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AIANTA tourism conference held

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WORLEY, Idaho – The 10th annual conference of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association was a resounding success, with roughly 200 delegates from throughout the country in attendance at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel Sept. 29 – Oct. 1.

The weather cooperated, making for enjoyable special events such as a tour of the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway through parts of the Nez Perce Reservation and golfing at Circling Raven Course adjacent to conference headquarters. Related events included mobile workshops to Old Mission State Park, a boat cruise on Coeur d’Alene Lake and an opening reception at the lakeshore.

But it was the opportunity to hear presentations relating to tourism in Indian country and to exchange ideas that brought delegates from far-flung locations. Eight people from Alaska registered, as did 21 from the East, 20 from the Midwest, 37 from the Pacific, 30 from the Plains and 40 from the Southwest.

Twenty breakout sessions provided attendees a choice of subjects to hear and participate in. Subjects included developing tribal museums and their future, how to become more involved in international tourism, cultural influences in tribal resorts, SBA programs and involvement, protection of sacred sites, and others.

Executive Director Janice Hirth reported on actions accomplishments during the past year. She introduced new marketing director Staci Eagle Elk, Osage, and reported that the office is now located in the Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

A professional development advisory council has been named to address the educational and technical needs of AIANTA members. A membership committee has been established and is working on AIANTA benefits. “A leadership goal is to design and implement a research study to establish tribal tourism baseline data to show our impact on national and international tourism and share that with the tribes,” Hirth said.

President Camille Ferguson noted the group’s main goal “is to be a resource that you come to find that kind of information [Native tourism]. AIANTA has grown tremendously. It’s gone from an all-volunteer board to a contracted staff to an office. The next phase will give you a better look at the economic impacts of tourism. We’ll be looking to you to gather information we all want to know.”

International tourism has increased 14 percent overall, and “recreation and culture were two of the most important activities,” she noted.

Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, was among the keynote speakers. He spoke on “The Tradition of Business in Indian Country: the Culture of Success.”

“Tourism is a great, great industry, but we’ve not engaged in it as a comprehensive approach,” he commented. “We’ve sort of done it piecemeal until organizations like AIANTA came in. Now we have partnerships. Now we have networks. Now we have the foundation upon which we can build. We can be a lot stronger if we do it in a united way.”

In discussing both national and international tourism, Garcia added, “We have to be the ones doing the legwork, the ones driving it, not lobbyists and not marketing people. Let’s work together and get our own foundation and get our own platform of things we need.”

Gerard Baker, Hidatsa and superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, was another keynote speaker, discussing “We are the Voices of Our Ancestors and the Teachers of Our Children.”

Baker’s first job as a National Park Service superintendent was at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. He took that opportunity to begin interpreting the battle from the American Indian perspective and brought in qualified Indian people to tell their side of the story. It wasn’t easy and the interpreters frequently faced angry people unwilling to hear or believe their story. Baker’s advice to them was not to confront them but to educate them. “Speak from your heart. That’s why we hired you. Speak the way your elders taught you.”

Moving to Mount Rushmore was a tough decision, but he was told by others, particularly elders, “by all means, take that job. What a place to start healing and telling our part of the story.”

Baker again brought in American Indians to present their story. He constructed three lodges and held an elders summit for the first time. Surveys from visitors indicate the first question they ask is, “Where are the Native Americans?”

“My goal is to have every one of our employees in National Parks an American Indian. Perhaps I’m unrealistic, but that’s my goal.”

The Rev. Michael Oleksa, of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, spoke about culture and communication. Oleska is married to a Yup’ik woman and has lived in Alaska for many years. He combined much humor, keeping his audience laughing, with a serious message illustrating the differences in cultures, gender, and age, and how those differences make communication difficult.

He gave several definitions for culture. One was “culture is the way you see the world.” He pointed out that Native people see their difficulty in the universe differently than other Americans, but added that people who have lived in their own culture all their lives don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

Another definition is “the game of life as you understand it and play it.”

“You can’t tell someone’s culture by the clothes they wear or language they speak,” he said. “The ballgame goes on for generations after we have been forced to adapt. People have to realize that when they come to Indian country. We are not in paint and feathers, but we are still Native Americans who see the world in a particular way.

“In a free country, we have every right to play our ballgame on our land the way we always have. That’s something the majority of people have to learn, no matter which of our villages or sites they visit. … Make sure they hear our stories into which we were born so they can go home and spread that to the people who believe their way is the only one.

“The immigrant comes to America to assimilate, to fit in. The indigenous populations since 1492 have been struggling to maintain their unique and separate identities – and this country needs both.”

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