S3, E15: Tourism Is on the Rise—Here’s How to Explore With Respect

On this week’s episode of Unpacked, we explore how to visit Native communities respectfully and in a way that’s beneficial to all

This week on Unpacked, we enter the world of Native tourism. Interest has increased since the pandemic, but often questions come up from non-Native travelers around language, customs, and more. In today’s episode, we explore where to go and how to visit with care.


Aislyn: You’re listening to Unpacked by AFAR.

Sherry Rupert, CEO of AIANTA: There’s not a lot taught about Native people, you know, in our educational system across the country. And so I think that, um, COVID really taught us to kind of slow down and take a look at what is important to us. Getting away from the cities, going out in your own backyard and discovering Indian Country, um, seeing Native people on the news. And you know, I heard about the Navajo nation almost every night on the national news. And so I think it really, um, it really sparked an interest in a lot of people to, as I said, slow down and, and come out and visit, uh, our homelands and, and our people. And just see, you know, the sheer beauty of our landscapes and, and of our culture.

Aislyn: That is Sherry Rupert.

Sherry: I am Paiute and Washoe from Nevada. And I am the CEO for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

Aislyn: And I’m Aislyn Greene. This week on Unpacked, we are entering the world of Native tourism. We’ll meet people like Sherry, who are big believers in the way that travel can benefit Native communities. And as you just heard, there’s been a big spike in this kind of tourism in recent years. So in today’s episode, we’ll hear about some pretty epic experiences you can have in the many Native nations across the United States. And we’ll answer some of the most common questions that come up from non-Native travelers who want to visit but are a little unsure about how to go about it. Questions like: Can I go to a powwow? What language should I use? Can I take a photo?

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Aislyn Travel can be a big economic driver for Native communities, who have historically been left out of the tourism conversation.

Sherry: So in this country, tourism is funded by room tax funds. And, uh, many of our 574 Native nations in this country don’t have hotels. And so therefore are not, you know, collecting room tax funds that could be contributed to the tourism industry. So when you’re not paying to play, you’re often left out of the, uh, marketing and promotion of your Indigenous destinations.

Aislyn: For more than two decades, Sherry has worked to change that. She’s been with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association for a good chunk of that time. Oh, and we can call it AIANTA for short.

Sherry: Our organization was established in about 1998 by tribes for tribes to address the inequities in the tourism industry. And, um, so likeminded people coming together and seeing what an opportunity, uh, tourism, especially cultural tourism, uh, was for our Native nations and communities across the country.

Aislyn: There’s so much that non-Native travelers can learn, myself included. Even better than that, tourism can help with cultural preservation.

Sherry: So we’ve seen, um, you know, economically, um, the, the benefit, uh, to our tribal communities. But I think most importantly is, um, the perpetuation of our culture through tourism. And so as we’re teaching others about who we are as Native people, we’re also teaching our youth, you know, involving our youth, teaching the language, you know, carrying the traditions on.

Aislyn: This is important, because unfortunately, although not surprisingly, there’s still a lot of ignorance around Native history and contemporary life, as Sherry has heard firsthand.

Sherry: When the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, D.C., I had gone there because, you know, what an amazing feeling as a, an Indigenous person of this nation to go and see this beautiful, uh, building, talking about our, our people and our history. And so as I was standing there, there was a woman there with her daughter and, as they were looking at exhibits, she said, “Mommy, are there any Indians left?” And her mom said, “No, honey, they’re all gone.” And that was like a gut punch, as a Native person standing there thinking, “Wow, people in this country think we’re gone. Something needs to be done about that.”

Aislyn: And Sherry has done a lot over the years, like travel around the country, experiencing what Native communities have to offer. So, for example, she’s stayed at Shash Dine in Arizona.

Sherry: You can immerse yourself in the Navajo experience there and stay in a traditional earthen log hogan with authentic dinners, Navajo storytelling, and sunrise photo tours.

Aislyn: Shash Dine is also a working sheep ranch.

Sherry: I never thought I would be interested in sheepdogs. Uh, but just, you know, how she told the story and how those, those dogs take care of the sheep and they have their routine, like, and they teach the other dogs, you know, the ropes essentially on how to care for the sheep. And so it was very, very interesting to hear.

Aislyn: And she’s stayed in a traditional style of housing in South Dakota.

Sherry: The Lakota Youth Development has cultural experiences in tipis. So you can actually stay, uh, in a tepee and it’s, um, a Lakota youth–led initiative on the Rosebud, uh, reservation in South Dakota.

