Healing Water, Healing Histories: Aboriginal Pilgrimage in Western Canada
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Travel is a medium of communicating information and experience across time and space; aboriginal tourism involves consumption of sacred sites, traditions and contemporary cultures by outsiders. While much research addresses these phenomena, much less is known about the contemporary mobilities of aboriginal people as travellers themselves. The annual Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage in western Canada draws up to 40,000 indigenous people each year from across western North America and beyond. The site was long a traditional ceremonial and healing place, later becoming a Catholic mission and shrine, and is currently shared with village residents, recreationists and a First Nations reserve. Pilgrims include those seeking individual healing in the context of a collective search for social reconciliation over the legacies of the residential school system. New Aboriginal event management, meanwhile, seeks to balance entrepreneurship and facility development with traditional meanings, as do others amid the rising numbers of casino operaters on provincial reserves. Finally, the federal government has designated the pilgrimage site a national historic site, adding layers of new stories and nationalist symbolism. The paper argues that the pilgrimage mediates vertical and horizontal dimensions of experience in its typical emphasis on healing or reconciling relationships between human, spiritual and natural worlds. It represents a ground for performance of evolving identities and relationships extending from pre-contact to the present time. Analysis moves from anthropological perspectives on ritual and cultural hybridity to communication models concerning the role of media forms in sustaining and evolving cultures. It incorporates critical theory in understanding ‘places-apart’ in relationship to the power structures of contemporary society. The goal is to assess the pilgrimage event as a hub of mobilities on several levels for aboriginal participants.