spirit Circle Trail’s aboriginal experiences enrich the life and economy of Manitoulin and the region by putting this sharing philosophy to work.

For more about the Great Spirit Circle Trail: www.circletrail.com. Tel: 705-377-4404; toll free: 1-877-710-3211.