CHANDLER, Ariz. - American Indian tribes should develop their own tourism businesses or they risk nonnative businesses encroaching on tribal land, said participants at an Indian tourism conference Tuesday.
Rory Majenty, director of tourism for Arizona's Hualapai Tribe, said tourists will visit tribal lands whether or not tribal businesses are prepared.
"Tribes are a destination," said Gloria Cobb, deputy economic development director for the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council in Wisconsin.
Tribal economic and tourism leaders gathered this week for the Fifth Annual American Indian Tourism Conference, which is designed to discover the best ways to draw tourists and to share tribal culture with them.
Tribes have seen visitors since the first nonnatives arrived on American soil, conference participants said.
Brian Vallo, manager of the Sky City Cultural Center in Acoma Pueblo, N.M., said Acoma women served as tour guides to visitors, including ethnographers and archaeologists, as far back as the 1880s.
"There were women that would find these people showing up on the mesa top, who were a totally different color than we were and wondering what we're all about," Vallo said.
Camille Ferguson, economic development director for Sitka Tribal Enterprises in Alaska, said all members of tribes have to be ready for tourists.
"Friendly or foe, they're still our guests and they're coming," she said. "The whole purpose of this is to use tourism to raise funds and educate our children. We need those kids coming up to carry on what we're going to do."
Alaska tribes were held up as an example of the best in Indian tourism at the conference Tuesday.
Ferguson said Alaska tribes like the Sitka have heritage centers that re-create ancient villages for tourists. An Indian-owned business, Allen Marine Tours, has taken advantage of Alaska's geography and offers whale-watching tours.
"We had a long dream of being able to share our culture and tell our story," Ferguson said.
Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said increased promotion of American Indian culture and lore through tourism has had a national impact.
North Dakota has chosen to place a statue of female Indian guide Sacajewea at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The statue will be erected in October. And the Smithsonian is opening the Museum of the American Indian there in September 2004.
"Our tourism efforts are 100 percent an expression of our tribal sovereignty," Hall said. "Because we're the only ones who have the stories we want to tell. When tourists start looking at Native culture, they say, 'Wait a minute, this story's not about Lewis and Clark, it's about Native people. Let's see what else they're doing.'"