Before Tracey Klettl and Tim Mearns started Painted Warriors in 2010, they had both been helping Tracey’s sister Brenda with culture camps at Mahikan Trails and putting their advanced skills in archery and equine training along with their Indigenous knowledge to good use in a variety of programs. But one day, they realized they could combine their skills in archery, equine instruction, and years of leading programs and doing kids camps into something truly unique to them. Tracey explains that is wasn’t a ‘conscious thought’ but rather a natural process that grew from their lived experiences. “Tim and I both kind of looked at each other and said, well, we need to do our own company, and it evolved from there.”
Since 2010, Tracey and Tim have been sharing their remarkable gifts and Indigenous culture with students and visitors and changing hearts and minds in the process. They’ve witnessed firsthand how people transform their relationship to the outdoors, to horses, to Indigenous culture, and most importantly, says Tracey, to themselves while at Painted Warriors. While initially focused on guide training, the company has grown steadily over the past decade to include a robust roster of visitor experiences.
In 2015, Tracey and Tim became instructors for the Outdoor Council of Canada, a national training organization for the outdoor sector, and continue to deliver the program along with others, such as the Hunting Skills and Education, throughout the year. Painted Warriors is known for the calibre of training but is increasingly sought out for the Indigenous ‘lens’ they bring to their instruction. “We’re able to bring an Indigenous perspective into our training programs, ” explains Tracey. Indigenous students seek them out because, as Tracey explains, “a lot of Indigenous people have had really bad experiences that have stayed with them from going to school, and we completely understand. We know how to instruct these students because we’ve been there. So I think for that reason we’re pretty successful with our Indigenous guide program, or any training we do for Indigenous students.” She adds that they’re also seeing “a lot more” Indigenous instructors in general with the OCC right across Canada.
Looking back over a decade, Tracey is reflective about how the company has grown. “It’s been a really cool journey. We’ve just had amazing support. I never would have dreamed that it would be what it is now. You kind of start off with a little bit of a mandate and ours was that we wanted to work with Indigenous youth to make sure that they didn’t lose their land-based skills. It’s really kind of evolved into realizing how much other people are missing this connection from all walks of life.”
Lessons in Empathy
It’s clear that students and visitors alike arrive to do an activity or learn a skill but leave Painted Warriors with so much more. With one of her students who was struggling a little in a course due to a hearing impairment, Tracey used her innate empathy and way with horses to draw him out of his shell. It took time but she gradually brought out his natural gifts. “He was a really good kid, really good morals and stuff. But his head was down the whole time. So I started asking him questions. And he didn’t say too much at first. But I put ended up putting him in level three because he was a good rider. He ended up doing really well on his first exam.
Tracey’s pride is evident in how she talks about his progression through the course. “’I said, guess what you got? He said, a 70? Nope, 86!’” Next test, he got 92 and on his last test, he got 96.” There’s a deep sense of connection that comes through as Tracey recounts the story—it’s obvious her students’ success is also hers. “So, to answer the question, do they come here for training and leave with something else? Yeah, absolutely.”
A New Kind of Travel Story
In addition to the training, Tracey and Tim have developed tourism experiences that welcome visitors into their Indigenous culture through a range of outdoor and indoor activities at the ranch and through traditional food and stories.
If you spend any time at Painted Warriors, you will see how Tracey and Tim connect with people and as Tracey describes it, act as a “bridge between cultures” in all they do. “I think I’m really able to look at other people’s perspective,” adds Tracey. She doesn’t shy away from having discussions with people about Indigenous traditions, history or culture. “I understand their [non-Indigenous people], lack of knowledge, or in some cases, misinformation. You know, it’s funny, because some of the people that I grew up with in Jasper weren’t as accepting of me back then, I now have such a good relationship with them. I reached out and had great discussions and we ended up being great friends. That’s amazing. So maybe that’s why it’s so important to me to build these bridges.”
For visitors looking for a unique cultural experience, they are in good hands at Painted Warriors, whether they’re wanting to learn new skills such as archery or horseback riding or just coming out to experience time in nature and learn about Indigenous traditions and lessons. Tracey is quick to point out that Tim has a natural way with visitors that puts them at ease. “The guests love him. He’s got a great sense of humour. And I think he has a kind and gentle way of sharing things and making the guests feel at home.”
With a range of outdoor experience and skillsets, Tracey and Tim always ensure their customers know that “we’re going to take care of them. It’s really important to us that they really leave with a new understanding and maybe a new skill, and feeling really good, with what they’ve accomplished,” says Tracey. If a visitor is nervous or worried about the length of a walk, for example, they’ll quickly adapt it to accommodate their guests’ level of comfort with the activity. “We do what we need to make sure the guests enjoy themselves. We have ways of making our experiences work for everyone.”
Both Tracey and Tim are honest about the kind of visitor they are for in terms of the type of experiences they are passionate about creating at Painted Warriors. It’s not about a transactional use of their land. They are committed, to “who they are” and “coming to Painted Warriors is about authentic Indigenous experiences,” says Tracey. With the launch of a new website in 2021, the owners made a bold decision to name many of their experiences using Indigenous descriptions such as Bimose, Bigaamimose, Noojitoon, and Asiginamaw. For each of the names, they’ve added a short audio clip of how to pronounce them as well as the phonetic spelling of the term and what it means in English. The hope is that right from a moment a visitor lands on their site, they’re learning about Indigenous culture.
With so many new programs on offer and a refreshed ‘digital’ presence, growth seems inevitable. When asked about what the journey looks like for Painted Warriors, Tracey is optimistic: “I think it would be really exciting to get to a point where we can bring on more staff. I wouldn’t want to get really big, but it would be nice to have other staff members working with you. It just kind of makes the whole thing more fun and it’s a great way to give back to the community as well.”