Tribal Voices and the Power of Interpretation

Posted by Roger Saterstrom on 6/17/2014
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Ken Burns, Travel

In his role as Tauck’s Product Manager for North America, Roger Saterstrom designs and manages our tours throughout the U.S., including itineraries in the deserts, mountains and canyons of the West and Southwest, where we have the opportunity to highlight Native American history and culture. Roger recently spoke at the Nevada Tribal Tourism Conference sharing his reflections on our experiences introducing tribal cultures and history to our guests, what this means to us, and our ongoing partnerships with organizations dedicated to opening dialogues with tribal communities. An excerpt from his talk follows.

Tribal communities must be able to tell their own stories to outsiders, and to do it with a high level of skill and professionalism.  Not only does effective stewardship and interpretation of indigenous cultures and traditions preserve the heritage of those cultures, it can also be the fuel of an economic engine in those local communities.

In the past three years, I’ve been privileged to work with the filmmaker and national storyteller Ken Burns on a number of new itineraries including our Spirit of the Desert: The National Parks of the Southwest journey in the great national parks of Utah and Arizona. Through Tauck’s partnership with Ken, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with his business partner, the author Dayton Duncan, who wrote the book and the Ken Burns script for The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

Dayon RogerThree years ago Dayton and I were traveling together on a Tauck journey from the Black Hills to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. In Rapid City, Dayton introduced me to Gerard Baker. A Mandan-Hidatsa, Gerard grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. His youth was spent breaking horses, running cows, and doing chores on his family's ranch. At night, he and his family would listen to stories told by tribal elders—stories of warfare, great hunts, tricksters, and survival. From these stories, he learned about his people and about who he was and who he wanted to be.  Gerard served as superintendent of Mt. Rushmore National Monument and, when I met him, he was Assistant Director of Indian affairs for the National Park Service in Washington.  Gerard has been an agent of change throughout his career.  Again and again, he has brought a Native American perspective into the National Parks programs, telling the complete—and often complex—stories, expanding the vision of the Parks, and of Park visitors, to embrace a diversity of cultural traditions.

Duncan Tombaugh BakerOur president, Jennifer Tombaugh, tells about a special moment she and dozens of Tauck guests shared in 2012 in Yellowstone, on a winter event that we had designed with Gerard, Ken, and Dayton.  Gerard and Dayton led a group out to Old Faithful. It was 10:00 at night, the day after a full moon.  The cold sky sparkled.  After Old Faithful worked her magic, Gerard asked for silence and he led everyone in a Hidatsa prayer.  “I will never forget the power of the spirits around us as Gerard sang out against the sky,” Jennifer said. “That is an experience that we, Tauck, could have never crafted alone.  Together with Gerard that night we created magic.”

I have to confess that I was a little concerned when I was asked to speak on the topic of “Tribal Voices and the Power of Interpretation.”  What insights could I, as a middle-aged male of European ancestry, have to share about tribal voices?

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that I was focusing far too narrowly on what I considered to be authentic voices. It dawned on me that I was ignoring my own tribal heritage. So let me introduce myself and my people.

“Hej, mitt folk kommer fran Nordlandet. Min klan ar fran sodra strommen. Mitt namn ar Hrothgar.”

Translation: “Hello, my people are from the North Country. My clan is from the South Stream. My name is Roger.”

Now, in Swedish, Roger is Hrothgar, which means The Heavily Armed One.  My surname, Saterstrom, translates literally to mean South Stream, where my people came from.  So my tribal name is The Heavily Armed Warrior from the Southern Bank of the River.  Some of my relatives were fishermen and farmers, but most of us focused on the more satisfying pursuit of raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the English countryside.

I began to really think about the broader sense of the word “tribe,” which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes as “a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs.” I realized that Tauck touches many, many different groups around the world that are very definitely “tribes.”  Certainly the Maori in New Zealand and the First Nations of Manitoba, as well as the Uros of Lake Titicaca in South America and the Palong, Padong and Karen of Thailand.  Our guests visit all of these places and encounter all of these people.


But the Irish are also a tribe with a common culture and history. So are the Amish whom Tauck guests learn about in Pennsylvania, and so too are the gypsy Romani our guests meet in Budapest.

With this broader, more inclusive definition of tribe in mind, I considered the second half of “Tribal Voices and the Power of Interpretation,” and specifically, the meaning of “interpretation.” To interpret is to act as a conduit for shaping and sharing stories, to serve as a go-between between a voice and a listener who is unfamiliar with the language, the story, or the information being shared. Interpreting is the way you help others see what you see. Effective interpretation is not just the story you tell, it is the way you tell the story – to get at the truth it embodies. Effective interpretation of cultural stories, traditions and values isn’t about selling or persuading…it’s about sharing who YOU are—you personally, your tribe, your family, your community, your traditions, your values—and how you came to be this way.  Effective cultural interpretation has no room for judgments, resentments, or competition; it makes room for respect of the past, respect for the listeners, and a commitment to honor, preserve and share what you treasure.  Effective interpretation helps the listener feel what the speaker feels.

What I want to share with you here today—based on Tauck’s nearly 90-year history of bringing tribal voices from around the globe together with visitors from other places—is the power of stories to reflect and embody our deepest truths.  When we share those values with others in a compelling and compassionate way, we have the opportunity to change lives and perceptions.

Let’s take a closer look at two of the interesting tribal stories that Tauck guests hear on our trips.

sheep farmer1.) An Irish dairy farmer invites guests into his home in southern Ireland and…
  • Speaks to our guests in the farmhouse where he was born, and where generations of his family were all born and many died
  • Describes how his son is following in his footsteps and family traditions
  • Points out his father’s medal displayed on the mantelpiece
  • Discusses how membership in the European Union has fundamentally changed how the farm operates
  • Takes guests on a walking tour of his family farm, stepping along the paths that his family has trod for generations

taos pueblo2.) A member of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico leads visitors on a gentle float trip on the headwaters of the Rio Grande and…
  • Relates stories of the Ancient Ones and the hills through which the river cuts a thin valley
  • The myths he shares carry truths that make up the foundation of his culture and reveal an ancient relationship between his Pueblo and this land
  • Tribal members prepare a traditional meal, using outdoor cooking techniques, and share it with our guests along the banks of the Rio Grande

So what are the common elements that make these very different experiences so enriching and memorable for Tauck guests? We’ve found that the most enriching tribal interpretations share certain key characteristics:
  • They have a firm, deeply-rooted connection to the past
  • They are told by an informed and articulate voice; an individual who has a deep and personal connection to the story being shared
  • They are authentic—based on deeply held beliefs and histories
  • They are deeply personal, but are also representative of the larger group
  • They are strongly connected to the “place” where the story is being told, and the place itself is an important part of the story
  • They offer connections to today…  How are the presenters’ experiences being shaped by modern forces, what threats exist to their tribe’s cultural legacies, and what does the future hold?

Having the chance to consider and share with you some thoughts about the importance of tribal voices and the power of interpretation has been incredibly enriching for me personally, and it’s been a great reminder of the very real traits we all share as part of the human family, our common tribe:
  • Our need for traditions and connections to the past
  • The common challenges and joys we share
  • The importance of family
  • The very real need to preserve our most important stories
  • And finally, the incredible value and benefit we all gain in sharing those stories with one another and with the world


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