Tourism potential can provide Blackfeet jobs

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BROWNING, Mont. - Tribal governments can't be expected to prop up reservation economies, but they can provide tactical support to help private businesses flourish.

So says Darrell Norman, owner and operator of the popular Lodge Pole Gallery and Tipi Village on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

"We can't always be leaning on the tribe for economic development," Norman says. "The tribe should be the catalyst. We've got to do it, though. We can't wait for Uncle Sam."

Norman, 58, was born in Browning, and like many other families, his parents pulled up stakes when he was young and moved to Seattle for better jobs and a different way of life. It took Norman 36 years to make his way back to the reservation. Now that he's there, he wants to do what he can to expand commerce, create jobs and build up civic pride.

"We don't have to live with 70 percent unemployment in this community," he says.

Also known by his traditional Blackfeet name of Ee-nees-too-wah-see, Norman is an artist and musician by trade. He paints, does metal and leather work, and makes reproductions of a host of traditional items, from drums to parfleche pouches. A main function of the gallery, which he started in his home in 1993, is to feature the works of others, especially Blackfeet artisans.

"We see it as something very important to promote our community," he says. "We have a wealth of artists here. It's fantastic."

Norman, his wife, Angelika, and daughter, Tina, also run a summer tipi camp on their 200 acres where visitors can stay and sample local culture, try their hand at making a variety of crafts, learn about area customs, and tour the reservation, as well as nearby Glacier National Park. The site is also rented out for weddings, movie shoots, cultural ceremonies and other related events.

While tourists come to the camp from all over the world, much of the clientele is from Europe.

For most, it is the first time they'll sleep in a tipi and mingle with real American Indians. Meals usually are cooked and served inside the Normans' home, although customers can bring their own food.

"We do traditional meals, non-traditional meals, five-star meals, you name it," he says. "They love to sit around and eat and talk and learn about our culture."

Norman says there are lots of important spin-offs. Visitors rent cars, go to town for groceries, gas, and other supplies, and visit the park and the Museum of the Plains Indian, which is just down the road. They also buy art and other souvenirs, learn about the Blackfeet, and tell their friends about their experiences when they get back home. Germans make up the bulk of the summer customers.

Many of the family's services, such as the reservation cultural tours, are contracted out, which provides jobs for others. Tina has a hair and body care salon that's incorporated into the home. She provides locals and tourists alike with massages, natural skin and hair treatments, aroma therapy and the like. One of her favorite customers was actor Robin Williams, who spent time at the camp and salon while filming the movie "What Dreams May Come" in 1998.

"They stay close to town and they spend money," Darrell says. "Every time we need anything, we keep it within our community."

The Normans would like to expand their businesses, but there are numerous uncertainties that keep them from too big a plunge. They'd like to see tourism higher on the tribe's agenda as an economic development tool, especially since tens of thousands of visitors pass through the area every summer en route to Glacier Park. Darrell says there's not even an information center in Browning to let folks know what's available.

"We could do so much better. We could do four to five times the business," if things were better organized. "There's a great number of positive things that can happen. We have the scenery, we have the culture, we have the opportunities. But we can't do it in the old way of doing business around here. It must be done in a professional manner."

The tipi camp is closed in the winter, but the gallery continues to attract visitors year-round, including school groups that come by as part of out-of-town field trips.

"There's so many beautiful things" on the reservation. "When people come here they're blown away. What's really helped us is that people really love to come here."

"A lot of things could be here," adds Angelika, who met Darrell when she was a tourist and visited the camp. "We have a lot of attractions."

The Normans would like to build a new gallery to free up space inside their home, and they think a banquet room, which could be used for all types of events, would be a winning option. A snack-and-coffee bar is on the drawing board.

But, they say, financing such plans is difficult on the reservation, because tourism development is not seen by many as a worthwhile endeavor.

"There's got to be an interest from the financial community," Darrell says. "They've got to be part of the motivation. We have these ideas. But the question now is, ?How do we get the money to do it?'"

Tina contends that if more private entrepreneurs can be encouraged to start new ventures, the reservation's economy will prosper on its own, thus helping everyone.

"When you have your own business, you have an interest in seeing it succeed," Darrell agrees.