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Tourism Benefits Tribes, Boosts Economies, Creates Jobs for Native Americans

Summer is fast approaching, and with it comes millions of vacationers from at home and abroad

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This undated photo shows a Yavapai tour guide speaking with a group of visitors to the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Maricopa County, Arizona. Courtesy: AIANTA VOA

By: Cecily Hilleary

Summer is fast approaching, and with it comes millions of vacationers from at home and abroad. Travel experts cite growing interest in Native American tourism, “authentic” cultural exchanges with tribes beyond gambling at tribal casinos.

Native tourism can be beneficial to tribes, boosting economies, creating jobs and allowing Native communities to control their own historic narratives. But tourism has its drawbacks, and some tribes have found that pleasing tourists while maintaining their cultural identity can be challenging.

americans, tourism, economies
This September 9, 2018 photo shows dancers at a pow wow, part of Indian Summer Festival, which takes place each year on the weekend after Labor Day in Milwaukee, Wi. Courtesy: AIANTA VOA

In 2016, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 1.95 million international tourists visited U.S. Indian reservations, supporting more than 44,000 jobs.

The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), a national organization that helps Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian tribes and communities to advance tourism, projects the number of international visitors to U.S. reservations will rise to 2.4 million by 2020.

“People want to learn the real stories from the people who have lived them,” said AIANTA spokesperson Monica Poling. “So, rather than bringing in a non-Native tour guide to recount a history they don’t have an attachment to, our tribal members are involved in developing and crafting their own stories,” she said.

americans, tourism, economies
Memorial to the 1838 Trail of Tears at the Cherokee Heritage Centre in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. VOA

Some tribes, like the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, already have well-developed programs that include museums, cultural centers and guided tours to landmarks and historic sites. Cherokee National Day, an annual commemoration of the signing of the Cherokee’s Constitution in 1839, attracts as many as 100,000 visitors each year.

But others, particularly those located in poor, rural areas, are hard-pressed to meet tribe members’ needs, let alone build up tourism.

economies, tourism, americans
In a Friday, July 20, 2012, photo, from the left; Tricia Bear Eagle, Helen Red Feather, Rudell Bear Shirt and Edward Jealous Of Him, all of Wounded Knee, S.D., wait for tourists near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservati. VOA

Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, says the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota, has much to offer tourists: casinos, visitor centers, a heritage center dedicated to the arts, historic sites and incredible scenery.

“But we don’t have the infrastructure to support big numbers of visitors,” he said.“We have one motel and one casino hotel, but they offer limited beds and couldn’t accommodate large tour groups for overnight stays.”

Expanded tourism, he said, would also strain the reservation’s road system and water supply.

“But given the increasing interest in Native travel, we’re looking forward to growing this sector in the near future,” said Sorbel.

economies, americans, tourism
The landscape of the Badlands boasts a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires, with sedimentary rock layers exposed by eons of erosion. VOA

Contrived culture?

Tourism can sometimes have a negative impact on tribes. Some studies suggest that encounters between tribes and tourists may be too brief to significantly change non-Natives’ preconceived notions about American Indians.

Tribes may stage artificial culture by dressing up in inauthentic regalia, setting up tipis or passing off cheap souvenirs as “genuine” Native crafts.

economies, tourism, americans
A vendor wheels her cart of souvenirs before the start of the North American Indian Days parade on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., Saturday, July 14, 2018. VOA

“If the best you can do is to dress up and show visitors what people looked like 200 years ago, to my way of thinking you have already failed,” said Sara Mathuin, the owner of Go Native America, who for 20 years has conducted small tours in Indian Country for international visitors and says she has “seen it all.”

Many tourists, in her experience, developed an interest in Native Americans through the “New Age” movement.

“They choose what elements of the culture they like and meld it all together to create a religion that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real Native America.”

tourism, americans, economies
Dancers and a tipi at the European Rainbow Gathering in Bosnia, 2007. New age movements and Indian “hobbiests” have appropriated many elements of Native American cultures and spirituality. VOA

A good tour, said Mathuin, focuses on human similarities, not human differences. Tourists are less likely to appropriate from those they’ve gotten to know personally.

Tourists sometimes cross boundaries or fail to show respect for their host cultures — crashing religious ceremonies, for example, or picking up artifacts.

“I have friends on Pine Ridge who say (some European tourists) don’t even bother to knock on front doors,” said Mathuin. “They just open the front door and say, ‘Can I have a look around?’”