Aislyn: OK, so I’m sold on meeting sheepdogs and sleeping in a tepee. I asked Sherry: Where do you begin?

Sherry: I think a good way, um, to start out is to by doing some research, right? Finding, um, those communities that are welcoming visitors and, uh, I think nativeamerica.travel is a good way to do that.

Aislyn: Nativeamerica.travel is the website that AIANTA created just for us, for travelers. There’s a Google translation feature, a really cool map that allows you to plot an itinerary and they even have an app. So you can use it on the go. Plus AIANTA has created one more essential resource.

Sherry: Also, we, we put together, uh, 15 cultural protocols to know before you visit Native homelands in the U.S.

Aislyn: The protocols are so helpful and touch on everything from vocabulary to etiquette.

Sherry: People always ask, “What term is preferred?” You know, when you’re talking about Native people, is it American Indian? Is it Native American or is it Indigenous? What is Indian Country? Where is Indian Country? What’s there to do in Indian Country besides gaming, besides gambling, uh, what are the guidelines for photography?

Aislyn: I’ll link to the full list in the show notes. And Sherry says if you’re unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Sherry: Uh, I think a lot of people maybe don’t visit or think they can’t visit because they, they don’t know. And what I always say is, you know, it’s an educational opportunity and it’s, it’s OK to say you don’t know and, um, you don’t want to misstep and, um, you know, ask questions. And I think that any of these destinations that are in tourism understand that and are more than willing to answer questions.

Aislyn: OK, so you ready to go? Let’s meet some of these places and the people who live there and love them.

Garan Coons, communications officer for the Winnebago tribe: My name is, um, Agita Gia Hokshila and that in Lakota is the Flying Soldier Boy. Uh, I was named by a veteran and my English name is Garan Coons.

Aislyn: Garan was raised in Winnebago, Nebraska. And he’s the communications officer for the Winnebago tribe.

Garan: We’re not original to Nebraska. Uh, we came from the Wisconsin area and we were forcibly removed by the federal government over seven times. Through the administration of the Jackson administration and the president city, uh, they, they did a kind of like open allotment where a lot of the times, uh, the Native relatives, they would sell their land to local farmers. Now, today we’re trying to—and we have a mission to try to buy back some of the land.

Aislyn: Garan told me that there are about 1,700 tribal members on the reservation and another 3,500 spread out across the country. Now Winnebago is just 30 minutes south of Sioux City, Iowa, there. And in Winnebago, there’s a small museum called the Angel De Cora Museum. On weekends, you can arrange a tour with the curator, Ben Crawford and also see the 12 Clan Sculpture Garden, which is kind of like the town square. The 12 sculptures tell the tribe’s story.

Garan: The Winnebago tribe, uh, before they adopted, uh, kind of the, the, what they call the IRA constitution, uh, 12 clans, each clan had a specific duty. And like, uh, for example, I know my father, he’s of the Bear clan and the Bear clan, their duty for the tribe was to serve as the security and the protectors. The Wolf clan, they were known as, like, the medicine men. And then the Buffalo clan, they were our communicators. They were the ones that were talking on behalf of the tribe. So every duty, and we still kind of have some of those duties but, uh, we’re trying to live in the modern society.

Aislyn: And then, there’s the Many Moccasins Dance Troupe. Its members travel around Nebraska to perform. And to help dispel stereotypes.

Garan: The Many Moccasins dance troupe formed for that reason to educate, um, the Nebraskans and then anybody that we, we come in contact with. It’s like, “Hey, um, you have to realize that we’re all diverse and we all have our unique culture and this is part of us. And this is the reason we dance that way.” You know what I mean?

Aislyn: There are 574 Native nations in the United States, and each has its own language, set of songs, its own customs and traditions. But many non-Native people tend to think of Native people as one large group.

Garan: There was a little kid we went to a performance for and he raises his hand and he says, “Do the rain dance. I know you guys can do the rain dance. You guys are Indians, right?” And we’re like, “Well, us, up here, we don’t do the rain dance because you might have a great flood or whatever, you know what I mean? But there’s tribes down in Southwest that, you know, where rain isn’t really, really available or prevalent. You know, it’s kind of in the desert setting. They, they probably have something similar to that.” But we end up kind of saying, “Hey, uh, water’s very sacred to us. We don’t necessarily do the rain dance. It’s a good question, but at the same time, uh, you have to realize there’s many, many different tribes.”

