Wednesday, September 21, 2016

American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism: Opportunities to Explore Native Life and Lands

I recently had the pleasure of attending the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism (AIANTA) Association national conference in Washington State. I came away with news, information and experiences that will inform and entice travelers who love exploring history, culture and natural beauty. Native tourism opportunities are growing, native hospitality is welcoming and the access visitors have to native lands and people is much more open that you might realize.

Tulalip Resort Casino Surprises
As you drive north of Seattle you’ll see a hotel and casino complex at Tulalip, just off I-5. If you aren’t a gambler you might pass it by. At least that is what I always did. Attending the AIANTA conference at the Tulalip Casino Resort conference center opened my eyes to the beauty of the hotel, the impeccable service and the history of the Tulalip tribes.

As you arrive at this AAA Four Diamond hotel, you’ll see a large Native canoe, a water feature. Inside the lobby you are greeted by two-story high locally carved totems. Throughout the luxurious hotel you will find Northwest Coast Salish artwork and textures. The resort has undergone a recent renovation. The rooms have state of the art electronics, amazingly comfortable beds and a frequently lauded shower with three adjustable heads.

Yes, there are modern comforts, but the hospitality is markedly Native. The Tulalip Tribes is a federally recognized Indian tribe located on the Tulalip Reservation, which includes the resort-casino. Reservation boundaries set by the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 gave a permanent home to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish, Stillaguamish, and related tribes.

We dined on locally sourced, Native inspired foods… salmon, berries, corn, beans and squash (the three sisters). All were prepared with attention to detail and with interesting sauces and seasonings.

Close by is the The Hibulb Cultural Center of the Tulalip Tribes, a beautiful center with full-sized longhouse and interactive displays. It was the first Tribal facility certified by the state of Washington. Also within walking distance of the hotel is great shopping – The Seattle Premium Outlets.
Learn about the people of the Tulalip Tribe
at the Hibulb Cultural Center
I’ll be writing more about this beautiful hotel, the restaurants and the Tulalip people in upcoming articles. I was impressed and I am sure you will be too. The lobby art, alone, is worth a visit next time you are in the area.

Discovering Native Country – Where to Start
At the conference Native tourism leaders from across the United States came together to share and learn. We heard that international visitors, especially those from China, want to experience authentic America.

So where should the average traveler with a desire to experience Native culture and land start? You might get some ideas from exploring this years’ AIANTA Destination Award Winners.

The Tribal Destination of the Year was awarded to Icy Strait Point, the Huna Totem Corporation. Icy Strait Point is Alaska Native owned-and-operated, with all profits directly supporting the community of Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Native Tlingit village. You may have heard of this area from the TV reality series, Alaskan Bush People. And, by the way, the Browns don’t live in the bush year ‘round!
Icy Strait Point offers small ship whale
watching excursions. (Courtesy: Icy Strait Point)
Other Icy Strait Point tours take you
in search of bears. (Courtesy: Icy Strait Point)
Icy Strait Point is a frequent stop for cruise ships and now that they have a dock, even more visitors are stepping ashore to choose from 20 + tours and experiences. You’ll visit a 1912 salmon cannery and museum, nature trails, and even a beach. Chichagof Island is home to more brown bears than humans, eagles soar overhead and whales are regularly seen just offshore. You can take an ATV trip into the rain forest or soar above it via ziprider. It’s an exciting place that is truly Alaskan. I’d recommend putting it on your itinerary when cruising Alaska.

Not all Puye Cliffs tours
require ladder climbing but
this one did!
The Best Cultural Experience was awarded to Puye Cliffs, on the Pueblo of Santa Clara just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Your tour guide at Puye will be from the Pueblo, a great way to meet a Native person with ancestors who may have lived in the dwellings you are exploring.

Puye Cliffs was home to 1,500 Puebloans who lived, farmed and hunted game there from the 900s to 1580 A.D.

You can walk along the cliff and cave dwellings and take a ladder down into a kiva. The welcome building and small museum is housed in an original Harvey House. But the most enjoyable part for me was listening to the personal stories of the guides as they described life at Puye Cliffs and pointed out things we might have overlooked. And the view of the high desert from the top? Amazing.

Puye Cliffs offers special events too. October 15th is their next Earth and Sky Weekend. Because the site is on the Pueblo, you might experience closures for ceremonial reasons (or even dangerous weather) so it is good to call ahead and read their website.

Light streams into the art-filled
lobby at the Buffalo Thunder Resort.
The stained glass depicts Pueblo dancers.
Last but not least, the award for Excellence in Customer Service was awarded to Tina Whitegeese representing Hilton Buffalo Thunder Resort, also north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ve had the pleasure of staying at Buffalo Thunder, on the Pueblo of Pojoaque. It’s a Native art-filled hotel with more than 400 pieces of pottery, art, glasswork and sculptures. In addition, every room offers hand-designed furnishings and work by local artists, including Pueblo of Pojoaque Former Governor George Rivera.

It’s a beautiful pueblo-inspired resort with high desert views. One evening as we enjoyed cocktails on an open rooftop, we watched a storm come in from the west. Looking out over the desert expanse was a beautiful and uniquely New Mexican experience.

You’ll have plenty to do while you’re there. The golf course, full service spa, a variety of restaurants and, of course the casino, draw visitors. But what you’ll remember are the people and the Native hospitality.

The Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience Act
While at the conference we heard good news for Native tourism. The Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act (S. 1579) had passed both the House and Senate.

The bill allows tribal communities to be included in federal agencies’ tourism management programs. Sherry L. Rupert, AIANTA Board President announced, “This legislation will forever impact the ability of our nation’s tribes to promote their true and authentic selves through tourism. It will strengthen Indian Country economic development, cultural sustainability and accelerate the progress tribes have made in international and domestic tourism.”

According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, overseas travelers who visit Indian country stay in the United States longer, visit more cities and states, use more domestic travel options, and visit more National Parks, small towns, museums, and cultural and ethnic heritage sites in comparison to all other overseas visitors.
When it comes right down to it, Native people
and their warm hospitality is what makes a visitor's experience.
These people from as far away as Alaska made my
AIANTA conference experience memorable.

Native Tourism Resources
AIANTA Members – Describes Native tourism opportunities across the U.S. with links to their websites.
Native America Travel – AIANTA website for visitors