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Joe David, a renowned Tla-o-qui-aht artist, carves a mask to be used for Naaʔuu.Ben Giesbrecht/Supplied

Tofino is well known for its surf scene, temperate weather and expansive beaches. But the land has also been home to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation since time immemorial. Wars have been fought and won here. Treaties have been drafted and abandoned here. And more recently, the Tla-o-qui-aht (pronounced klaw-oh-kwee-awt) have reclaimed the narrative of their history through tourism here.

Tin Wis Resort, which sits right on Mackenzie Beach, is an Indigenous-owned resort on the ancient village site of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. This year, the Nation launched a cultural experience for visitors almost 30 years in the making: Naaʔuu.

Naaʔuu features oral storytelling, carved masks, traditional cuisine and dance. It’s the result of years of conversations between members of the Nation aiming to answer a single question: How can the Tla-o-qui-aht share their history with both locals and tourists without sacrificing the dignity and sacred secrets of the Nation, while still generating benefits for the next generation?

In Tofino, a destination that sees roughly one million visitors a year, Tla-o-qui-aht lands and resource director Saya Masso says little economic benefit goes back into the Indigenous communities. It’s an issue compounded by the fact that the land is unceded – meaning the Nation never signed a treaty to give it up.

Naaʔuu, pronounced naa-ooh, offers visitors a way to engage in ethical tourism. Its intent is to educate, not entertain – this is no Hawaiian luau. This is also not a Potlatch ceremony, but rather an oral storytelling session that delves into Tla-o-qui-aht history, served up with heaps of pillowy bannock, fresh mussels and clams, salmon and venison. (Naaʔuu is translated to “feast together” after all.)

Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob hosted and co-produced the event when it premiered in March, and there are plans to run it again this fall. The Globe and Mail spoke to Wenstob about what went into creating Naaʔuu, how the community has responded and why some parts of the culture aren’t shared.

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Hjalmer Wenstob, right, co-produced the event, and is pictured during a performance with his brother, Timmy Masso.Melissa Renwick/Supplied

Do you see Naaʔuu as a form of reconciliation?

I want to bring people into our house. The idea of building a longhouse to host the event came from that. I want to feed them in our house as we would traditionally. I want to speak with them and share with them, and also make sure that they leave feeling good. But you have to come and sit with us. And this is where we think that truth and relationships are built.

Reconciliation, if it can exist, is a long way down the road. But this is an opportunity for us to open up a dialogue. We didn’t want to stand on stage and perform and entertain. But we also didn’t want to stand on stage and point fingers and say, ‘You have to listen.’

What was important to include?

We really focused on our origin story, we focused on who we are as Tla-o-qui-aht. Our history as whalers. Our history as artists and fisher people and singers and dancers and the beauty of who we are from our cultural perspective and from a historical perspective. And then in the last, probably five or 10 minutes of the speech, we talked about last the 100 years of history. It’s really a small section of who we are as people.

Who was consulted on what stories could be shared?

We really made sure that the community was in the know of what we were comfortable sharing and not sharing. We would meet with elders and chiefs of our traditional leadership, as well as the elected leadership and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ With their full support, we continued on.

Why were certain aspects of the Nation’s ceremonial culture, such as regalia, songs, dances and words, not shared?

As much as we do want to share, we also have been fearful of the past. When we do share too much, things can disappear from our communities. We’ve shared particular phrases in our language and then there’s a spa in Tofino named after those phrases. Or you share a bit of our art and culture and it ends up in museums around the world, as it did historically. We’ve been very fearful of giving away too much.

So, all the songs that we’re singing, all the regalia we’re showing and masks we’re wearing was made specifically for Naaʔuu.

We made the regalia more contemporary. The masks aren’t blessed as ceremonial living beings like they would for a Potlatch – they are made as artwork for education.

For the songs, my brother and I created a song during the first few months of the pandemic to record the history that we’re living through currently, which we volunteered to Naaʔuu. Historically, we’ve had songs of smallpox and of first contact and we had pieces of artwork and regalia that went along with them.

What has the response been like from within the Nation?

We hosted a Tla-o-qui-aht night of Naaʔuu and one of our Ha’wiih (Hereditary Chiefs) came to me and she said, ‘You made me so proud to be Tla-o-qui-aht tonight. I feel so proud to showcase who we are to a greater audience. This is what we need for our youth.’ And she asked if I would come in with my brother and teach all these songs to the youth group because they need more fun songs to feel that feeling she felt that day.

That hit me so hard. To hear it from our own people.

And from the non-Indigenous locals?

Support has been just astronomical. It has been so amazing to witness and feel. I’m really humbled by how many locals from Tofino and Ucluelet and the surrounding communities came.

They said they wanted this for so long. They wanted to learn about where they are and who their neighbours are, but to hear this historical account and to hear some of our truths has been so impactful to them. They were saying things like, ‘This is what reconciliation means for us.’

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More Indigenous experiences across Canada

For a national list of Indigenous-owned tourism experiences, head to

British Columbia: Talaysay Tours offers oral histories and perspectives from Indigenous guides around Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast on Vancouver Island. Owned by Candace and Larry Campo, shíshálh (Sechelt) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation members, Talaysay intends to educate visitors using land-based learning to explore Indigenous histories and ways of living. Visitors who want to avoid the B.C. Ferry can fly in to Vancouver Island and elsewhere in the province on Indigenous-owned Gulf Island Seaplanes.,

Quebec: The Innucadie Stories and Legends Festival in Natashquan, a municipality in the Côte-Nord region of Quebec, is an annual festival that brings together Acadian and Innu communities and artists to share stories about an imagined country called l’Innucadie. The idea is to share culture, artisan skills and language between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Saskatchewan: kâniyâsihk Culture Camps take place on the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation and offer year-round camp experiences that focus on land-based and cultural learning, from how to preserve meat and tan hides to language-learning camps and food-harvesting lessons. Intended for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous guests alike, the camps are created in conversation with the Nation’s elders.

Northwest Territories: Tundra North Tours guides guests along the vast plains of the tundra, herding reindeer or mushing sled dogs. The tour operator offers an immersive experience into Inuit culture from excursions to feasts and conversations with elders – all under the Northern Lights.

Ontario: The Anishinaabe Wild Rice Experience in the Nolalu village, near Thunder Bay, teaches guests how to harvest and cook wild rice, a traditional staple ingredient used for generations. Operated on a family-owned farm on Whitefish Lake, the experience details each step of the wild-rice preparation process, from collecting to parching and winnowing.

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