Skip to main content

American Indian tourism may feel economic pinch

  • Author:
  • Updated:

BISMARCK, N.D. ? A smaller than expected crowd gathered here to network, celebrate and exchange ideas about tourism in Indian country, but the events of Sept. 11 took a toll on the usually upbeat convention.

American Indian tourism officials from tribes and organizations from across the country got a reality check when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were leveled by terrorists, yet the members gathered to conduct business. Some workshops and meetings had low attendance, but the hallways where TV screens were located most times were crowded.

While the future of tourism looked bright with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the wings, somber and practical words came from Gregg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

He said that coming out of the tragedy there is a 'message and lesson.

'Tourism is cyclical and fickle. Tourists will spend money if the environment is right. If this country is in a recession, tourism will suffer,' Bourland said.

As he spoke, the airline industry was shut down because of the terrorists and there were rumors of $5 per gallon gasoline ? something none of those in attendance could have ever anticipated.

'There are periods of great growth with discretionary money to spend. And, if it were not for the casinos, tourism would not do so well.'

But with the events of the day, Bourland reminded convention delegates contingency plans were necessary. 'I hope you have squirreled money away for the future. If gas gouging takes place that will affect tourism and with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, 3 million people will stay home.'

Bourland said gaming is not the long-term solution and if the tourist is discouraged, gaming will also suffer. 'I hope the tribes look close at this.'

His references to saving come from the ancestors. Bourland said if they didn't save food, 'we wouldn't be here today.'

But, in somewhat of a contrast to Bourland's remarks, Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, said he was optimistic for the future because there was great economic growth, and 'gaming has had something to do with it.

'The next baby to be birthed is the full concept of tourism. Gaming is no more than a catalyst to the tourism industry. It's a clean industry and needs support,' Luger said.

The great benefit to tourism in Indian country may be a year or two away with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. The expectation for worldwide tourism is high and the National Park Service has taken a major role in making sure tourists are satisfied.

Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa and head of the bicentennial celebration for the Park Service, reminded the group that people would be coming from across the world to 'visit our homelands.'

Should some tribes or organizations think they are not located within the corridor of the Lewis and Clark Trail, they will miss an opportunity to have people come through their homeland to get to the trail.

'Groups are coming now in buses to avoid the rush. The rush has started and we are a little behind. Some people are here to see what Indians are doing now, to experience Indian America.'

Baker said American Indian tourism organizations should use the opportunity to educate the public about the past 200 years and what the next 200 years may bring. Many tribes are fearful of sharing traditions, but with the right education internally, this can be controlled, Baker said.

This could be an opportunity to teach young people about traditions by getting them involved with special projects such as traveling classrooms run by grass-roots people. He issued the challenge to get the young people involved in the process of educating the tourist public.

'Educate people about what life was like before, in the last 200 years. This is where we have had lots of trouble. We know those stories. They are ugly, but they need to be told by Indian people. What would the leaders think now? Would they be happy, sad, would they cry?

'When the tourist leaves Indian country, what do you want them to take with them besides a beaded bag ? an understanding of who we are? That takes an education and we have to go back to our traditions and teach our young again. For example ? hide tanning and its spirituality and philosophy. Give the visitor the spirit of the bag.

'You will still hear ignorant questions. There is nothing wrong with that. It gives you a chance to educate. It is our turn to educate them,' Baker said.

Baker reminded the gathering that non-Indian tourist businesses will benefit from the American Indian culture because 'they want to take a percentage of our money.'

The Lewis and Clark-Corps of Discovery effort of the federal government is operated in partnership with the tribes. Its purpose is to not recreate the journey of Lewis and Clark, but to bring the traveler in and educate them about the past, present and future of the American Indian community.

This is the third annual meeting of the tourism association, formerly the American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association. The name change will become official when articles of incorporation and by-laws are written. The organization will be chartered through the state of Wisconsin where its business offices are located.

The new American Indian Tourism Association includes tourism tribes and organizations from across the nation and Alaska. Joan Timeche of the Hopi Nation was elected president and will preside over the next annual meeting in Juneau, Alaska, in September 2002.