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AIANTA takes TAT to Germany

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NEW TOWN, N.D. – From a remote corner of North Dakota to the largest trade fair in the world, the Three Affiliated Tribes are revamping their tourism promotion.

Three employees of the Tourism Department represented the TAT on the tribe’s first transatlantic marketing trip. Director Ted Lone Fight III, John Howling Wolf and Sue Romero joined tribal tourism operators in Berlin, Germany for Internationale Tourismus Börse, the world’s largest trade show, which took place March 11 – 15.

Along with the TAT, various Native American tour operators pitched their travel wares at a Native American booth sponsored by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

Lone Fight hopes increased international (and domestic) tourism will be a boon to the Fort Berthold Reservation.

“It’s going to be a big economic boost for the community, and it should be a big economic moneymaker for the tribe.”

This was the first year AIANTA sponsored a booth at the trade fair. The association promoted the event on its Web site. AIANTA covered ITB attendance fees, but tribal tourism operators had to pay their own travel and accommodation expenses.

Tourism is a big deal in sparsely populated North Dakota. It’s the state’s second leading industry behind agriculture. Out-of-state visitors spent $3.9 billion in 2007, said Sara Otte Coleman, director of the tourism division of the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

“The North Dakota brand ‘Legendary’ was really developed around the research that says that North Dakota isn’t known for the landmarks, rather it’s known for the history, and the American Indian history is a big part of that.”

Reaching Fort Berthold can be a hike. The nearest major interstate (I-94) runs about 100 highway miles south of the TAT’s tribal headquarters. International tourists, including those targeted at ITB, would have to fly to the closest airport (in Minot or Bismarck), rent a car and drive onto the reservation. This might dissuade some. For others, it’s part of the adventure.

Although 2009 was the first year TAT attended the trade show, an AIANTA representative emphasized that the event was far from the TAT’s first foray into international tourism.

“I used to call this area ‘Mall of America’ for the time period,” said Karen Paetz-Sitting Crow, referring to TAT’s strategic trade position along the Missouri River. “Even before the fur trade era, tourism has been within the tribal cultures of the plains.” Paetz-Sitting Crow serves on AIANTA’s board of directors and is a member of TAT.

Lewis and Clark spent a winter with the Mandan and Hidatsa before eventually hiring a Hidatsa/Shoshone girl (Sacagawea) as their guide to the Pacific Ocean. Twenty-five years later, an American named George Catlin visited the Mandan and Hidatsa, and he published a book about his travels. Soon thereafter, the German Prince Maximilian of Wied and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer stayed among the tribes. They also produced a travelogue.

When the TAT tourism delegation visited Berlin, they made a special trip to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, which holds a large portion of Maximilian’s collection of Mandan and Hidatsa artifacts.

The tribe has already received queries from international contacts made at ITB. Spring weather thaws North Dakota’s hardscrabble landscape, and the tourism department hopes its new attractions will generate tourism traffic.

In early April, Lone Fight spoke about the attractions within one. He stood inside the world’s largest earth lodge, located at Fort Berthold’s new earth lodge village, at the northern shore of Lake Sacagawea. “This here is all made of the original authentic material, all constructed by hand, except for the light bulbs,” he said with a laugh.

Pine and red willow timbers stretched overhead to create a spacious dome supported by four massive cottonwood pillars. A layer of straw, topped with dirt, insulates the 9,500-square-foot lodge, which is equipped with modern amenities including geothermal heating and restrooms. Construction of the village was completed in 2008.

The tourism department is working jointly with Fort Berthold Community College to produce a dramatic interpretation of TAT’s traditional stories, to be held at the lodge. Also new at Fort Berthold is a scenic byway stretching through North Dakota’s badlands from Manning to New Town.

Although the reservation features a large casino, U.S. Department of Commerce tourism research suggests affluent German travelers are more interested in outdoor adventure or cultural exchange opportunities.

Ultimately, tourism on Fort Berthold is more than simply pleasing outsiders.

“The overall vision is to boost the economy and create some jobs,” Lone Fight said, “but the most important thing is resurrecting who we really are.”