Given the recent controversy over trophy hunting, it’s worth noticing that we are blessed in North America with exotic animals tiny and large, winged and finned and four-legged. There are places you can kill these creatures if so inclined, but we choose to point out that exotic animals often pay for their upkeep by attracting tourists more interested in photographs than carcasses. Many photogenic animals live on or near tribal lands, where they support not only themselves, but also Native guides and workers in hotels and restaurants.
Because this is the World Wide Web, let me start by saying, if you are outside the U.S. and Canada and planning a visit, consult tribal websites in your areas of interest. If you are starting with no knowledge of specific tribes, you might consider Go Native America, which hires only indigenous guides, books tours into tribally owned businesses when available, and is a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. If you care about American Indians, spend your money with them.
There are some less than full-blown eco-tourism locations that ought not to be ignored, and much you can see without guides. For example, if you visit the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation near Livingston, Texas, you can stay on the Lake TomBigBee campground and be smack dab in the middle of Big Thicket Country.
Big Thicket National Preserve was established to maintain the land’s character as a “biological crossroads,” home to bald eagles and more than 180 other kinds of birds, counting migratory layovers. There are 20 species of orchids and four out of the five of North America’s insect eating plants, although I confess I sometimes wished those plants would eat insects a little faster. There are 50 reptile species, including alligators, and all kinds of woodland mammals.
Big Thicket National Preserve is located just north of Houston and Beaumont in Texas.
From some of the lushest woodlands in the U.S., lets turn to the driest desert. Some people think there are no animals in the desert. If you are one of those people, perhaps you should hire a Native guide.
You could explore from the lap of luxury on the Hopi Reservation, the Moenkopi Legacy Inn and Suites. Set your GPS for 1 Legacy Lane, Tuba City, Arizona. From there, you can hire Hopi guides for cultural tours of the Three Mesas, but stalking desert animals is more likely with some tours on the Navajo Rez. The only hazard to basing your exploration at Moenkopi (a literal stone’s throw from Navajo) is that you might get too comfortable.
If you can leave the air-conditioned comfort, drive a trivial (for the Southwest) 154 miles to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located in the Navajo Nation. The canyon can be a birdwatchers paradise for both raptors and songbirds in season. There is also a variety of reptilian life within Canyon de Chelly as well as the prey animals for the snakes and the raptors. A Navajo guide is required because people still live there and there are sacred sites, so explain to your guide that you are stalking wildlife.
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly. The canyon is in the Navajo Nation and contains several sacred sites.
There is less wildlife to see in another Navajo Nation park 87 miles from Moenkopi, but if you are coming from the starboard side of the Mississippi, missing the iconic scenery of Monument Valley would be like missing the Grand Canyon. While there is a self-guiding tour (safer with 4wd), I had self-toured twice before I hired a Navajo guide and the difference was more than worth the money.
Your guide knows where the limited water sources are, so a guided tour is your best chance to photograph a coyote or its prey animals. There are mountain lions, but I’ve spent a lot of time in cougar habitat with a camera and only got a very distant shot and a serious scare when I met a big cat after dark—had to change my underwear and didn’t even get a picture.
Leaving the desert Southwest, there are plenty of ecosystems that offer animal watching, from forests to swamps to jungles, as well as glimpses into indigenous cultures.
The Cree Village Ecolodge is located on Moose Factory Island, Ontario, and owned by the MoCreebec Council of the Cree Nation. The lodge is designed “according to Cree values” and the shaapuhtuwaan (restaurant, literally “long tipi with doors at each end”) serves indigenous recipes including free-range bison and caribou. The coffee comes from an indigenous coffee cooperative and is organic and fair trade certified.
In addition to camera-stalking the animals and landscapes on the island, you can take a freighter canoe down the Moose River to James Bay and the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Whale watching excursions can be booked in season.
The Homalco First Nation in British Columbia offers guided tours where you can photograph what the Indians call “our bears.” “Homalco” is an English rendering of the tribal name, Xwe’malhkwu, a people linguistically related to the Salish people who live on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The Treaty of Hellgate, which reserved the Flathead Reservation as Indian land, cuts off the legal description of Salish territory ceded to the U.S. at the 49th parallel, the other side of which are the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
The Homalco Nation divides their tourism into “cultural tours” and “bear tours.” On other reserves or reservations you might see “wildlife tours,” but around Bute Inlet, British Columbia, the Indians understand that bears are the star of the show. Black bear and grizzlies gather to feed when the salmon are running, but seldom in the same place. This is why you hire a guide.
