Tarra Wright Many Chief has worked with major institutions in Calgary as a background player to help amplify Indigenous voices, but in opening her small business, she has found her purpose sharing Blackfoot culture directly with her clients.
Growing up on the Blood Reserve, or Kainai, in southern Alberta, Many Chief felt like an oddity. With her mother the only non-Indigenous person living on the reserve, Many Chief and her siblings were some of the few mixed children in the community.
While she takes deep pride in her community and culture now, Many Chief often felt disconnected from it during her childhood.
“I did feel that at times some doors were closed to me.”
After commuting to and from Lethbridge, AB, to go to school for years, Many Chief moved to Calgary with a degree in accounting from the University of Lethbridge. Despite the analytical nature of her bachelor’s degree, Many Chief followed her intuition when it came to her career. In 2017, she decided to take on the role of collaborative coordinator for an Indigenous tourism conference being held in Calgary that year.
Many Chief was set on working with Indigenous businesses after struggling with others’ reception of her in the workforce, but the transition out of the Blood Reserve and into a big city came with a culture shock for her. The most basic approaches of communication differed majorly from what she was accustomed to growing up in a Blackfoot community.
“The way that I talk is really attuned to connecting with those people, making them feel comfortable.”
Many Chief described how her Blackfoot heritage taught her to value honesty, continual learning and acceptance of past mistakes. Regardless of if another is aware of the damaging language they are using, Many Chief does not shy away from acknowledging when it is directed towards herself and those around her.
“When I try to talk to people about the small communication things that really reinforce stereotypes and relates back to racism — which is the ugly word no one wants to hear — people don’t believe that it exists.”
The communication barriers Many Chief has encountered have even made their way into the workplace. Often, she has been overlooked, and her contributions were undervalued, solely based on her identity as an Indigenous woman.
“I can say the exact same thing as a non-Indigenous person is saying and it doesn’t get through the same way because I’m not saying it with a recognizable tone of authority that a non-Indigenous person would believe should exist.”
Many Chief Tours
Inspired by the richness of the Indigenous community across Canada that she was able to witness through her job, Many Chief began doing more consulting work, bringing those voices into important conversations.
Many Chief prides herself in the change she helped make at the Glenbow Museum — bringing in Indigenous historians, artists and gallery consultants to educate the public while highlighting Indigenous professionals.
“Let’s create these Indigenous-inclusive areas to continue to foster that relationship that’s existed.”
Back in 2016, Many Chief was first inspired to do walking tours around Blackfoot land and pass along stories to anyone with a desire to learn. It took until 2019 for this idea to be fully realized, when Many Chief Tours opened to the public.
Her own dedication and hard work within the Indigenous tourism business allowed for businesses like her own to be able to take off and be successful, Many Chief says.
“The only way for my business to be successful as a tourism business was for me to lead a provincial association.”
Relationship between human and nature
Many Chief Tours offer an opportunity for Calgarians and tourists to learn about the heritage of Calgary’s Indigenous communities while walking through St. Patrick’s Island Park.
Many Chief’s work as a consultant is technical, time-consuming and involves lots of numbers. When talking about Many Chief tours, she speaks fondly — with a degree of pride and excitement. She can’t wait for April to come, to spend her days outdoors and connect with others and the land.
“It’s really a passion project to have representation.”
Joanna Pesta, the manager of programming and events at Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, has worked closely with Many Chief since the tours were just an idea on paper. History comes to life as guests listen to Many Chief pass along stories and explain cultural curiosities while they walk along the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers — an experience that drops jaws regularly, says Pesta.
The CMLC expressed their excitement when first hearing Many Chief’s pitch. Pesta described the tours as a transportive experience.
“It’s a great experience to be immersed in Calgary’s history as you walk through the beautiful park and discover Tarra’s cultural history and background,” says Pesta.
To be outdoors and walking such culture-rich and history-filled land was a key aspect of the tours that Many Chief set her sights on. While this narrows the tours to a seasonal business, it more than makes up for it with the way individuals can truly connect with the earth.
The relationship between human and nature is one of high relevance in Indigenous culture, as was emphasized by Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane — an Anishinaabe scholar and assistant professor in Mount Royal University’s Indigenous Studies program. Pheasant-Neganigwane feels the tours can help attune visitors to the living earth.
“They walk away saying, I need to treat this Mother Earth with more compassion, with love,” says Pheasant-Neganigwane.
While the natural environment of St. Patrick’s Island Park is a large aspect of the pitch, Many Chief Tours offers more than just the view. There is a high level of importance placed on the cultural sharing component of these tours. As owner and guide, Many Chief endeavors to further others’ cultural learning experiences and connect individuals to the land through story. Ultimately, Many Chief is advocating for Indigenous culture and life in every step of the tour.
“Even if they’re just calling it tourism, we know that it’s cultural sharing. It creates pride in culture.”