Billy Eichner
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7 Tips for Visiting Indian Country

Indigenous ruins

“The most important thing to know about visiting Indian Country is that there really is no such thing as ‘one’ Indian Country,” American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association’s Monica Polling tells us. “With 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., many more state-recognized tribes as well as our Native Hawaiian population, the U.S. is a veritable United Nations of Indigenous peoples. Each has their own culture which has been grown around such contributing factors as climate, geography, native flora and fauna, heritage, internal influences, and external influences.”

For example, she says, “An Eastern tribe called upon to fight in the Revolutionary War, for example, will have incredibly different perspectives than one on the West Coast whose first contact with non-Native cultures was with Spanish colonialists forging their path north to the [San Francisco] Bay Area. A Plains tribe reliant upon bison and wheat will have different experiences than a tribe who fished and traded in the Great Lakes region.”

Similarly, Polling, explains, “It would be too hard to ‘generalize’ one statement about the reception of the LGBTQ+ community across all tribes. For travelers who might be concerned about their reception, we recommend starting with a call to the Tribe’s cultural center — if there is one — or a visit to their website.” You can also look at Wikipedia’s expansive listing of every tribal nation that recognizes and accepts marriage equality.

1. Know before you go.

Polling recommends all travelers do a little research before they leave home. “They should learn about the tribe they are visiting, learn about the history of the region,” she says. And visitors should be aware “that what they learned in school is often, at best, a partial story, and frequently an incorrect story.” Many Americans only learned the nation’s colonial history, not the thousands of years of Indigenous culture that preceded it. Christine McRae, executive director at Native Land Digital, echoed that sentiment to Travel + Leisure, saying, “We have this responsibility to push deeper to learn about the full stories of the place.” She suggests travelers seek out what the land is called in the local Native language and learn about the geographic points of significance to the Indigenous people who live there.

2. Go digital first.

Most tribes have a website that you should visit before going in person. In addition to providing information about the tribe’s history and culture these sites also list rules and regulations, any areas that are off-limits, and what activities require permits. For example, some tribes require visitors have a tribal member guide them while on Native land and others do not permit photography.

 

Indigenous ruins

 

 

3. Don’t do it for the ’gram.

You should always get permission to photograph any Native person. There’s a long history of those photographing Native Americans doing so for exploitive reasons. Jakob Dopp, a graphics cataloger at University of Michigan William L. Clements Library, has noted, “Native American subjects did not have much say in terms of how they were photographed. Indians on reservations were also sometimes coerced into taking photographs with the promise of much-needed money and/or material goods in exchange. Studio props such as embroidered buckskins, bows and arrows, fake tattoos, war clubs, tomahawks, and guns were also commonly supplied by photographers. In some cases, photographic prints were even manipulated in order to make a subject’s skin appear darker than it actually was….”

4. Learn more about whose land you’re on.

Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led Canadian nonprofit, offers a searchable map that makes it easy to find which Indigenous nations and communities have ties to a specific region. You can even text your zip code to (907) 312-5085 and it’ll text back which nation had historical connection to that geographic region.

5. Visit the local cultural center.

Native American cultural centers and museums are great places to learn more about a tribe’s history, culture, and community. “The cultural centers often serve as the first stop for travelers and occasionally a de facto visitor center,” Polling says. “The LGBTQ+ community should use these as a resource when designing their own travels.”

6. Select experiences and accommodations by Indigenous peoples.

Is the teepee campsite or guided tour owned by Native Americans? Are the American Indian crafts or souvenirs made by Indigenous folks or imported from China? Will Indigenous people reap the economic benefits? If not, choose something that does. As Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada notes, “Indigenous tourism provides travelers the opportunity to connect with those who have lived on the land for millennia while bringing economic growth and support to underserved communities.”

7. Keep going.

Your educational or activist journey needn’t end when your vacation does. Find out about the land you call home, and follow Indigenous news sites or social media accounts raising awareness about Native Americans. Consider how colonialization and displacement have aggravated issues we all face, like the climate crisis. Find ways to support Indigenous people and protect or restore the land.

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