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'Tourism Without Business is Merely Traffic'

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Tina Osceola, president of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), urged delegates at the Association's 13th Annual American Indian Tourism Conference to set the stage as leaders in the national tourism industry.

“We need to recapture our collective voice. But it’s more than taking our voices back, we want Indian Country to set the model—to not just compete, but to be a leader,” Osceola, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, told the audience.

Other speakers echoed her determination backed by the philosophy that “if you’re a tribe and you’ve got a land base, you’re a player in the game.”

The conference, held at the Radisson Fort McDowell Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona from September 11-14, welcomed delegates with an entertaining reception, featuring the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers, a Phoenix-based professional family dance company, directed by father Ken Duncan (Apache). Among the nine Yellow Bird dancers is the current 2011 World Champion Hoop Dancer, Tony Duncan (Apache and Arikara-Hidatsa-Mandan from Mesa, Arizona), and 2006 Miss Indian World, Violet John-Duncan (Plains Cree/Taino from Kehewin, Alberta Canada). Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, founder and consultant for FJBits Concepts, a Native-owned firm that specializes in American Indian food ways, pleased the palates of the several hundred attendees from tribes across the nation with his tasty American Indian-inspired cuisine.

When Emcee Ed Hall, AIANTA founder and tourism specialist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took the podium to formally welcome the delegates, he set the tone and tenor for the conference: “Tourism, without business, is merely traffic.”

Osceola followed Hall's opening remarks with a call to action for Indian Nations to become an economic force in the tourism market. “When you’re just starting out, you want to be competitive. But if you’re a true leader, it’s not good enough to just be competitive—you need to be out front, blaze the trail, raise the bar high and set the pace. We’re tired of being spoken to rather than spoken with, and sovereignty is the key.

"Authenticity draws travelers to Indian Country and gives us an invitation to tell our story through tourism. That story defines you, protects your rights, reinforces your sovereignty, and brings you tourists and jobs.”

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In an effort to help tribes direct a percentage of the $120-billion-a-year international travel market toward Indian Country, The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) announced plans to launch a Native American World Trade Center effort by the year's end. The center is intended to spur collective buying and encourage technological innovation.

Crow Tribe Secretary Scott Russell, who will host the 2012 AIANTA Conference, along with the Billings, Montana Convention & Visitor Bureau, concurred: “Success for one nation is a success for all of us, because we’re all in this together. People from all walks of life are fascinated by Native cultures and we need to protect our way of life so visitors can see how proud we are as a people. If we don’t do it, somebody else will try to tell our story and may not tell it accurately.”

Done correctly, “We could change how the world thinks about Native peoples,” said seminar speaker Valerie Taliman, a member of the Navajo Nation and West Coast Editor for ICTMN. In a breakout session on “Positioning Indian Country with 21st Century Media,” Taliman and Len Sanderson, owner and president of the Washington, D.C.-based public affairs and communications company Sanderson Strategies Group, offered branding and marketing suggestions to facilitate tribal tourism.

“Figure out how you want to be known. Be honest and sincere about your sales pitch,” Sanderson said. “If you want a happy ending to your story, own it and tell it yourself. You have an obligation to find your own voice and redefine how the world sees Indian Country in the 21st Century.”

Taliman agreed, adding: “Empower yourself, lead the way, take control of your message, know your audience, put a human face behind your story, don’t stretch the truth.”

A national effort to educate the public about the realities of American Indian tribes is scheduled to go live on the Internet later this month. FNX, or First Nations Experience, is a multi-platform digital media endeavor for American Indians to share their experiences with authenticity and accuracy.

“FNX is like no other,” according to Charles Fox, the executive director of KVCR-TV, the San Bernadino, California-based PBS affiliate launching FNX in partnership with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, whose reservation is located in Highland, California. By next year, FNX will serve a population of 5 million indigenous peoples and hundreds of millions from non-indigenous cultures in the United States and worldwide. The broadcast/TV/Internet/satellite/cable service is designed to become “an axis for cultural convergence,” Fox said.

FNX will become another promising tool in the tribal tourism toolbox to help satisfy a growing interest to learn more about Native cultures, histories and values—all properties that attract visitors and generate revenue.