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Tribal tourism summit

Tribal and state leaders met at the North Dakota Heritage Center on Thursday to discuss development and promotion of tourism on reservations.

North Dakota tribes will band together and seek state funding in an effort to promote tourism on reservations as part of North Dakota’s larger visitor experience.

“We want (visitors) to experience the whole state, including native culture,” said Les Thomas, vice chairman of the Turtle Mountain Tourism Association.

Tribal leaders along with state and federal officials are meeting at the North Dakota Native Tourism Summit, a two-day event in Bismarck, with the goal of forming a tribal tourism association in the state, which would be an affiliate organization of the national American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, and begin developing a plan to pursue a larger tourism industry on reservations.

“The opportunity for tribes is tremendous,” said Ed Hall, tourism specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

He said by bringing in outside visitors, tribal businesses will benefit from visitor spending. The influx of dollars would make businesses on the reservation more sustainable and raise the economic capacity of the tribe.

Strengthening tourism on tribal lands would not only benefit tribes but the state as a whole. The state Tourism Division markets North Dakota to the world and the tribes are part of North Dakota.

“Tribes not isolated they’re an asset,” Hall said. “Tribes open other doors beyond the usual (tourism) markets.”

About 1.7 million international tourists visit Native American communities annually, presenters from George Washington University said, which accounted for 5 percent of overseas travelers to the United States in 2014.

At ITB in Berlin, one of the world's largest travel trade shows, the tribal tourism booth within the Discover America display placed ninth out of thousands two years ago and was in the top 15 last year, Hall said. So the international interest in tribal-related travel is immense.

“It’s a win, win, win situation for the entire state,” said Thomas.

A united tribal tourism initiative started after, using grant funds it received from the Northwest Area Foundation to help with poverty reduction, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa hired a team from George Washington University to help develop its tourism assets. It worked out well for the tribe, and it decided to share that knowledge and success with other tribes in the state.

The statewide tribal association would help bring together the partners needed for success. The tribes will need to work with state government for marketing, other towns for creating a larger tourism package and colleges for workforce.

“Tourism in North Dakota is all about partnerships,” said Thomas, pointing out that North Dakota partners with surrounding states in marketing its own attractions as part of a larger regional visit.

Following that same impetus, in the Fort Berthold travel guide, visitors will find attractions from the surrounding communities as well as tribal sites. The same is true for the Turtle Mountain Tourism Association brochure, which depicts Mystical Horizons, the International Peace Gardens, the tribe’s casino, a newly constructed heritage center, as well as some Canadian destinations. The association also works with the Norsk Hostfest, promoting one another.

Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said tourism, the state’s third largest industry, has long been strong but the state is working to beef it up even more now that oil and agriculture are struggling.

Some partnership steps being taken include a master cultural plan with the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department at On a Slant Village, including coordination of tribal ceremonies to be held in the park. There is also a snowmobile trail that was developed from Bottineau to Belcourt and there have been talks about a Native American history kiosk at the Bismarck Airport.

“You’re landing in Indian country; you want to feel that,” Davis said.

The challenge is developing the product, Hall said. Many of the tribes have some type of tourist attraction but a successful tourism industry will require more infrastructure, like local businesses and services, than what is currently on reservations. International travelers will expect a broad spectrum of goods and services.

Where the tribes’ strengths lie are in the possibilities for hands-on experiences.

“People want to be infused in culture,” Hall said.

If they are kayaking down a river, they want to hear stories about it. They want to know the history behind what they are eating.

There is strong demand for tribal products. The Turtle Mountain tribe makes baskets that would fit this and visitors could even learn and make their own baskets alongside artisans. At the new heritage center, which will be open in July, there will be a tepee village for artists and musicians to do just that.

The tribal tourism association, which will answer to the United Tribes Board of Directors, will meet again at the annual Tribal Leader's Summit in Bismarck to craft a strategy for seeking a state appropriation, perhaps as part of the Tourism Division’s budget, to help fund tribal marketing and tourism-related development.

Should it pass, the NATIVE Act recently passed by the Senate, would be another resource for tribes at the federal level.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or


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