'Ridin' the Rez': the trials of Indian tourism

Beyond casinos, sightseeing can be a financial boon to reservations - but also fuels a clash of cultures.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The San Xavier del Bac Mission throws long winter shadows across a broad plaza, where John Fendenheim is tidying his cozy tourist shop. Rising from flat desert on the 2.8 million-acre Tohono O'odham Reservation west of Tucson, the Spanish mission has been a pillar of O'odham life for nearly three centuries. And, along with casinos, it's become a financial foothold for the reservation's 24,000 residents. "San Xavier is Tucson's No. 1 tourist destination. I worked hard to get a shop in here," says Mr. Fendenheim, a tribal member.

This is the second store Fendenheim has opened on the reservation since obtaining a $60,000 loan from the tribal government in 1999. Today, his business generates about $1 million a year.

But he says the road to a success can include collisions between reservation culture and the thousands of visitors drawn to sights such as San Xavier, Baboquivari Peak, or a national astronomy observatory, all on tribal land. When new tourism businesses are proposed, "traditional values are really thought about," Fendenheim says. "Do O'odham people really want more non-Indians walking around? How do you confine it?"

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That's a huge challenge to Indian nations, says Tohono O'odham Vice Chairman Ned Norris Jr. "When you look at encouraging tourism ... you get mixed feelings from tribal members. On one hand, it's good. On the other hand, the feeling is, 'We don't need people coming out onto the nation because they don't have the kind of respect that we expect, for the land, for the people, and for sacred sites.' "

Still, Indian Country tourism "is a growing trend within tribes nationally, and a significant economic benefit for them," says Gloria Cobb, a Wisconsin Ojibwe and board member of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. Indeed, in the Northeast, the Pequot Tribe is maximizing tourism profits by steering casino visitors to its 18-hole golf course and country club. And with a reservation skirting the Grand Canyon, Arizona's Hualapai Tribe is attracting 150,000 visitors annually with helicopter rides and Colorado River pontoon cruises. Meanwhile, in Washington State, the Makah Tribe is drawing visitors to an elaborate museum featuring artifacts from an ancient Makah village, cedar dug-out canoes, fishing gear, and a full-size longhouse replica.

The need for such economic development is often dire. While Indian casinos generate up to $10 billion each year, only about one-third of the nation's tribes have gaming. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of Indian children live in poverty, and unemployment can run as high as 80 percent.

Still, even when visitors come to reservations, they often don't leave much money behind, and usually they don't spend the night. The same remote beauty and unusual culture that draw travelers often drive them away when the sun sets, says Mark St. Pierre, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. "They worry, 'Will I feel welcome? Will I feel safe?' There's a lot of confusion, and it takes marketing to overcome these things."

To acquaint visitors with Pine Ridge, Mr. St. Pierre spearheaded an annual "Ridin' the Rez" motorcycle rally. Like much tourism on reservations, the event blends recreation with a dose of history. The ride, covering nearly 200 miles, traverses some the Badlands' most striking areas as well as historic areas such as Wounded Knee. It has been a boon to the roughly 40 tourism-related businesses, including campgrounds and grocery stores, scattered across the reservation.

Reservation entrepreneurs also face financing hurdles. Since tribal land is collectively owned, it can't used as property collateral for traditional bank loans. To fill this credit vacuum, many tribes such as the Tohono O'odham earmark a percentage of gaming proceeds for business loans. Fendenheim was able to expand only with loans from a $15 million economic development fund established by the tribe.

Others encourage outside investors to partner with reservation businesses. But non-Indians can get frustrated with unfamiliar customs and sensitivities. For example, outsiders who make their pitches too aggressively can find themselves politely ignored. "It can be difficult for nontribal members to deliver their message on the reservation," says Tia Jones, president of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association. Her group acts as an intermediary with potential investors, shepherding them through "the different cultural norms on the reservation."

Still, funding means little without teaching reservation entrepreneurs the ropes of tourism, says Ed Hall, tourism coordinator for the US Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. Mr. Hall works with tribes "to provide technical assistance, arrange workshops, and develop tourism planning."

Realizing the potential tourism revenues for their own coffers, many states are also getting involved. In Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano recently designated a special liaison to coordinate tourism development with reservations, and the Arizona Office of Tourism is devoted to "building closer ties to the tribes," says spokesman James Ahlers.

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