The Dos and Don'ts of Traveling in Indian Country

Tribes across the country are looking more and more to cultural tourism not only to generate revenue, but also to educate others about Native dance, songs, language, arts and crafts, and history. Unfortunately, this kind of tourism can create tension and friction. There is always the risk of visitors behaving inappropriately, often because they simply do not understand what is and is not acceptable.

In general, the standing rule is courtesy and respect for local tribal customs. What is proper, however, can vary from region to region and even from reservation to reservation. So it is up to the visitor to learn the “dos and don’ts.”

Take something as simple as photography. Most people, regardless of nationality, treasure their privacy, and Natives are no exception. Common politeness dictates that photos of individuals are not taken without first asking permission. Religious and cultural activities lead the list of things that generally cannot legally be photographed. And in the vast majority of instances, photos are not allowed if they are intended for sale to others.

Donald Dawahongnewa, of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, explained the policy toward the many kachina dances throughout the year at the Hopi Reservation: “No cameras, no sketching, no recording. You cannot have cameras in your possession, especially in the plaza observing the dances. If anybody spots a camera they will confiscate it and when they confiscate it you don’t get them back. It’s just for respect to our ceremonies.”

Dawahongnewa noted that such strictures are dictated precisely by the inclusiveness of the ceremonies. “The outside people come as ‘cloud people,’?” he said. “They help to rejuvenate and that’s how we respect our visitors. You are very sacred to us when you come and watch the dance. That’s why we want the respect in exchange to our ceremonies, but no sketching, pictures, or recording.”

The rules can even change according to the season: Dances from September on to December are off-limits to visitors. “It’s a very sacred time,” Dawahongnewa said. “We pray for everybody, the whole world, all life on Earth.” Other reservations have similar regulations but it is the visitor’s responsibility to learn them.

Some helpful advice: Check to see if permits are required. The rules are often listed in tribal or travel brochures. Frequently, regulations will be posted in the communities, especially in the various reservations.

Visitors must be especially sensitive in the presence of the dead. For example, First Nations people in northwest coastal communities often erect totem poles with elaborate carvings and family crests that honor deceased family members. Though visitors are generally welcome to gaze upon the poles and experience their majesty, they are expected to treat them with the same respect that one would treat any grave site or other burial area.

Remember, too, that archeological sites are usually protected by tribal laws or by federal and state laws. Removing or damaging artifacts is illegal and carries steep penalties.

Many memorial services also require that cameras be put away during the visit. Some memorials, such as those conducted by the Nez Perce Tribe at battle sites along the Nez Perce Trail, allow photos for portions of the event. But during the pipe ceremony, all recording equipment, including cameras, is prohibited.

A Nez Perce spokesman, who explained that visitors have been welcomed since the time of Lewis and Clark, said that the tribe’s single biggest concern about them is that they behave themselves, especially during sacred ceremonies. Such items as eagle feathers are highly respected and visitors should not touch them—which, unfortunately, sometimes happens at pow wows.

In general, too, listening is encouraged over talking, particularly when an elder is speaking. Such attention goes beyond mere courtesy, as elders are regarded as the learned ones with tribal wisdom.

Speaking from personal experience, I have traveled throughout Indian country for the past 35 years, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska. I have been invited to spend nights in private homes, to take part in pipe ceremonies and sweats, to attend private ceremonial events. I have sat and listened to elders speak.

At every turn, I have been greeted and treated wonderfully. Never have I not had a warm welcome. That is because I took pains to learn the rules. Sometimes I personally met with tribal leaders to gain their okay before visiting an area or writing a story. But in every instance, it was a matter of respect for tribal customs—and respect for each other.