Reconciliation through Interpretation

15 Jun 2018 10:42 AM | Deleted user

By Jacquie Gilson, Doctor of Social Sciences

I just finished a thought provoking online course called Reconciliation through Indigenous Education and it inspired me to reflect upon how the field of interpretation could contribute to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. I humbly admit to knowing very little about this topic, but I wanted to share my key learnings from the course and hope that this diablog will spur some conversation on the topic within the field of interpretation. I have very little experience in working with Indigenous peoples and look forward to hearing from others on this topic.

I’ve summarized my learnings into three R’s of Reconciliation: Respect, Relationships and Reconsidering, and have incorporated ideas we covered in the course, as well as examples that I know about from my over 30 years’ experience in interpretation.


Any reconciliation efforts interpreters are involved in have to show respect to individual Indigenous people, as well as respect for their different cultures. One way to show respect is by starting interpretive programs with an acknowledgment of the local nations’ connections to the land where the program takes place. We did this in 2017 in Lake Louise and my interpreters admitted it felt somewhat awkward, but that it was very worthwhile. Incorporating Indigenous peoples’ languages in place name signs also acknowledges their connections to places. While I have trouble pronouncing them, I love seeing the Indigenous place names on the signs in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. I think respect could also be shown through working closely with Indigenous peoples to develop interpretive programs together and not merely inviting them to do a dance or other potentially superficial demonstration. I’ve been told that Elders and Knowledge Keepers are usually very happy to be invited to share their stories at a local site; what amazing and authentic first-hand experiences this would provide for visitors! And I think it would be even better if the visitors were encouraged to share what the Indigenous peoples’ stories mean to them.


As a non-Indigenous person, a.k.a. a settler, I realize that I need to develop relationships with local Indigenous people before working with them to offer Indigenous interpretation for visitors to the Lake Louise area. I have some experience with Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site and am impressed with what they have achieved; through an agreement with the local Metis group, authentic and very popular Indigenous interpretive programming is offered at the site. My colleague in Jasper National Park has just been involved in setting up an Indigenous peoples interpretive advisory committee and I’m excited to hear more as they get it going. And I noticed online that the Sitka Tribe in Alaska has entered into a collaborative partnership with the US National Park Service to co-manage the site’s interpretive program. I’m sure there are many other great examples out there and I’m also sure that they didn’t just happen overnight, but are a result of much time and effort put into relationship building.


This is the toughest and most important of the three R’s. Before interpretation can contribute anything to reconciliation, the history of sites need to be reconsidered and tough questions asked, such as “Whose story is this?” and “Where did this information come from?” In many cases, stories being shared in interpretation will need to be repositioned to include multiple perspectives. For example, many site histories start with settlement, when the stories should be starting with use of the land by the Indigenous peoples.

I have been experimenting with a new approach to interpretation known as Dialogic Interpretation and I think it offers an ideal means for considering multiple perspectives. For example, Yellowstone Forever, the nonprofit group associated with Yellowstone National Park, engages clients in dialogue on the controversial topic of bison on the landscape. Visitors debate the issue from various perspectives including those of the local ranchers, tourists, wildlife conservationists, state, park and First Nations groups. Interpretation that aims to provide visitors with different viewpoints, rather than the one single perspective of the agency, seems ideally suited towards reconciliation efforts.

Reconsidering the content and how it is shared in interpretation may help towards reconciliation; however, more importantly, interpreters and others need to rethink the predominant colonial viewpoint that North American society is based upon. For Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to be equal partners in interpretation, roles need to be reassessed. Colonials or settlers, like myself, have to learn to share the stage and be less paternalistic in our approaches to interpretation.

For the past few years I have been excited to guide my interpreters in using interactive approaches in interpretation, i.e., dialogic, participatory and other forms of visitor-centred interpretation. I believe that these collaborative techniques are ideally suited to reconciliation; they encourage sharing and respect for all participant’s views and take the interpreter from the “sage on the stage” to focusing on “facilitation for inspiration.” I don’t think interpreters need to STFU but need to be “the guide on the side”; this means being visitor-centred, making room for all stories, and involving people in hands-on and meaningful experiences that will encourage them to make up their own minds about the place and what it means to them.

Upon reflection, I believe there are many ways interpretation could contribute to reconciliation and the few ideas I have presented here merely scratch the surface of possibilities. Indigenous partners need to be treated with respect, relationships need to be nurtured, and sites’ history and stories need to be reconsidered from multiple perspectives, and on top of it all, the purpose of interpretation and approaches we use need to be reconsidered.

I’d love to hear from others. How do you think we are doing with reconciliation through interpretation and what else could we be doing?

Photo Credit: Parks Canada

Additional Resources:

The course I took was called Reconciliation through Indigenous Education and was offered by edX in conjunction with the University of BC. For more information see

I also recommend this awesome resource:

Jacquie lives in Canmore on the traditional land of the Tsuu T'ina, Niitsítapi (Blackfoot), Stoney and Ktunaxa.

She completed her doctorate in 2015 after studying the concept of inspiration in interpretation. As the Interpretation Coordinator with Parks Canada in Lake Louise, she strives to combine theory and practice to improve interpretation and help connect visitors to place in ways that are meaningful to them. In her spare time she runs her own consulting company, InterpActive Planning and Training. 

Interpretation Canada c/o Kerry Wood Nature Centre 6300 45th Ave Red Deer, AB, Canada  T4N 3M4

Interprétation Canada  a/s du Kerry Wood Nature Centre, 6300 45e Avenue, Red Deer, Alberta T4N 3M4

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