The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) is planning several new initiatives in 2015, and near the top of that list is a renewed push for legislation called the NATIVE Act.
The NATIVE Act, or the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act, was created to “enhance and integrate Native American tourism, empower Native American communities, increase coordination and collaboration between Federal tourism assets, and expand heritage and cultural tourism opportunities in the United States.” The act would, among other things, get federal agencies like the Departments of Commerce and Interior to consult with Indian tribes and the Native American community on their inclusion in Federal tourism activities.
“It’s up to the tribes if they want to participate or not,” AIANTA President Sherry L. Rupert told ICTMN. “But we need a push to help [it along].”
So far, the bill has been drafted out to Indian Country, and it has attracted support, most notably from US Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), as well as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and many Native organizations. Rupert also says that they’ve had great support from tribes, like the Nez Perce Tribe, and the BIA, but the act, which was introduced to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in June of 2014, has been a 12-year effort and pointed out that in order to get it passed, more tribes need to step up their support. “Organizationally, it’s been a long road,” Rupert said. “It comes down to mobilizing tribal communities, and have them go to their Congressional representatives to get them signed onto the act.”
Rupert said that another reason for the act’s slow traction is theresistance to “changing attitudes and perspectives about the [tourism] industry” within Indian Country. For example, some tribes have voiced their concern about tourists visiting sacred sites. What if they don’t know what things are off limits? Rupert says it’s important to take a managed approach to this.
“Each tribal community is at different levels of tourism,” Rupert said. In other words, some tribes think about how tourism’s economic impact will affect their communities, some think about it with a passing reference, and some don’t think about it at all. “You have to respect that,” Rupert said.
President Sherry L. Rupert about to testify at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on "Economic Development: Encouraging Investment in Indian Country"
But her hope is that tribes embrace the industry, especially if it’s bringing dollars into Indian Country. ICTMN reported, for instance, that Oklahoma’s tourism industry generated more than $7 billion in 2012, and a big draw to that state is Native heritage and culture. Tourist from all over the world come to visit Oklahoma to experience Native culture. Among other recognizable points of interest, like the Red Earth Museum and Center of the American Indian, the state is building a Native American Cultural Center in Oklahoma City. But that type of infrastructure is needed throughout Indian Country, Rupert argues. “I’ve seen so many times when I’m out to tribal nations in Nevada, but they don’t have the infrastructure. [It’s] hard to keep people there and for them to spend their dollars.”
According to the Department of Commerce, more than 70 million people from overseas were expected to visit the U.S. in 2014; and the numbers of visitors to Native American communities from overseas increased 46 percent overall from 2011 to 2012. These figures are why Rupert says tribal tourism is an “untapped resource.” “People are infatuated with American Indians,” Rupert said, noting that the top markets of international travelers to Indian Country come from China, the UK and Germany.
AIANTA has initiated a strong push into the German and Chinese markets. Last year, AIANTA members joined ITB Berlin as vendors, displaying a special exhibit to help educate and introduce Native culture to communities in that country.
But also in 2014, enthusiasts in Germany re-enacted their interpretation of Native culture, and it didn’t sit well with some Natives (Red Haircrow attended a Winter Pow-wow 2014 put on by German enthusiasts and wrote that, for example, there was Native misappropriation, and unacceptable drumming practices). Rupert, however, explained that awareness through education can help correct these kinds of inaccuracies, “Having a presence at ITB and giving an accurate depiction [to the German community] is a step in the right direction.”
AIANTA also hopes to surge in Indian Country with its growing list of upcoming projects (some ongoing): provide annual tourism conferences (the AIANTA tourism conference is in Colorado, Sept. 13-17, 2015); implement a destination travel website to help tribes import travel information; host tribal tourism training and certificate programs; continue to facilitate its Route 66 and Watchtower expansion projects in partnership with the National Park Service; and in general, integrate the Native American experience further into the US travel industry.
Rupert said that she’s looking forward to “more of the same” this year, but she also wants to accelerate the tracks to tourism in Indian Country. “[It’s important to] create those connections between the Federal government, National Park Service and the tribes.”