American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association 2013 Conference

Nov 25, 2013

Native American cultures are getting a helping hand from a surprising source…tourism.  The stereotypes of insensitive non-Indians picking through baskets and turquoise jewelry, while still alive and well, is not what the American public, or the world, looks for in a vacation. They want an experience, and often as not, they want to learn.

Edward Hall III
Credit Susan Shannon

A position was created at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. for a transportation specialist and tourism coordinator.  Edward Hall III filled that position. He is a member of the Arikara and Hidatsa Nations from North Dakota. He is also a co-founder of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, or AIANTA.

“My position was created back in 1991 under the Highway Bill and that essentially recognized our nation's transportation system as being a critical part of our economic development,” Hall said. “That was during NAFTA and so they also included Indian Country as a major component to the Highway bill and recognized tourism as one of the economic drivers for our country. So all of that just kind of came into being.”

“This position was created to see how we could start providing tribes with the tactical resources to be a part of not only their own internal planning and development of their infrastructure but also part of the larger discussion on how they could be part of our nation's economy and part of the global economy.”

“Personally I believe it’s one of the most important opportunities that we have in Indian Country. It’s not just about economic development,” Hall said.

“One of the most critical things we found is that there is a tremendous audience out there, people who want to learn about our stories and tourism is the avenue for us to educate the world. You know the most important thing that we have to offer is ourselves, our culture, our communities,” Hall said.

“The reality is that people come here and they want to know on that landscape what that story is about, the first people who were here,” Hall said. “Largely that story is not available. And so through AIANTA we’re able to now start connecting back to our stories, our history that fill in the gaps within the American story.”

“It also gives us a relevance and context to where we are today and I think that's really important not just for an industry but it’s really important for our youth,” Hall said. “Tourism is an industry that has a bad spin but in reality it’s an industry of diplomacy for us, it’s an industry that offers us an opportunity to build business, to build our infrastructure and create an environment where our communities have the ability to maintain sustainability,” Hall said.

“We don't have to send our children outside to go into a profession. We need to start looking at how we build our jobs, how we build our infrastructure at home so it is a thriving place and everybody has a future.”

AIANTA's basic role is one of providing technical assistance and training in recreational travel and tourism.

“We don't want this to be an industry that exploits us, we want to go in with our eyes wide open,” Hall said. “We understand that we as a community have to make our own protocols and make our own decisions on what's appropriate, what's not appropriate, how we protect our intellectual and cultural property.”

“We also are working with George Washington University to help develop inventory processes and strategic planning processes for tribes entering into the tourism industry. So we have a number of partners here that have the expertise that are vital so that you're not just looking at tourism from the standpoint of an event, or trying to put a cultural center together,” Hall said.

One of those partners is the National Park Services.  Once AIANTA was able to engage with federal agencies the NPS stepped forward to have AIANTA bring  an authentic native voice to the Lewis & Clark Bi-Centennial Event. Through that a circle of tribal elders became advisors to the Lewis & Clark Bi-Centennial.

“So now we have the national park service coming forward inviting AIANTA to be part of the 105th year anniversary of the Civil War,” Hall said. “One thing you'll see here as a product of that is we were able to  discuss the idea of doing a book on American Indians in the Civil War.”

In the process of researching for the book Hall said so much information came out, they couldn’t put it all in the book.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg. And we started recognizing the context of history with place and so the national parks are then working with us to introduce the tribal authentic stories to the national parks,” Hall said. “I think that's going to be a tremendous change in terms of how that's been present in the past in terms of having the national parks tell our stories for us, or tell a piece of history and not the whole story and in many parks, it’s not one tribe, its many tribes that have relationships with that area .”

“It’s about our communities really taking back ownership of our culture and being proud once again of where we come from and who we are. Through tourism, this industry is showing that there are people out there who really do appreciate our culture and our story,” Hall said.

“So it’s a reversal of where we had been going historically and it’s also causing people in other communities around us to see that when we have an audience coming in, like these international folks who have a deep appreciation and respect for us, that's a whole different kind of exchange and that we're actually bringing something of value that's been here for all these years and has not been recognized.”

Kevin Gover, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, was a keynote speaker.  Gover, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, eloquently spoke about what tourism, along with museums like the NMAI, could do for Indian Country, the education factor.  But not just about Indians and their cultures, educate about Indians today and who is an Indian.

Carolyn McClellan and Kevin Gover
Credit Susan Shannon

During the conference came the news that Cherokee Nation citizen Dusten Brown would have to return his daughter Veronica to her adoptive parents, and that news was not welcome news.  Gover mentioned that during his address.

