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Tourism offers American Indian and Alaska Native tribes the opportunity to tell their own stories, says Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Hall, speaking Sunday at the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Conference at Centennial Hall in Juneau, said tourism can provide economic development in a way that preserves the sovereignty of the 579 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Half of Natives are unemployed, he said.
"If you look at tourism and its potential for economic development - I can't think of any other industry that's purely sovereign," Hall told about 80 attendees, about half of whom were from Alaska. "This industry is yours and yours alone."
There are no nationwide statistics on tourism revenues for Indian tribes, said Ed Hall, a transportation specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA provides technical assistance and training to tribal governments for tourism through a provision of a major federal transportation law.
But it's likely tourism is a growing source of jobs and revenue as tribes in the Lower 48 build casinos on their land.
Some tribes have been involved in tourism for decades, and others are just deciding what part of their cultures they want to share with visitors, said Joan Timeche, interim president of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.
One of the goals of the conference is to set recommendations for principles to guide Indian tourism.
Corinna Veit, owner of a German company that brings Europeans to Indian lands in the Lower 48, advertises "that there is time to really meet the people. They want to experience the different culture."
Germans have been influenced by books about "good Indians and bad cowboys," she said.
"A lot of them want to really meet the Native Americans and to experience part of what they read in the books. (Natives) are very highly esteemed in Germany, compared to the U.S.," she said.
But it can be difficult for tribes to manage tourism on Indian lands because the people themselves are part of what's on display, and it isn't always clear to tourists what places and questions are off-limits, speakers said.
Rose Barr, manager of corporate operations for Tour Arctic, a NANA Development Corp. business in Kotzebue, said tour operators ask visitors not to interrupt residents in their subsistence activities unless they're invited to.
What Indian tourism "is essentially is people as a destination, in addition to a place as a destination," said Ed Hall of the BIA.
Tourists are used to recreating at a destination and being served by people who are hired to do so. But cultural tourists, such as those visiting Indian tribes, want much more from the people they interact with, Hall said.
The local people are "the source of knowledge. They're the event. They're the experience," he said in an interview. If visitors don't discern who is involved in the tourism industry, "everyone is fair game."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, trends in travel changed and people turned to Alaska as an exotic place, said Camille Ferguson, operations manager for Tribal Tours of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
The company runs coach tours that include walks in the rain forest to look at medicinal plants, a stop at the state museum in Sitka, and dance performances.
"We are an exotic people," Ferguson said. "We have a story to tell. The neatest thing is we can tell the story."
The conference continues through Tuesday afternoon. Daily registration is available. A trade and crafts show is scheduled for today and Tuesday at the National Guard Armory.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com. Another report about the tourism conference will be printed in Thursday's Empire Business Spotlight page.