Tourists can also wreak havoc on the environment and strain water and energy supplies.

tourism, economies, americans
This undated photo provided by the U.S. National Park Service shows toilet paper strewn throughout Death Valley National Park, Calif. National parks across the United States are scrambling to clean up and repair damage caused by visitors and storms. VOA

Despite the potential drawbacks, Mathuin believes when done right, tourism can benefit tribes tremendously. And “doing it right” doesn’t require fancy facilities or play-acting.

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“All it requires are people and knowledge,” she said. “In the end, it’s all about the stories.” (VOA)

Cecily Hilleary is a journalist at Voice of America. Twitter: @CecilyHilleary

Next Story

Native Americans Flutist Shares Stories and Music of Ojibwe People

Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe.

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Flutist, Native american
Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2019. Photo by Mike Garcia. VOA

These days, Native American Flute Players perform at music festivals across the globe. But few belong to any tribe or nation, something that troubles Darren Thompson, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin and an award-winning flutist.

This week, he is performing at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York, sharing stories and music that speak to the history, trauma and resilience of the Ojibwe people. And of course, to the instrument itself, which the Ojibwe call “bibigwan.”

Flutist
Ojibwe flutist Darren Thompson . Photo by Matt Kelly. VOA

“The Native American Flute’ is the name of the instrument, so anybody who picks one up and plays it can call himself a Native American Flute Player,'” said Thompson.

Technically, playing an inauthentic flute violates the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act, passed in 1990 to ban the sale of goods falsely labeled “Native American. But there is nothing to stop non-Native performers from falsely claiming Native American heritage.

“It’s not so much the fact that they are playing the flute that bothers me. It’s the fact that a lot of them are non-Native and try to play the part of a Native, wearing what they think is Indian’ attire. It’s offensive, and it perpetuates the stereotype that Native Americans are still running around as they did in the past,” said Thompson.

Flutist, Native Americans
A group of citizens of former Czechoslovakia portraying Native Americans at an “Indianistik” meeting in 1988. Indian hobbyism–the desire to dress or live like traditional Native Americans–has always been popular in Eastern Europe. VOA

‘Singing trees’

Thompson grew up hearing traditional Ojibwe music, but it wasn’t an important part of his life until he left the reservation.

“I went to Marquette University, where there weren’t any other Native kids,” he said. “I was still in Wisconsin, but it was a foreign environment.”

Homesickness led him to the music of Navajo/Ute flutist Raymond Carlos Nakai, which evoked memories of his childhood.

“One of the first stories I ever heard came from the elders, who talked about trees,” Thompson said. “I remember them saying trees sing to us and give us guidance.I think I was four, and that story came to mind 15 years later when I first heard Nakai playing.”

It was then, he said, he understood what the elders had been trying to tell him: Trees do sing — through flutes carved from their wood.

Thompson bought his first flute from a non-Native vendor at a cultural festival. He taught himself to play, and as he learned, he felt moved to connect to the music of his ancestors — music that preceded government assimilation policies that nearly killed off the Ojibwe language, culture and religious traditions.

“I went out to museums to research actual instruments that were seized 200 years ago and taken into collections,” he said. “Store-bought “Native” flutes are similar in construction, but they are tuned to a minor Western music scale. But an authentic one would be tuned to the maker himself.”

Traditionally, players carved their own instruments from a single piece of wood — cedar, for example, or ash. Each flute would have two chambers, which allowed the player to breathe, Thompson explained.

No two instruments would have been alike.

Flutist, North america
Nineteenth Century Ojibwe flute, part of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y. VOA

“The length of the instrument would be the distance from that person’s armpit to his first knuckle,” he said. “The width would be the same as the width of his thumb. Even the spacing of the finger holes is calibrated to the player’s body.”

The number of open holes carved into the flute varies.Thompson owns several flutes, some he made himself and others custom made. Some have only four holes, which can produce eight notes. Others have five and six holes, allowing for greater range in melody.

The result is a sound unique to each player — a deep and clear tone that Thompson says “touches a lot of people.”

He has wanted to perform at NMAI for at least a decade.

“NMAI has a program called The Art of Storytelling.” My performance is unique, in that I try to reintroduce stories and music from history. Songs I’ve learned that were recorded in the early 1900s, before our culture got erased,” Thompson said.

The stories don’t just speak to what was lost, but what has survived. And some carry messages that are universal:

“If you take all the four-leggeds, those who walk on all fours, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take all the winged ones, those that fly in the sky, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

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“If you take away all the plants from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away all the water, and those that live in water, from the Earth, life on Earth would not be able to sustain itself.

“If you take away man from the Earth, life on Earth would flourish.” (VOA)