“My point is that we all get taught things about Indians. Non-Indians in particular get a very limited amount of information about Indians from the popular culture and their formal education, and much of what they learn is wrong,” Gover said.

“And yet they bring those attitudes to issues like Dusten Brown's case and based on what they know, it all makes sense. It never occurs to them that the things they know are wrong, or incomplete.  And so that's a problem for us and it really does affect tribal rights and affects the public's view of issues involving tribal sovereignty.”

One issue here in Oklahoma is the funding for the completion of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. Some in congress don’t see a need for another museum devoted to Native Americans.

“Well, I think there’s always a need for more public education, more opportunities for people to learn what they want to know about Indians,” Gover said.

“And we know from the success of our museums in Washington and New York that there is a strong public appetite for more information about Indians. So we should be trying to seize every opportunity to engage these folks who are volunteering to come and learn about us and to give them good information.”

Gover established the largest Indian-owned law firm that specialized in federal Indian law.  This brought him to the attention of then President Bill Clinton, who nominated him to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. He was confirmed and became the senior executive of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  After that he was a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Going from the law to museum director is unusual.

“No, it wasn't a natural jump. I'm surprised. I still am surprised that I am a director of a museum,” Gover said. “But a lot of the skills that I acquired, a lot of the knowledge that I acquired from practicing law, from being a government executive over the years, and from being a law professor really do come into play and are useful to me in being director of a museum.”

Attendees of the conference were given the opportunity to visit the Cherokee Nation complex in Tahlequah and the Chickasaw Nation Cultural Center in Sulphur. 

Among the many workshops offered was one on how to work with the Smithsonian.  Cherokee Nation citizen and OU graduate Carolyn McClellan was a presenter. McClellan is the Assistant Director for Community and Constituent Services for NMAI.

Her duties include overseeing  all of the cultural programming at the museum, including live concerts, festivals, seminars and symposia, internships, fellowships and the implementation of the national education initiative and community outreach.

McClellan explained that her workshop was not just about how to work with the Smithsonian but how to make the experience their own.

“It’s even better defined as how can tribes make it more of their museum, and  how can they host events at the museum to show that they have vibrant cultures, vibrant economies,” McClellan said.

McClellan’s fellow presenter and colleague, Shawn Termin, from the Ogalala Lakota Nation, is the Cultural Arts Manager for NMAI in D.C. and New York City.

“Basically I work directly with native artists, performers, demonstrators, dance groups, theater, people doing contemporary art. We have a big art market and we really teach our public that native people have a rich history of cultural traditions through baskets, through pottery, through songs, through dance and that we're still here,” Termin said.

“The traditions are alive and we present them at the museum. Native people can do everything contemporary America is doing and better, most of the time I think.”

Termin said they did a lot of traveling in the beginning days of the museum.

“Now we receive proposals, we research, when we're out at events like this we're always trying to meet new artists and most artists want to be a part of what we do,” Termin said. “A lot of them send us their information and we try to fit them with the perfect program that would work to highlight them the best.”

“It’s always about making our artists the best. You can go to our website, there’s information on how to contact the museum programs division. Most of our things are coming through email nowadays with e-bios, e-packages, that kind of thing. We used to get a lot of mail but now it’s a new world.”

“Social media's big. And it’s really good because in the old days you really did have to go out and see people, just even ten years ago, you didn't have what you have on Youtube,” Termin said.

“People can say, 'oh catch this video, here I am performing at different places'. And if you go to Youtube you see a lot of people performing at our museum. We try to be helpful to them, to promote their careers, throughout North America, Canada, Mexico, so they can grow as artists. It’s really about us being there as a tool for our performing artists and demonstrating artists.”

You can’t have a native conference without the exhibitor booths, native peoples who are sharing their work, being their own advertisement.  One of Oklahoma’s premier artists and teachers, Ruthe Blalock Jones, was at a booth with her daughter Nancy, a clothes designer.

Ruthe Blalock Jones
Credit Susan Shannon

Jones is retired after thirty years as director of the art school at Bacone College located near Muscogee.  Bacone, which was established in 1880, has a long history of educating Native Americans, but is open to all races. Jones is having an active retirement.

“I don't paint as much as I had planned to, I should be painting full time, I'm approaching that we'll say,” Jones said. “I've done a little traveling and I'm very impressed with the casinos and how they've spent money on their own tribal people and put their own work in the casinos, such as the clothing and different artwork, besides painting, sculptures and all.”

