The small town of Churchill, Manitoba, is one of the most popular destinations for polar bear viewing. Not only is it the site of the world’s largest gathering of polar bears each year, but it’s also among the few places on Earth to see these kings of the Arctic. Nat Hab has been operating conservation-focused polar bear tours in this northern outpost along the shores of Hudson Bay since 1989. 

Between the months of July and November, polar bears outnumber the approximately 800 human residents of Churchill while they linger around the coastal areas and surrounding tundra, waiting for the waters of Hudson Bay to freeze so they can hunt for seals on the ice. But this remote area also holds significance for several groups of Indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years. 

Manitoba sits on the homelands of the Anishinaabeg, Anishininewuk, Denesuline, Dakota Oyate, Red River Métis, Nehethowuk Nations and the Inuit in the northern areas. Visiting the province means traveling through Treaties 1 through 5 Territories, and as of 2021, more than 164,200 First Nations persons call the province home, not including Métis and the Inuit. Manitoba is the birthplace of the Métis—people with Indigenous and Euro-American ancestry. It was also the home of their political leader, the late Louis Riel, who defended Métis rights and identity and became the founder of Manitoba. 

Manitoba’s capital city of Winnipeg serves as the gateway to Churchill, and it holds the distinction of having the largest Indigenous population of any city in Canada. It boasts its own attractions that give visitors insight into the original inhabitants that continue to call this place home.

Below, you’ll find eight ways to learn about Manitoba’s history and the Indigenous culture that’s still alive and thriving in Churchill, Winnipeg and beyond.

Indigenous Experiences in Churchill

For such a tiny town, there’s plenty to do in Churchill! In addition to searching for Arctic wildlife on the tundra from our custom Polar Rovers, we take time to learn about and experience Indigenous culture on all of our Nat Hab Churchill tours, including the activities below.

1. Churchill Northern Studies Center

Making an inukshuk © Lavanya Sunkara

Making an inukshuk © Lavanya Sunkara

As part of our northern lights adventure, Nat Hab travelers visit the Churchill Northern Studies Center, located within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. This non-profit, independent field research and education station was established in 1976 to study the Canadian subarctic region. Today, the center hosts scientists from around the world to conduct research about the area’s wildlife, ecology and the effects of climate change. 

During a tour of CNSC, guests can learn to make inukshuks out of snow blocks. An inukshuk is a landmark created in the shape of a human from stacked stones. (The word literally means “in the likeness of a human,” which you can see in the feature image above!) The Inuit often use inukshuks for directional purposes. These structures, large and small, can be seen in and around Churchill, with a giant stone inukshuk gracing the shores of Hudson Bay. Traditionally, the impressively balanced inukshuks signified places of reverence and were used as travel markers. They were also used to mark food supplies and warn people of any danger. 

After the inukshuk building activity, travelers can savor a delicious meal at the center’s cafeteria and learn about the Rocket Greens program, which grows and delivers fresh vegetables and herbs to the community. Travelers may also enjoy wildlife watching from the outdoor platform or the heated indoor viewing dome.

2. Itsanitaq Museum

The Itsanitaq Museum, formerly known as the Eskimo Museum, features a large, one-room exhibit about the life and times of Arctic peoples through carvings and artifacts. These hail from multiple periods in time, from around 1700 BC, when the semi-nomadic, pre-Dorset people lived and hunted, through the Dorset era around 600 BC, when people came to be known for utilizing small tools and beautifully crafted wooden and ivory figurines

Around 1000 AD, Thule hunters (ancestors of today’s Inuit), originally from the Russian Far East and coastal Alaska, displaced the Dorset. Their bows and arrows; dog sleds; and seal, walrus and whale hunting prowess allowed them to overpower the Dorset and take over the area. With the arrival of European explorers and fur traders, Inuit culture and way of life changed over the past few centuries, but the Inuit today continue to maintain their traditions and cultural identity. 

Itsanitaq Museum © Lavanya Sunkara

Itsanitaq Museum © Lavanya Sunkara

Itsanitaq was founded by Roman Catholic missionaries in 1944 to showcase the creativity of the Canadian Inuits. Approximately 60,000 Inuit live in the country. The museum’s new name means “things from the past,” acknowledging the archaeological artifacts and stories expressed through sculptures. Visitors can gaze at carvings and figurines made from ivory, stone and bone and read stories of true accounts. Travelers can visit the museum year-round, and the on-site gift shop sells Inuit stone art, postcards, books and berry preserves. 

We visit the Itsanitaq Museum on most of our fall polar bear adventures and summer belugas and bears tours, as well as on our winter northern lights expedition.

