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Why You Should Visit Indian Country

By Rebecca Nagle

Feb 13, 2020

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The Gathering of the Nations is an annual two-day event.

Photo by Shutterstock

The Gathering of the Nations is an annual two-day event.

As tourism to reservations and Native-run destinations increases, tribes are developing distinctive experiences.

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In the small community of Klamath, California, just south of the Oregon border, the Yurok Tribe is offering several unique travel experiences. The tribe—the largest in California, with more than 5,000 enrolled members—already operates tours of a traditional Yurok village and a brewery they purchased in 2019. Forty-five percent of the world’s old-growth coastal redwoods reside within their aboriginal territory, and travelers from around the world come to walk at the feet of the trees’ massive trunks. But this summer, the tribe will offer its most distinctive experience yet, when it allows visitors the chance to float down the Klamath River in a traditional, hand-dug canoe.

"Our canoes have hearts and lungs and kidneys, and we believe it’s a living spirit."

“You’ll be getting into a canoe that we’ve used since time immemorial,” says Linda Cooley, a Yurok tribal citizen and its deputy director of Economic Development. “You’ll hear the history of the Yurok Tribe and the Yurok people, and you’ll hear about the canoe itself. Our canoes have hearts and lungs and kidneys, and we believe it’s a living spirit. It’s the first time we’re opening up our culture like this to tourists.”

It’s taken the Yurok Tribe years to get to this point. Through a partnership with the local Forest Service, the tribe obtained old-growth redwood logs from downed trees. The felled giants were then chiseled, chipped, and carved into shape with an adze, which resembles an axe but has a large blade running perpendicular to the handle. Each canoe, which can fit around six people, took roughly three months to form.

For the community, Cooley says, it’s been an evolving lesson—of how the tribes can relay their history and knowledge, to a point. “We’re not sharing everything, but we’re getting the message out there,” she says. 

And this message—of rich histories, distinct perspectives, and cultural offerings—is spreading. From tours of the Everglades with the people who have lived there for millennia to visits to some of the most pristine brown bear habitats left on the planet with the Alutiiq People of Alaska’s Kodiak Island, Indian Country offers experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. It’s no wonder, then, that tourism to Indian Country has increased dramatically in the past decade. (Indian Country is an official term used by the American Indian Native Tourism Association, and includes reservations and Native-run destinations.) 

Since 2007, overseas tourism to Indian Country has increased 180 percent, reaching an all-time high in 2018. Germany is a top inbound market, and China and Canada are close behind. In 2018, nearly 5 percent of international visitors to the United States visited an American Indian community, and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) estimates 2.4 million overseas tourists will visit reservations and Native-run destinations in 2021. 

Sherry Rupert, citizen of the Benton Paiute Tribe and CEO of AIANTA, says that in her experience, the travelers who are picking Indian Country want more.

“It’s the visitor looking for that authentic, off-the-beaten path experience,” she says. “A lot of travelers, their first inkling is to go to the big cities. In Indian Country, we’re smaller, we’re rural, we’re unique, we’re different. And I think that sort of experience is what more people are looking for these days.”

The hand-dug canoe used by the Yurok Tribe.

Tourism is a huge source of economic development for Native communities, and it supports many of the more than 300,000 Native-owned companies in the United States. 

“Tourism itself has given us the ability to stay in our aboriginal territory and still be able to afford to live,” says Cooley. “If we didn’t have tourism, people would either have to drive far away to work or possibly not live here.”

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Beyond supporting jobs, tourism supports Native communities and tribes. Many hospitality businesses in Indian Country—like hotels, casinos, restaurants, and even gift shops—are operated by tribes themselves, and profits go directly back into funding tribal self-governance and community programs. According to Rupert, profits from tribally-run businesses are more likely to flow back into the local community for things like healthcare, roads, housing, and education than your average corporate hotel or gift shop. “Many tribes have used the money generated by tourism to support the social programs within their tribes,” she says.

The economic boom offered by tourism in Indian Country, however, relies on travelers supporting Native-owned businesses. (To help visitors, AIANTA maintains a website of Indian Country experiences and destinations that includes a full listing of Native-owned businesses at NativeAmerica.travel.) If you’re not sure whether or not a business is Native owned, Rupert says, just ask. 

But like any destination, Indian Country deals with both sides of the industry—the economic gains and the headaches. With increased tourism can come increased traffic, trash, and wear and tear on the environment. And for Indian Country, those risks can be especially heightened, because many sites are not only historically significant but also sacred. This makes the balance of protecting those places while sharing them with the public even more delicate.

The Stone Mother at Pyramid Lake, which has been off-limits to tourists as of 2013.

Thirty miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, in the middle of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, lies a pristine desert lake at the terminus of the Truckee River. On the eastern shore of Pyramid Lake, rock formations hold petroglyphs that date back more than 10,000 years. According to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the Great Stone Mother wept so long and so hard for her missing children that she filled the lake with tears before transforming to stone. 