If you are from the U.S. and don’t have a passport, it’s necessary to break the news that the travel rules got amended after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and a passport is now required to travel between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico or the islands of the Caribbean, all of which used to pass U.S. tourists with a friendly wave.
Pend d'Oreille, Salish and Kootenai Nations (Confederated)
The lead-time for acquiring a passport being what it is, you may want to photograph your bears down on the Flathead Reservation, home to the confederated Pend d’Oreille, Salish, and Kootenai peoples. On the Flathead Reservation, there are bear (although fewer than in the Canadian Reserve) and you may also see bison, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep along with the ubiquitous whitetail deer and other denizens of the northern woodlands.
The Billie Swamp Safari is on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. You can engage a Seminole guide through the Everglades in either a Swamp Buggy Tour or an Airboat Tour. While the Seminoles have imported some exotic critters, seeing the denizens of the swamp is the big attraction. You can also spend the night in a traditional chickee (no electricity or running water—restrooms with showers nearby) and eat at the Swamp Water Café, where I can recommend the Swamp Platter if you are up for stuff like frog legs and gator tail. If not, I’m sure they can find you a hamburger.
Courtesy Billie Swamp Safari
Tourists enjoy a swamp safari ride on the Big Cypress Reservation in south Florida.
I may have misused the term “nation” in this case, since the surviving Maya people are spread out among five modern nations and have no central government. Still, the Maya produced the first books in the Americas, as well as mathematics and astronomy as sophisticated as any in Europe and a rich mythos reinforced by colorful stories that still live.
My public school education in Oklahoma left me with the impression that the Maya culture was extinct and so were the Maya people, first subjugated by the Aztecs and then finished off by the Spanish colonists and their enforcement arm, the Roman Catholic Church.
I got a clue otherwise when visiting the Mayan ruins at Tulum. A small village and a colorful array of vendors catering to tourists, most of them claiming to be Maya and not speaking Spanish among themselves, surrounded the archaeological site.
Centers of Mayan ceremonies lie in ruins and the Spanish famously burned the Mayan codices. Bishop Diego De Landa wrote in 1562 about Mayan hieroglyphic script:
We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing … not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
Spanish records claim thousands of codices existed at first contact. Only three survive that scholars agree are genuine, and they are named for the cities where the European thieves keep them: Dresden, Madrid, and Paris.
The Mayan people were not as easily destroyed as their writings and some six million Mayans survive today in their former homelands, now occupied by Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
There was a time when it was great fun to drive across the Mexican border and down to the Mayan country in the Yucatan Peninsula on smooth, clean highways patrolled by the Green Angels, who were English speaking helpers on the lookout for gringos with car trouble.
Since the drug cartels have been in shooting wars over the smuggling choke points in all of the border towns, that mode of travel is no longer prudent. The ways to visit the Yucatan now are by cruise ship into Cancun or Cozumel or by air into those tourist destinations or Merida.
Yucatan Adventure is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) located near the famous Mayan ruin at Chichen Itza (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and dedicated to preserving the Mayan culture and employing Mayan people. You can stay at their hotel and spa, Hacienda Chichen, which is connected to the private Maya Jungle Reserve and Bird Refuge. There, you can see and photograph—but not shoot—an astonishing array of exotic animals and colorful birds like the Keel-billed toucan.Unfortunately, the jungle is no longer thought to be inhabited by jaguar, the Mayan sacred cat.
You'll have to stalk the jaguar online, since it's not thought to live in the jungle of the Mayan Nation any longer.
RELATED: The Jaguar Corridor: Protecting the Sacred Cat
This list of five, amplified with drive-bys to the Alabama-Coushatta, Hopi, and Navajo Reservations, has no claim to completeness. These destinations were picked to illustrate tribal peoples working to preserve wildlife in all the major ecosystems of North America, and to demonstrate that there is more than one way to stalk exotic animals.
Originally published on August 14, 2015.