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Tourism makes good economic sense

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The British are coming - the British were here. They
came, they saw, they learned and they dropped money, lots of money; and
they are coming back with more.

That's what a group from England said as they headed for a plane that will
take them back home after they spent nine days on reservations with Lakota
people in South Dakota. "We were pioneers," said Valerie Fisher. "We didn't
come to sell beads, we came to buy them."

International tourism has not been marketed by the Lakota people of South
Dakota until recently. The Alliance for Tribal Tourism Advocates, headed by
Executive Director Daphne Richards Cook, Lakota, has been in existence for
some 10 years. With fits and starts until now, the organization has gotten
into the inter-reservation tourism game.

The group of 13 people from England was the first of its kind that,
according to Cook, will be the beginning of economic success for the
tribes. In South Dakota, tourism is the number two industry behind
agriculture. On the reservations thus far, tourism is almost non-existent
in comparison. The some four million people who travel through South Dakota
only see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the Black Hills and the
Badlands, and tourist attractions in between. Many tourists ask for the
opportunity to meet with American Indians, but never get the chance.

Up to now, Cook said, only a few two- or three-day packages on reservations
have been marketed, but a new market is opening. She said the idea is to
have professional interpreters on the reservations that can talk about
culture, environment, history, agriculture and wildlife.

What the pioneer group wanted more of was the people, the culture and the
hospitality.

"The hospitality of the people; opening their homes to us and their
enthusiasm for us to learn was remarkable. The people went out of their way
to get everything we wanted. It was a true experience we will never
forget," said Maureen Murnan, the tour director.

An impression that was expressed among all the visitors was the courage
shown by the Lakota. Courage to keep fighting for pride and rights after
all that had been done to them, they said.

Murnan said there was a great interest in the American Indian culture in
England, but not a good understanding of the fact that the American Indian
has moved into the 21st century.

The visitors were invited to Mike Scott's ranch near Mission, on the
Rosebud Reservation, after he met with Norma Lone Hill, the local tour
guide at a convenience store. The visitors were treated to a horse
exhibition by his children and they also rode.

As everyone who has ever traveled knows - not all will go as planned. The
group experienced a bus breakdown in the Badlands, and Fisher said not all
the motel accommodations were up to expectations.

While at the airport, none of the visitors dwelt on negatives. Half the
group vowed to return; the next time with more money, they said. Some had
to buy extra suitcases to take home the many gift items they bought.

"We spent the money on the reservations, with the people who made the
artwork. We wanted to give them the money," said Susan Lowe.

It wasn't all beads and pipes and artwork that the group will take home.
They learned about life in a Lakota home. The group said they were most
impressed with the way the Lakotas work together as an extended family and
how the emphasis is on the children. "It's an inspiration to take home, and
any country should learn from it," they said.

They also said they were "thrilled to see the language was still alive."

Cook said this initial tour will show the reservations how an economy can
diversify. She said it was important for the tribes to tell the story of
their. history and culture from their point of view and not from the
outside world.

"The tribes have to interpret their culture. They are sovereign nations and
can establish the rules on their reservations about the culture and sacred
sites," Cook said.

ATTA has partnered with the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association and the
United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota to assist in marketing and
the development of programs. Cook said this first attempt met with some
problems, but people who are on the ATTA board on the reservations rallied
support to make it a memorable experience.

"It shows what we can do when we work together," Cook said.

Traveling from one reservation to another in western South Dakota is no
easy task. Hours of driving is needed between locations, which eats up
valuable time the visitors said they would have rather spent with the
people and watching the creation of art and craft objects.

"It was impressive seeing a field as big as England full of prairie dogs,"
said Neil Crowther.

A ride through a bison herd, getting so close they could almost be touched
and seeing all the wildlife that the reservations have to offer left an
indelible image on the guests.

But what the people from Great Britain will remember most, they said, was
the humor and hospitality of the Lakota people. "The people are full of
life, there is no bitterness after all that has been done to them," they
said.

To sit by a campfire on the edge of the Badlands on the Pine Ridge
Reservation and watch the stars and talk and sing until late into the night
has a way of endearing anyone to the land and the people, and that's what
the group experienced.

Cook said ATTA plans to expand onto North Dakota reservations, but will not
conduct another inter-reservation tour until next year.

On the Lower Brule Reservation a living village has been erected where
people can spend a few days living on the prairie next to the Missouri
River and experience the ancient ways of the Lakota people while they meet
and live with the American Indian people of today.

Other tribes, like the Navajo, Hopi and some pueblos have experience in the
tourist industry. A few individual entrepreneurs, including bed and
breakfasts and living history re-enactors exist; and Cook said she wants to
explore more of that type of industry for the visitors.

On the South Dakota reservations where unemployment can reach upwards of 80
percent, tourist dollars are welcomed. ATTA is working toward the
establishment of a viable tourist industry that can bring in revenue to the
reservations and individual entrepreneurs, Cook said.

"We came not knowing what to expect and we are going home with a piece of
the Lakota with us that we will never lose," Fisher said.