3. Prince of Wales Fort

Arctic summer in Churchill is prime time for watching polar bears and the area’s other popular seasonal visitors—beluga whales. Known as sea canaries for their melodious underwater vocalizations, these friendly white whales fill the Churchill River in the warmer months. On our Belugas, Bears & Summer Wildlife of Churchill trip, in addition to getting eye level with whales and spotting polar bears along the shores, guests go on a guided tour of the Prince of Wales Fort, which sits on the windswept coast where the Churchill River meets the Hudson Bay, in the outskirts of the town of Churchill. 

Prince of Wales Fort in Churchill Manitoba

Prince of Wales Fort © TravelingOtter from Houston, Texas, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

This massive, star-shaped stone fortress (named to honor the Royal Family) was erected 250 years ago by the Hudson Bay Company and is the most northerly stone fort in Canada. Established in 1670 and named for Henry Hudson, the first Englishman to explore Hudson Bay, the company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America and perhaps the most famous in Canada. 

The fort’s main purpose was to protect the Hudson Bay Company’s assets from invaders and serve as a hub for the fur trade with the Dene, Cree and Inuit peoples. Owning a beaver fur hat was a status symbol; Europeans traded with the Indigenous people for beaver pelts during this rapidly evolving time period in the 1600s and 1700s. The French attacked the fort in 1782 and gained control without a shot ever being fired. The Hudson Bay Company regained power of the fortress the following year, but with the fur trade in decline, it no longer served a purpose. 

In 1920, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized the building as a National Historic Site and began restoration. Prince of Wales Fort remains a popular attraction and a reminder of the fur trading history of the region. 

4. Wapusk Adventures Dog Sledding

Dog sledding through the magical boreal forest, the homeland today of the Métis and the Cree, is another exciting activity on all of our Churchill adventures. This means of transportation, according to archaeological finds, was widely used by the Inuit and First Nations people living in the northern parts of Canada. Sturdy sled dogs carried firewood, hunting supplies and other useful items between camps across the snowy tundra. 

At the Indigenous-owned Wapusk Adventures, musher Dave Daley gathers everyone in the company’s warm and cozy cabin to share his love of dogs and his pride in his Métis heritage. He begins with the story of the European explorers and the fur trade that resulted in the Métis people, who then developed their own culture and language.

> Read: Something to Bark About: Ethical Dog Sledding in the Arctic

Nat Hab travelers go dog sledding in Churchill, Manitoba, at Wapusk Adventures

Nat Hab travelers dog sledding at Wapusk Adventures © Daniel Raiti

He moves on to the inspiring story of Louis Riel, a Manitoban who championed the rights of the Métis people during the Red River Rebellion of 1869 against the Hudson Bay Company’s sale of their homeland to the Canadian government. Riel led the Métis-formed provisional government and negotiated with the Parliament for the passage of the Manitoba Act in 1870 that made it Canada’s fifth province. As a result, Manitoba was the first province to join the country under Indigenous leadership.  

As the sled dogs outside begin to bark eagerly, Daley shares the heartfelt story of how it wasn’t very good to be Métis for a period of about a hundred years, as the government denied them their rights and discouraged them from expressing their culture. “When I was growing up, I was French. It wasn’t as fashionable to be Métis as it is today,” he says while petting one of the dogs.  

Daley started his business in 2001. His connection to the land as an Indigenous person runs deep through his dogs. 

“You are going to see dogs that really want to go and show you their stuff!” he says excitedly. Daley participates in sled dog racing, and the joy it brings to him to continue this tradition and share it with others is palpable. After this introductory speech, guests can experience the joy of zooming past trees on the “Ididamile”—a thrilling, mile-long sled dog ride, warming up afterward in an authentic dog musher’s tipi (a favorite aurora-viewing spot on our Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration tour).

> Read: 15 Traditional Tales About the Northern Lights

Wyatt Daley speaks with a group of Nat Hab travelers at Wapusk Adventures © Valerie Gleaton

Wyatt Daley speaks with a group of Nat Hab travelers at Wapusk Adventures © Valerie Gleaton

Indigenous Experiences in Winnipeg

No roads connect Churchill, which means visitors must either take the train or fly there from Winnipeg. Being host to the largest Indigenous population in the country, Winnipeg has many Indigenous-focused experiences, from world-class museums to nature reserves. Before venturing out to the north, consider spending a few days in the city learning more about the history and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. 

5. FortWhyte Alive

The plains bison is an important animal for the Indigenous people of North America. The continent’s largest land mammal holds a special significance, as it provides sustenance, material for clothing and shelter and horns and bones for tools. Before the arrival of Europeans, approximately 30–60 million of these hoofed animals roamed across the continent.