Aislyn: Travelers can also join the annual Winnebago Homecoming Celebration. It takes place each summer. This year, it will be from July 28 through July 30th. The gathering celebrates the homecoming of Chief Little Priest, the last war chief of the Winnebago tribe 158 years ago. At that time, the government was planning to remove the Winnebago tribe from their land. But they offered Chief Little Priest an opportunity.

Garan: The, the Winnebago tribe served as a buffer between the Omaha tribe and enemy tribe up North. And so the federal government, uh, and the army said, “Well, why don’t you help us scout? And, uh, if you do, you know, you can, uh, stay here in Winnebago.” Well, unfortunately, you know, Chief Little Priest did that. He stepped up to the plate, but he got mortally wounded, uh, in battle. And unfortunately he didn’t make it, but they had a celebration in his honor. So every year, uh, we still celebrate that.


Track: Oneida powwow

Aislyn: Those are the sounds of the annual Oneida Nation powwow. It’s a dance competition, and a celebration, that takes place every summer on the Oneida nation in northeastern Wisconsin. The Oneida nation is one of 11 tribes in Wisconsin.

Kirby Metoxin, council member Oneida nation: We are originally from the state of New York, and we came to Wisconsin in the early 1800s. And, in fact, on our tribal logo, it states 1822 that we came from New York to Wisconsin. We had about 6 million acres in upstate New York, out of Manhattan and, um, then we came to Wisconsin and we came in waves. There were 654 Oneidas that came from New York to Wisconsin. And we were given the reservation of 65,400 acres, is our original boundaries.

Aislyn: That’s Kirby Metoxin, a council member for the Oneida nation. He was a tour guide for 25 years, and now he serves on several boards, including the Native American Tourism of Wisconsin. The Oneida nation has been really progressive on the travel front.

Kirby: I think we were the first tribe in Wisconsin to have our own tourism department.

Aislyn: Today you can take a tour of the Oneida Museum. Peek into one of five original log homes. Or even tour a replica of a longhouse. If you want to kind of get involved in some of the bigger events, there’s an Apple Fest in September.

Kirby: We have our own apple orchard. And I believe there’s about 32 kinds of apples you can pick.

Aislyn: Or you can join in October for the corn harvest.

Kirby: They have different sessions. Maybe this is a history of the white corn and how to make a corn husk doll. And then how to braid the corn and, and then somewhere in that you take time and you go out to the field and you hand pick.

Aislyn: But one of the most popular things to do is to join a powwow.

Kirby: Every tribe in Wisconsin hosts a powwow. And that’s open to the public. Um, some are more, um, traditional powwows. Some are, um, competition. Um, they’re dancing for money.

Aislyn: If you’ve never been before, you’ll be guided through the experience.

Kirby: As far as what’s going on within the power circle, your MC is, is conducting everything. He’s telling everybody, “We are now having the traditional men category. Up next is the men grass dancers, so get ready.” So he’s telling everybody what’s going on. If there’s an honor song, maybe somebody has accomplished some kind of deed. They may have a presentation of an eagle feather or a Pendleton. Um, so he would talk, “Would everybody please stand? We are going to, we are going to honor this family.”

Aislyn: There’s one big thing to watch out for.

Kirby: When you’re at a powwow, if you’re going to take a picture of someone, it’s just polite to ask.

Aislyn: This is where that advance research comes in. Some tribes require you to purchase a permit before taking photos. So do some Googling beforehand, but always, always request permission. Or just put the camera down and simply enjoy, says Monique Fragua.

Monique Fragua, COO Indian Pueblo Cultural Center: I think sometimes as a, as a traveler, a tourist, we get caught up in the, we’re experiencing something and we want to capture that and I think sometimes we have to pause and we just have to live in the moment and really own that memory in the heart. And not, you know, think about it as something that we’re going to take back home and share, but just that, that it happened to us.

Aislyn: Monique is the COO of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and she wears the best jewelry.

Monique: [In] 2003, I made myself a New Year’s resolution only to wear Native American art. As my gift to celebrating and honoring those traditions.

Aislyn: Can you tell me about the art that you’re wearing now? I was loving your earrings.

Monique: These are of the Santo Domingo Pueblo and they are, uh, shell backing, which is a wonderful piece. Um, and then I’m also wearing a turquoise ring that’s inlaid in, uh, sterling silver. And then a bracelet by Aaron Brokeshoulder, um, that’s also stamped on the inside. And so just the connections to art and that just really, I think, um, is something special here in New Mexico and the Southwest.

