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Tourism seen as new economic boon to Indian country

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GREEN BAY, Wis. - Travelers came to Indian country for hundreds of years and now tribes and tribal members are finding ways to benefit financially from the new encounters.

Tourism in Indian country is taking on a new meaning and to regulate, profit and create a future for what could be an extremely profitable means of economic development, tribal tourism advocates and purveyors gathered to brainstorm here.

The second annual American Indian Tourism conference entitled "Preserving Our Past, Sharing our Future" drew in more than 800 delegates from across the country and Canada.

"Native Americans have been doing this for hundreds of years. And we must have been doing a good job, look how many have stayed," said Gerald Danforth, chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

Indian country tourism advocates have a special problem, the preservation of the culture while sharing it with willing tourists from all over the world. The conference was designed to help learn ways of cultural and spiritual preservation along with marketing and development of tours and tourist enterprises.

"This second annual conference is a step in the journey. This is a worldwide, $500 billion industry, the largest industry in the world," said Ben Sherman, Oglala, Western American Indian Chamber of Commerce.

"In the United States it's a $80 billion industry. We need to find ways to assist communities and involve state and federal agencies and the tribes. We also need to learn to market tourism and develop the tourism infrastructure to help succeed in this industry. The cultures are to share on your own terms," Sherman told delegates.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, said the American Indian tourism organization is important because of the need for planned tourism that respects each of the "unique cultures. If I say anything, that, I think , is the important thing each and everyone of us faces.

"We anticipate 30 million visitors coming to North Dakota during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial."

He told the crowd it was necessary to have the circle of elders around to provide advise on sharing stories and the richness of the culture."

Tourism is part of the nation-building process, Hall said. Most every American Indian nation in this country is in the process of land acquisition, the buying back of land of the original treaty land areas.

"Tourism is a huge economic development." Hall said for the first time, his tribe developed a tourism department. "And so we have planned development. We also have our cultural protection department. We gave them more duties. We have also developed a film department."

The tribes plan to produce a film on the life of Sakakewea (spelled Sacagewea by the Shoshone). The film, part of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial year 2003, will tell the story of the woman who guided the expedition through the Northwest and back. The story will be told through the stories and words of her descendants.

"The stories should be told through the descendants of Sitting Bull, of Crazy Horse, from all the descendants siting here today. Many times when I look at history books, and I'm an old social studies teacher, history will say Columbus discovered America. They still print that in the history books. I think that's so ridiculous that here we are in 2000. That's the most ridiculous thing I've every seen.

"It's totally disrespecting all the Aboriginal people of this homeland."

He said each of the 558 tribes has a story to tell and the tourism conference with the large participation will help to provide incentive and direction to bring economic development through tourism to the reservations and communities.

Lewis and Clark made contact with many tribes on their way to the Northwest. Hall reiterated to the tourism advocates that because some 30 million people will travel the path made by Lewis and Clark, tribes must be ready with a tourism plan.

"It is important that tribes develop through tourism departments and planning committees. It is critical so that people will not stop in Bismarck, my capitol, at the interpretive center - it's still off the reservation. They won't just bypass me and go to Montana. I want them to stay and stop at our nation and see the richness or our nation," Hall said.

Tribal tourism delegates were urged frequently by people at the conference to be prepared to welcome guests from overseas, particularly Germany. The Germans are fascinated by the West and American Indian cultures, presenters repeated often during the three-day event. Many European countries set up encampments and perform rendezvous on weekends. The interest in the American Indian culture is strong, yet the will to hold onto the culture by the tribes is equally strong.

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Workshops that help tourist-oriented tribes protect the culture and property spoke to intellectual and cultural property rights, involving the community and telling the stories and legends without exploiting beliefs and values. Exploitation of the culture is prevalent and occurs across the country and in foreign countries, delegates said.

There are ways to entice the tourist to enjoy and learn the stories without self-exploitation, said Bob Gough, attorney for the estate of Crazy Horse. He told workshop participants that using the American Indian image is popular in sales of products and tribes can protect their images through state and tribal laws.

"A name is a property but after the person dies, it can no longer be protected in some states. Tribes can impose laws that protect names and images," he said. Special designs and face painting designs, signatures and images can be protected.

A painting of the tribal leader Iron Shell was used as advertising, however, the artist permitted the image use, not the family. If anyone is afraid that because of tourism and thousands of people taking photos and creating art work with a design that is traditionally identified with a particular tribe, the design and any image must be protected by tribal law.

In the American Indian culture, the image can be protected back at least seven generations. "That's the Lakota way," Gough said. The law of the United States claims 100 years. Seven generations goes back farther than that.

To protect the sacred and cultural sites, they have to be identified. The U.S. Park Service will work with the tribes in place-naming, said Gerard Baker, a Park Service representative. Work on partnerships with the federal, state, local and tribal governments will help to establish and maintain historic and cultural sites of interest to tourists, workshop participants claimed.

Lorentino Lalio, Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico Department of Tourism, said tourists have the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of many reservations, the tribes themselves and the many historic sites.

"Tourism has always been one-sided. The non-Indians have taken advantage of it. The tribes need to develop an economic component." Lalio is the only American Indian in the state tourism department. When his office was created, he said the tribes were not seeing the dollars returned to the reservations.

An American Indian desk in the state was created along with the New Mexico Indian Tourism Association. The office coordinates tourist activities and works on a budget of $90,000. Lalio said the budget has stayed the same for a number of years.

"Indians are the major reason tourists come to many areas. Some Navajos are using old Hogans as bed and breakfasts. They need help in establishing tours and in customer service. Visitors centers need to be developed," he said.

A key to learning about tourist activities lies in partnerships with other tribes and state and regional tourist organizations. Private industry can help to underwrite the tourist industry in Indian country to provide a quality product.

"When we can prove the Indian culture is significant to the tourist industry there will be more money," Lalio said.

Through tourism attitudes about stereotypically identified American Indians. Curly Bear Wagner, Blackfeet, owns a tourist business located near Glacier National Park where more than 2 million visitors come each year. "I started a tourism business because people think we are barbarians and I wanted to straighten people out. We fought to keep people out and we were called barbarians.

"Lewis and Clark came in and saw an economic opportunity in the beaver and other furs. They came in and killed the wolf. It is important to know the history. Before I take tours to sites, I make sure we won't harm the environment or the culture. I have many Europeans that ask about sweat lodges. I tell them we don't open it up to the public, it's not a tourist thing," Wagner said. He said he tells people that everything out there is living, that everything is related.

"The Pipe is sacred to us and we don't share with (the tourists). Our elders get upset when you sell sweet grass and other things. This is our way of life, we have no word for religion," he said.

Wagner, along with many others at the conference, said tourist activities conducted and strictly controlled by the tribes can provide the true story of the culture and history.

"I am working on a tour that will start in Pipestone (Minn.) and go through the Black Hills in South Dakota to let people know they are still sacred, to let people know the water is sacred and tell people these things are important for our survival," Wagner said.

In the upper Plains states, tribes are gearing up for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. The stories about the encounter with the various tribes will be important for people to hear from the tribe's perspective, Wagner and Hall said.

The third annual American Indian Tourism conference will be held in Bismarck, N.D. in September 2001.