Whether it’s called Native travel, Indigenous tourism, or cultural heritage travel, there’s no doubt there’s a growing interest and investment in travel to Indian Country (which includes Native American reservations and destinations run by Indigenous people) as well as experiences that expand tourists’ understanding of the culture and history of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Visiting anywhere in the United States entails traveling to and through pre-colonial territory of Indigenous Americans.
Only 22 percent of Native Americans live on reservations today, while 60 percent live in metropolitan areas (dubbed urban Indians by some Native Americans), which means there are endless opportunities in the cities and on Native land to learn about the people who lived on this continent for thousands of years before traditional “history” books began (with the arrival of Europeans). But there’s new interest in visiting reservations, attending our events, and learning about Indigenous cultures and history directly from those who have kept our traditions alive.
Between 2007-2016, overseas travel to Indian Country increased 180 percent, according to the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, which estimated 2.4 million overseas tourists last year. According to AIANTA’s 2019 State of Indian Country Tourism, about a third (34 percent) of those visitors hailed from Germany, while 28 percent came from China, and 24 percent from Canada. Native travel is big business, with the U.S. Census reporting in 2012 that American Indian and Alaska Native-owned businesses brought in $38.8 billion (Native Hawaiian-owned businesses were not included in the report). Since many hospitality businesses are operated by the tribes themselves, profits often go back into funding tribal self-governance and community programs, rather than enriching a global corporation.
Still, as the South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance has noted, a much bigger piece of the pie often ends up in non-Native hands. While that state welcomed 14.5 million visitors to the Black Hills region, Badlands National Park, and even tribal lands, tourists mostly bypassed Native communities and little of the $2.75 billion for such travel raised in 2019 went into tribal coffers.
That’s beginning to change with new partnerships and investments meant to drive more tourism to reservations and Native American businesses. AIANTA expects tribal tourism to increase in coming years and says investments of more than half a billion dollars are funding new and renovated American Indian cultural centers across the country.
In South Dakota, the state’s tourism department has created a five-year plan to increase Native American tourism opportunities, develop tourism infrastructure, and build tribal self-sufficiency by 2025. Native travel is also getting boosted by the federal government, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs funding several Indigenous tourism projects and the National Park Service working in concert with tribal governments.
With increased tourism can come increased pressure on the environment, with traffic, trash, and wear and tear on the land. Tribes are often particularly conscious of those risks, because so many historically significant sites are also sacred to us. In South Dakota, the Lakota have been fighting to protect the Black Hills for generations; in their native tongue the range is called Paha Sapa, translated as “the heart of everything that is.” Other American Indian nations have similar ties to the land, making preservation of it a priority, even as they attempt to increase tourism.
Monica Polling, the public relations and media manager for American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, says the nonprofit is there to help tribes do just that. She says their mission is to, “Define, introduce, grow, and sustain Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian tourism that honors traditions and values. In general, we operate similarly to a state tourism office, although our emphasis rests more in the area of education of tribes and Native-owned businesses on how to successfully perpetuate culture through building a tourism economy.”
The goal of preserving lands and authentic tribal culture can be difficult to manage against the pressure of tourism dollars. In the 20th century, for example, Native American artisans noticed that tourists liked their clunkier and less professional pottery because the tourists deemed it “more authentic” than the artisans’ polished work, so our people intentionally produced shoddy art for tourists. And in the 1930s as Native arts were promoted by the federal government, our people discovered white tourists loved totem poles, so many were carved simply for non-Native tourists to pose with (even by tribes with no historic connection to totem poles).
That, mind you, is not the kind of experience that today’s discerning and curious LGBTQ+ travelers are looking for, nor is it the kind of tourism tribes want to promote. While every tribe is different, the overwhelming majority are eager for the world to see our actual culture, values, traditions, and history. And we want to be the ones sharing it. Fortunately, that’s exactly what LGBTQ+ travelers want to see too. Here’s what you need to know. (Our best tip? Definitely try the fry bread.)
Asantea Eagleface of the Cheyenne tribe (pictured above) at the 2019 Two-Spirit Powwow in San Francisco. The annual event is hosted by the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) at Fort Mason, which was Ohlone/Costanoan tribal lands until it was taken by Spanish invaders and genocide was waged on the local Natives. During the Indian New Deal, many Natives were relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, which now has one of the country’s largest inter-tribal American Indian populations (with people from the Southwest, Great Plains, Northwest Coastal, Eastern Woodland, and California tribes). This led to the founding of what is now the oldest urban Indian community center, Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, which still offers queer-friendly community and resources for all Native peoples.
This piece initially ran in Out Traveler print issue Summer 2022.