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Know the West

Native American tourism quietly thrives

Even the customers seem to emerge from thin air.


If you're looking for a travel experience inspired by Native American culture, you might try the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village outside Browning, Mont., where for $60 a night you can rent a Blackfeet-style tipi with a view of prairie and peaks. Firewood and wireless Internet are included; another $15 rents a sleeping bag and pad.

For an additional charge, you can enjoy a traditional Blackfeet dinner that features buffalo, deer or elk meat, campfire entertainment including ceremonial songs and drumming, or a "Blackfeet traditional art workshop." And for $195, a Blackfeet guide will take you on an all-day horseback ride, exploring historical and cultural sites on the reservation.

"I've been doing this for 20 years, and there's nothing else like it in the whole United States," says Darrell Norman, one of the Lodgepole's managers and a Blackfeet tribal member. "I'm probably the only one crazy enough to do it."

That's Norman's way of saying that his Native business is more authentic than others. But it's difficult to evaluate the claim, because there are many others and they can be surprisingly hard to discover, as if they're half-hidden by clouds.

At the Gaynor Ranch and Resort near Whitefish, Mont. – run by Nancy Gaynor, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and her husband – you can rent tipis or cabins, hire a tribal member to guide you on a trail ride, and participate in traditional tribal songs near a medicine wheel. The Gaynors' tipis feature buffalo-hide rugs on wooden floors and nice beds with down comforters – "we call it 'tipi glamping,' " Nancy Gaynor says, using the slang for glamorous camping. Tourists from England, Italy, Poland, Israel, Russia and the Philippines keep her place busy, but when asked, "How do they discover you?" she answers, "I don't know."

GoNativeAmerica.com, aka NDN2rs (for "Indian tours"), sells Native-guided tours on reservations ranging from Canada to Arizona, and attracts international customers without much advertising. "They just find us on the Web, or by word of mouth," says Sarah Mathuin at NDN2rs, which recently moved its headquarters from Billings, Mont., to Jackson, Wyo.

There is no centralized listing of Native tourism operations in the West, according to many sources. Even the leading trade group – the American Indian Alaska Native Travel Association, based in Albuquerque, N.M. – doesn't have a complete list. "The Western American Indian Chamber was the only organization that was attempting to build a comprehensive database of Native American tourism attractions. That effort faltered years ago ... and the Western American Indian Chamber no longer exists," says Ben Sherman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux who was president of the Chamber.

It's ironic, because tourists are increasingly interested in Native American culture, and they can create revenue and jobs on reservations that are short of both. That's why many tribal governments have tourism offices that try to promote local operations, but there are complications with even those efforts. Tribes tend to "start small-scale and build long-term – it takes vision," says Gordon Bronitsky, a Native tourism consultant based in Albuquerque. Natives are often reluctant to exploit their culture for profit, and there's "a tension between tribal members who are tourism entrepreneurs and the tribal government wanting to regulate it without offering dollars to support it," Bronitsky adds.

"We never engage tribal governments, if we can help it," says one manager of a Westwide Native tourism operation, who asked to remain anonymous. "Tribal governments usually change every two years, and the new governments clear out all the deals made by the previous governments. And if a tribal government finds out what we're doing on a reservation, the government usually wants a percentage without passing the money along to needy tribal members. We'd rather work directly with traditional Natives – like tribal elders and artists, who are rarely in governments. For us, it's about putting money directly into the tribal communities."

On top of the difficulty of finding a Native operation, there's a fundamental uncertainty involved: Which enterprises offer a genuine Native experience, and which are superficial, just capitalizing on a trend? "Our customers want to understand Native America rather than the made-up culture," says Mathuin. "Many other companies just offer a drive-by experience, keeping most of the money for the company." Gaynor and Norman also make a point of describing their operations as authentic. Probably the best idea is to check customer reviews on websites like TripAdvisor.com, where Norman's Lodgepole operation gets 14 "excellent" ratings and one "terrible" one, for instance. Assuming, of course, you can even find a review.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Mont.