Talking Tourism in Indian Country

Last month 106 Group CEO Anne Ketz was invited to speak about cultural heritage tourism at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe.

When she landed in New Mexico in early August, Anne joined a handful of planning professionals—including Duane Bedell (White House National Advisory Council on Indian Education) and John Haworth (Senior Executive Emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian) and Gail McDonald (Former Akwesasne Heritage Center Development Manager )—who were slated to speak with students enrolled in IAIA’s Cultural Administration Master of Fine Art (MFA) program.

IAIA offers degree and certificate programs in fields ranging from Native American Art History to Business and Entrepreneurship, aiming to empower students through education, economic self-sufficiency, and the expression and enhancement of Native artistic traditions. The two-year Cultural Administration MFA features a week-long summer residency each year where students get to learn from museum/cultural center and arts administration professionals.

We recently caught up with Anne back in our Saint Paul office, to hear about the conversations happening in Santa Fe and the exciting shifts taking place in planning in Indian Country.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jesse Ryker-Crawford, Director of the Cultural Administration MFA, invited you to speak on assessing the feasibility of cultural tourism programs—a service 106 Group has provided to several Tribal clients, including the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, Cherokee Nation, Nez Perce Tribe, and Seminole Tribe of Florida. Can you give us an overview of your presentation?

Anne Ketz: Many tribes are looking for alternative sources of economic development beyond gaming. Tourism is one of the key areas that have potential for this economic growth. Cultural tourism, specifically, becomes a combination of looking at economic development and self-sustainability. It’s also very much tied in with cultural identity, rediscovery, and community pride in that culture.

That’s why cultural heritage tourism—or any tourism really in Indian Country—is very much connected to the mission of IAIA. There was a real sense of shared vocabulary between IAIA’s approach and the work that we do supporting tribes.

Contemporary Art at Garman Nature Preserve

How do Native arts, specifically, fit into conversations about feasible cultural tourism?

AK: When we look at cultural tourism programs, we look at a broad range of assets such as historical and cultural sites, Native-owned businesses, and cultural events to which the community would be happy to welcome visitors. Public art and the work of artisans is a big piece of what we look at, as well, because that’s where a lot of the economic development comes from. This includes helping those artists and artisans take their creations to market.

But when we assess feasibility for a heritage tourism program, we also consider the commodification of Native arts and culture, something that is constantly a big concern in Indian Country. It’s really important that there’s an understanding of where the artists and artisans are in their attitudes towards the proposed tourism plan, who does and doesn’t want to be involved. There should be transparency with the plan so artists can embrace participation in a program. If they choose not to participate, no one should feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Finally, Contemporary art in Indian Country is an effective way of conveying to non-native people the message that “we’re still here.” When they think about American Indians, a lot of people think it’s a dead culture. So that emphasis on a visual, contemporary, living culture that is rooted in the aesthetics of their community is huge.

How did this discussion of tourism feasibility fit within the context of the other residency presentations?

Duane Bedell spoke specifically about strategic planning for a tribal community, which segued really well with our topic of thinking strategically about developing tourism programs. Then Gail McDonald (Akwesasne Mohawk) discussed, in very practical terms, what their community did to make tourism feasibility planning possible (for example where and how to get funding to hire planning firms to support the community). John Haworth spoke about the broader national context of American Indian museums and the Native American arts and culture ecosystem–about being strategic not to burn out key leaders in cultural communities, making sure colleges like IAIA help to build the capacity for staffing those institutions in Indian Country.

A market in downtown Santa Fe

You were the only non-Native presenter for this week-long workshop. What does that say about the way planning projects in Indian Country have changed over the last two decades?

It’s exciting because it’s indicative of the fact that there are significantly more Native community and thought leaders than may have been apparent in the white person’s world twenty or thirty years ago.

I’ve also noticed in the work that 106 Group does, that even though there’s still a lot of misinformation, we’re having less conversations explaining why it’s important to involve Native stakeholders in the planning process. Now there is more of an understanding that they should be at the table and in many cases should be leading the effort.

Within Indian Country, there is a clear sense of vision for self-sustainability. So, the youngsters who are being educated, that go to colleges like IAIA, they’re coming back to their communities with their understanding of western business culture as well as the traditional ways that they were raised by their parents or grandparents. It’s a very powerful combination.

Any final thoughts?

The IAIA is a really solid institution – an important part of this progress that I’ve been seeing of really empowering Native communities through education, funding support, and taking control of their own communities and lives to become self-sustaining. That was really heartening to see—much like what I’ve been observing in the work that we do on our own projects.

Contemporary Art at Garman Nature Preserve
Anne Ketz

Anne has worked with a broad range of stakeholders, including Native American tribal communities, community planners & leaders, and thought leaders to ensure respect for each community’s heritage within the planning process.

Marika Proctor

Marika Proctor is a writer and editor with a decade of experience communicating about issues related to cultural resource and planning-based projects.