Bison in green grass

Indigenous people hunted bison sustainably, but that changed with the arrival of Europeans. Overhunting and grazing competition from horses and other animals in the area caused the bison population to decline drastically, hurting Indigenous populations who relied on the animal. 

At FortWhyte Alive, a 640-acre nature reserve with lakes and forests within a short drive from Downtown Winnipeg, travelers on our Winnipeg extension can see herds of these beautiful mammals and learn about their significance to Manitoba’s history and Indigenous people. Thanks to conservation efforts, the plains bison has begun to make a slow comeback, and FortWhyte Alive hosts the largest urban bison herd in the world. The reserve is open year-round, and visitors can snowshoe, hike, bike, or simply go for a nature or birdwatching walk. 

> Read: An Indigenous History of Climate Change in Canada

6. National Indigenous Residential School Museum

National Indigenous Residential School Museum © Lavanya Sunkara

National Indigenous Residential School Museum © Lavanya Sunkara

An hour west of Winnipeg sits the town of Keeshkeemaquah on the land of the Long Plain First Nation, site of the National Indigenous Residential School Museum. Housed in the former Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School, it conveys the history and lasting legacy of the Residential school era. Many Indigenous children were forced to attend these schools in order to “assimilate” into the Eurocentric Canadian culture and shed connections to their identities, culture, languages and families. The period lasted from the 1870s to the 1990s in Canada, with the last residential school closing in 1996.  

Through pictures, artifacts and displays, the museum tells the stories of the children who suffered through the brutal, government-sponsored and church-run school system. The museum aims to educate patrons about this dark part of Canadian history while helping survivors of the residential school system through their healing journeys. Although we don’t visit the museum on our Winnipeg extension, it’s a great day-trip option for guests arriving early or staying after their tour.  

7. Quamajuq

Opened in March of 2021, the Quamajuq Museum, attached to Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), holds the largest collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world. This new museum is a stunning feat of architecture, designed by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan. 

Woman admiring artwork at WAG-Qaumajuq

Artwork at WAG-Qaumajuq

The museum exhibits resulted from consultations between an Indigenous Advisory Circle and WAG, with the former consisting of Inuit, First Nations and Métis elders, creators and educators. It hosts 14,000 permanent pieces of Inuit art (including drawings, prints, carvings and textiles) in a four-story, 36,000-square-foot facility. 

True to its name, which in Inuktitut is pronounced “KOW-mah-yourk” and means, “it is bright, it is lit,” the building is luminescent and features a floor-to-ceiling, visible glass display of 5,000 stone carvings from various artistic communities on stacked shelves three-stories tall. On the top floor, the 8,000-square-foot gallery titled Qilak, which in Inuktitut means sky, patrons can see the Inuit exhibition Inua, featuring older and contemporary works of art. 

If the stone carvings get you inspired, check out Spence Custom Carving’s soapstone carving workshop to carve your very own polar bear. Spence Custom Carving is run by Fredrick Lyle Spence (Thunder Bear), who was born and raised in Peguis First Nation. 

8. Canadian Museum for Human Rights

No trip to Winnipeg is complete without paying a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Canada’s fifth national museum. This stunning structure, designed by American architect Antoine Predock, opened in 2014 and sits at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers near The Forks meeting place. The mission of this multilevel museum is to enhance the understanding of human rights violations and victories around the world and to facilitate conversations around these topics. 

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The Forks, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Canadian Museum for Human Rights © Robert Linsdell from St. Andrews, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

The $351 million project is a result of the collaboration between the Canadian government, Manitoba, Winnipeg, The Forks Renewal Corporation, the Friends of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and donors. Galleries in this innovative structure feature exhibits on a wide range of human rights topics, including Indigenous Perspectives, Protecting Rights in Canada and Examining the Holocaust, among others. 

A highlight is the multi-story, handmade ceramic hanging blanket by Ojibwa artist Rebecca Belmore. Titled Trace, it’s a collaborative work of many people around Winnipeg who squeezed small lumps of clay into thousands of beads to honor the original inhabitants of the land. Other exhibits educate patrons about the residential school system, the relocation of the Inuit, Japanese internment during World War II, and the Holocaust and other genocides. 

The museum continues human rights awareness through teaching initiatives and the national student travel program that brings thousands of students to the museum each year. 

Bonus: Can’t get enough museums? To learn even more about the history of the area, including its Indigenous inhabitants, pay a visit to the award-winning Manitoba Museum, part of our Day in Winnipeg extension.