Aislyn: The Pueblo people have been in New Mexico for more than 700 years.

Monique: So the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico are, uh, Native American groups, tribes, nations, bands, but more in particular, they’re sovereign nations among themselves. And so there’s 19 in New Mexico that span up and down the Rio Grande Valley as far north as the mountains of Taos and south to the Pueblo of Isleta. And then out to the west, um, we have our Pueblo of Zuni, which is the westernmost pueblo.

Aislyn: The cultural center is kind of the gateway to the pueblos. You can buy really cool native made art and jewelry in the gift shop and eat blue corn and gelatos and bison cabbage stew in the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. Plus it’s the best place to prep for a trip to one of the pueblos.

Monique: We want to create experiences for our guests that are steeped in culture. We welcome them here first so that way we can make sure that we’re, um, educating them on the proper Pueblo etiquette, the do’s and don’ts of, uh, visiting a Pueblo community. And really understanding that tourism within Pueblo communities is driven by the community itself.

Aislyn: For money for Monique and the center. That means keeping one thing at the forefront.

Monique: Keep in mind that, um, our Pueblo communities are really living communities. It’s not an exhibition. We hear from guests that they really want to go and experience Pueblo culture, but we always make sure to tell them that that’s through a lens of a living community, a breathing culture, and just to be mindful and respectful of that.

Aislyn: Some pueblos are completely closed to the public. And sometimes pueblos that are usually open may be temporarily closed.

Monique: When we’re closed, we hope that those guests don’t feel disappointed or feel like they missed an opportunity. Because sometimes when our communities are closed, it’s because of a cultural reason or, um, something else that’s happening that’s more important than, um, hosting guests.

Aislyn: At the center, you can also ask questions about language, which is something that many people, myself included, struggle with. Monique says that vocabulary changes over time.

Monique: So there are some people that say, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, what is an Indian, and what is Pueblo, and sort of breaking that apart. And the best way that I can describe it and share is I can tell really the era in which something happened. And so, 1970s, American Indian movement, Indian, it was a term at that time that was used. Um, I don’t know that it’s our place today to say whether that was good or bad. We just know that that happened.

And then over time it changed. It changed to American Indian. It changed to Native American. It changed to Indigenous. It changed to Native. I would say Native American is probably the most widely accepted. Um, but if you were to ask a younger generation, they might say it’s Native. Um, so I think it’s just the evolution of language.

Aislyn: Monique also recommends just simply listening.

Monique: I think when we enter into new spaces and especially cultural spaces, we should just take the time to pause and, and listen to those around you. And, and, you know, places like the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, we’re here as a safe space where people can ask those sorts of questions and get the right guidance.

Aislyn: It goes back to what she said about the pueblos being living, breathing, evolving entities. And this goes for any Native community we might visit.

Monique: When you’re visiting a culture that has existed over millennium, since time immemorial, it’s one of those things that those special moments aren’t driven by, um, selling of culture. They exist whether the visitor is there or not, like our Pueblo Feast Days is a really good example of that. We celebrate our Pueblo Feast Days year in and year out, not because we’re doing a showcase or a commodity. It’s because it’s a prayer in our Pueblo communities. And so even if the visitor wasn’t there, even if it wasn’t filled with guests, that celebration would still continue.

Aislyn: These experiences are just the beginning. Of course, when it comes to tribal tourism, remember that there are more than 500 Native nations in this country alone. Seeking these experiences is a great way to support communities that are really investing in tourism and to widen our perspective on the world. Here’s Sherry from AIANTA.

Sherry: We get siloed in, in who we are, who we think we are. And I think with any travel that you do, it kind of opens up your horizons. It kind of opens up your perspective of, of what is really out there. And I think it’s the same for our Native Nations and communities that, you know, when people come and visit us, they begin to understand our connection as Native people to the land and to the places, to the, to the water, um, to our environment. And I think we all can learn from each other, um, in that way.

Aislyn: I mean, the day that I spent at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque last year was one of the highlights of my trip. I ate fantastic food, met incredible people, and learned about some of these really impressive movements happening across the state. So we’ll include links to all of the experiences that we mentioned in the episode.

And if you can: See if the tribe or nation you’re visiting has a Native-owned and -run hotel. Because any taxes and fees you pay go directly into the community—and help support future tourism efforts.

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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.