For years, the lakeside was open to hikers and backpackers. But in 2013, vandals spray-painted gang symbols and graffiti on one of the rocks. The tribe also reported instances of campers sawing sections of the petroglyphs off to take home as souvenirs. After a series of such incidents, the tribe decided to permanently close the east side of the lake to all nontribal members. (The tribe wants to create a plan to manage outside visitors to the site, but until then, it’s off limits.)

This is not an isolated incident. From looters digging holes in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to Bears Ears National Monument, where hikers posing for a photo accidentally knocked over a 600-year-old wall, tourists have added to the erosion—and even degradation—of sacred places for American Indian tribes across the United States.

"Everyone wants that Instagram photo, but while they’re getting that, they’re climbing on things and they’re disturbing their surroundings."

“Everyone wants that Instagram photo, but while they’re getting that, they’re climbing on things and they’re disturbing their surroundings,” says Rupert. Bottom line? “Be respectful of the land and the place that you’re visiting.”

Most tribes have a website that, in addition to containing historical and cultural information about the tribe, also includes rules and regulations, any areas that are off-limits, and what activities require permits. Stop by the website of North Dakota’s Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, and you can see everything from their office hours in New Town, Fort Berthold to the services they provide—think cultural and recreational adventure and escorted and self-guided wildlife tours. Visit the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s website, and you’ll learn not only about their history, land, and government, but also how to book a tour of the local rain forest and bald eagle sanctuary. 

With the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, you'll be able to book a tour of the local rainforest.

Whether or not you’re planning a visit to Indian Country, know this: If you are traveling in the United States, you are on Native land. And while it might not always be featured in the visitor information, some of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States are sacred sites for Native American tribes. The Lakota, who have been fighting to protect the Black Hills in the Great Plains for generations, call the range Paha Sapa—which, translated into English, means “the heart of everything that is.” While the Grand Canyon itself is controlled by the National Park Service, the land around the iconic destination is tribal land. Six tribes—the Hualapai, Havasupai, Navajo, Paiute, Hopi, and Zuni—have lived in the area and taken care of the site for millennia before the Park Service (or the United States) even existed.

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Many Indian Country sites, if not all, are near other major attractions: Motorists who are planning a drive down North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway can stop at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Hikers and backpackers visiting Glacier National Park can visit the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery, a 15-minute drive from the east side of the park. And tourists in Washington, D.C. can visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to learn about the history of Native people in this country. Opportunities to learn about the first people on this land are available across the United States—travelers need only seek them out.

And learning directly from Indigenous voices is important, says Stacey Montoother, executive director of Nevada’s Indian Commission. 

“If you went through the public education system in the U.S., it’s very likely any history you were exposed to was not only very limited, but it was told by non-Natives,” says Montooth, a citizen of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “For a long time, Native American people were not telling their own stories. For the past decade, there has been a movement to ensure that Indigenous people are the voices telling their history, teaching their culture.”

Montooth is part of that movement. In January 2020, her team opened the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center, a new museum and education center. The site is one of the few places in the United States where the public can learn about the era of Indian boarding schools: a U.S. policy, started in 1879, designed to assimilate Native children to white society and strip them of their culture. 

But the site is not just about the past—it’s also about living, and it’s about today, Montooth says. In addition to the historical information, survivors of the school can record their oral history, family members can do research, and an art gallery features contemporary Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe artists. This emphasis on contemporary Native Americans is essential, she says.

“There’s an assumption through mainstream America that there aren’t any Native Americans,”  says Montooth. “They know that we have these tragic histories, but the average American doesn’t understand that we’re still here.”

A Navajo hogan, or traditional home.

Despite their concerns about inadequate marketing, 75 percent of tribal enterprises surveyed by AIANTA expect tourism to increase in coming years. The $5.7 million that Nevada invested in opening the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center represents a small fraction of the more than half a billion dollars funding new and renovated Native American cultural centers throughout the nation. In Palm Springs, California, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is slated to open later this year. In Oklahoma alone, three new facilities will open in 2020, operated by the Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Nation, and the Shawnee Tribe, respectively. Also coming to Oklahoma is the much-anticipated First Americans Museum, which will open in Oklahoma City in 2021. 

Today, in the United States, there are more than 574 federally recognized tribes—each with their own unique history, culture, and people. And for the traveler who is willing to learn and venture off the beaten path, they have a lot to offer. Wherever you’re going, take the time to learn about the land. Ask yourself: What’s the tribe’s name? Is there an opportunity to study their history or culture from them, rather than a third party? Does the tribe have a visitor center, art gallery, or museum? Then visit and ask even more questions.

"We’re excited that you’re here. We welcome you."

“We don’t expect anyone to know everything about our culture, and asking before assuming is the best way,” says Linda Cooley of the Yurok Tribe. “I think a big misconception with tourists in Indian Country is that they’re afraid to ask questions, they’re afraid to approach you, they’re afraid to even go to a reservation.” But, she says, visitors shouldn’t be worried. “We’re excited that you’re here. We welcome you. And we want to educate you about how we live to this day.”

>>Next: The Intimate Photo Project That Explores Contemporary Native American Life

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