Cultural Tourism: Are You A ‘Real’ Indian?

Monument Valley Panoramic.
Monument Valley Panoramic.

It’s 2013 and I’m leading a tour group through Monument Valley; what many consider a “must-stop” for any exploration of the Southwest. As I’m explaining the history of the area, another tour group listens in.

When I’m finished, one of them approaches me and asks, “Are you a real Indian?” I reply “Yes, I’m Hopi”. Head tilted, eyes squinting, he gives me the once over, then turning to gaze at the landscape, he asks “Where are the tipis?”

I assume he’s joking. He’s not.

Sadly, this is nothing new and I’ve learned to handle such situations. After a quick tutorial, this gentleman now has a different perspective about “real” Indians. Before leaving, he turns and asks “Just what kind of tour are you leading?” I reply “An educational one, Cultural Tourism”. Looking puzzled he asks, “What does that mean?”

Indeed, what is “Cultural Tourism” and how does it differ from your average tour or family vacation?

In a nutshell, from this author’s experience, Cultural Tourism is about learning. However this learning is taken to a new level, wherein the experiences are meant to give the individual a deeper sense of a culture different from their own.

Imagine a whirlwind tour of the Southwest, where only the most popular attractions are visited, sometimes for only a few hours at best. After a quick stop at the visitor center, perusing some interpretive signs and grabbing some pamphlets to read later, it’s off to the next destination. Not much chance for in-depth learning happening there.

From my perspective, Cultural Tourism in Indian Country, which includes more than reservation lands, involves a discourse between those visiting and those being visited.

It’s an exchange, a sharing of perspectives that allows the visitor to gain an understanding of not just the history of a place and its’ people, but a sense of their modern ways of life. It often occurs at a slower pace, perhaps spending an entire day in one location, or a series of days within a specific region.

During this experience you may partake in a traditional meal in a host’s home, or visit an artists’ studio where they explain the use of materials and meaning of ancestral designs. You might also spend a night or two camped out on a family’s ranch, learning about their personal connections to the landscape.

Cultural Tourism: More than a whirlwind tour.
Cultural Tourism: More than a whirlwind tour.

Cultural Tourism is also about empowerment, sustainability and yes, the “American Dream”, with a Native twist. It affords modern Natives the chance to showcase Cultural Pride, to boast of famous relatives and their children and grandchildren attending universities or in the Armed Services.

It allows the visitor to hear and see what a “real” Indian looks and sounds like; to see that our lives aren’t as romanticized and mysterious as popular media portrays.

To show that on many levels, we aren’t so different in the lives we lead. In the end, you may leave a few dollars lighter, but with a richer understanding of a culture not your own.

In future articles, we will explore the variety of tours that different tribes offer, what to expect, proper etiquette and how Cultural Tourism is impacting Native Communities.

Oh, and that gentleman from the beginning of the story, I gave him my card and in 2014, he returned with his family to experience a different kind of tour.

This article originally appeared on the website:

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