“They've also have museum quality exhibits of different cultural items such as rattles and in this part of the country, shells. In other parts of the country we've seen buckskin dresses and feather headdresses and things like that,” Jones said.

“So people that come to those places are seeing the actual genuine object. I think that's very good. I think that its a new thing, hasn't really been done before speaking from the Indian standpoint,” Jones said.

“We've been deluged with poor imitations, copies… not even copies but just distortions and so this is quite a turnaround, quite a change. People are seeing things that they've never seen before, they're seeing things that probably they didn't expect and seeing that not everyone wears feathers and buckskin.”

Jones is seeing progress for the Oklahoma native art scene.

“Its more prominent, I guess you would say, its more visual. We see it more than in the last few years, perhaps. I'm thinking of the overall standpoint,” Jones said. “But from the individual artists I'm not sure that there's been that much of a change.”

“Its always been the practice that people don't sell their work here. They have to go other places to sell it. Or when they are here, as part of the promotion people will say 'just back from Santa Fe’ or ‘just back from Phoenix', or 'just in from New York' or something, and so maybe that will change. Maybe people will come here to purchase from the artist.”

Jones is also one of five commissioners on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, whose top priority is the implementation and enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. 

“The other Oklahoman on the Board is Harvey Pratt from Oklahoma City and he happens to be the Chairman,” Jones said.

“Our concern is truth in advertising and as you know we're concerned with seeing that the Indian Arts and Crafts Law is upheld and supported. That is that art is produced by Indian people, people who are federally recognized enrolled members of tribes.”

“It’s a huge job and we have very little money but we try to be visible at events like this with exhibits and hand-outs and so on. We don't have an enforcement arm but we do work with the legal agencies to try to enforce the laws.”

Fines for breaking the law is one million dollars a day.

Among the many offerings at the exhibitors booths was the work of native cartoonist Ricardo Cate, from the Santa Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico.

Ricardo Cate
Credit Susan Shannon

“I was invited by AIANTA. They're based in Albuquerque at the Pueblo Culture Center. My book is on display there at the gift shop and so were some of my paintings,” Cate said.

“One day when I was there, they invited me upstairs and they told me about this conference. I told them I could contribute by, I do speaking engagements because of my cartoons, what I do. I also tell a bunch of humorous stories. So they were happy to invite me and so here I am. I'm also one of the exhibitors here so I have some of my cartoons and books here.”

Cate’s cartoon strip, Without Reservations, deals with the ironies of native life in America.

“A lot of people call it the native Far Side and that’s  a huge compliment because I was always a Gary Larsen fan, Jim Davis, Bill Walker,” Cate said.

Without Reservations on screen
Credit Susan Shannon

“But there was never any native cartoonist to look up to so I decided just to become one. At first I was very apprehensive, hence the name Without Reservations because I had some reservations about it and so that's how the name came about for the cartoon,” Cate said.

“But that's what I draw, normal native life. I like to think that this is a universal cartoon and the character just happens to be native. When I first started they were native cartoons and most of the jokes were inside jokes for natives, but then I thought 'why can't everybody enjoy them?' and so now they have more of a universal theme so that everybody gets it.  And that's what I think has made it so popular.”

Cate did encounter negative feedback at first.

“Oh, at first it was awful, there was like at least 50 letters a week when my cartoon first came out, they were appalled. They said I was racist, that the cartoons weren't funny at all,” Cate said.

“Then I started answering every one of those emails and letters than my editor gave me. It was just a standard general letter where basically I introduced myself as Ricardo Cate, I'm Native American and blah blah blah. And then they would write back 'oh you're native, well I guess then it’s okay then.'  Something about me being native drawing these native cartoons made it okay”.

Cate grew up on the reservation until he was 14, he was then sent to a boarding dormitory up in Ignacio, Colorado on the Southern Ute reservation.

“The dorm kids there, half were Navajo, the other half were Southern Ute, Northern Ute, some were Apache and five of us were Pueblo Indians. We were bussed to a nearby school, which was a public school. That was my first introduction to talking to non-natives,” Cate said.

“Even though we lived right between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, we always went to town. But every time we went, my Dad did all the talking,” Cate said.

“He would order the food, he would buy the tickets for the movies, we never really mingled with any of the non-natives, we just talked amongst ourselves. And so when he dropped me off in Ignacio I was basically forced to confront them and its been funny ever since, its been a cool trip.”

Ricardo Cate’ cartoon strip “Without Reservations” is featured in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and various tribal newspapers. 

The AIANTA conference for 2014 will be held in Tunica-Biloxi Tribe’s Paragon Casino Resort in Marksville, Louisiana.