On tribal lands around the country, Native American groups are telling their own stories.
Although casinos still serve as popular entertainment attractions for many tribes, in the past 15 years, a renaissance of cultural attractions has popped up in tribal reservations across the country. Tribes have learned to take control of their public perceptions, resulting in cultural tourism investments by several tribes that coincide with a broader tourism demand for more authentic travel experiences.
Between 2007 and 2015, the number of visitors to reservations increased from 693,000 to more than 1.9 million, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. More growth is expected as Native American-owned museums, ecotours, guided tours and hands-on heritage workshops continue to grow and gain recognition.
Today, groups can make their own moccasins, explore the Everglades and see dance demonstrations on Native American reservations. These thriving Native American tribes and organizations offer many ways for groups to experience rich heritages that predate the nation.
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
Though the brutal Trail of Tears may have seemed like the end of the Cherokee Nation, the tribe proved its resilience by becoming one of the largest tribes in the United States.
“Cherokee Nation started investing in tourism more than 10 years ago as a way to tell our story,” said Travis Owens, director of cultural tourism and community relations at Cherokee Nation. “Previously, our story had been told by others. We’ve seen a tremendous growth in the desire of folks to experience authentic places. Now we have a collection of historic buildings that each tell a piece of our history.”
Groups can tour several of these buildings in Cherokee Nation’s capital city, Tahlequah, Oklahoma. At the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum, the newly relocated tribe established its government in 1844.
The nearby Cherokee Heritage Center offers exhibits, cultural workshops and events throughout the year. Six years ago, the tribe added interpretive programs, such as classes to make traditional moccasins.
Groups can customize their experience by booking a local guide to take them around and give them insider information on the Cherokee culture.
This summer, the tribe plans to open another museum inside the Cherokee National Capital building.
“It will be a one-stop shop for Cherokee national history,” said Owens. “Most of our museums are set up thematically. This museum will act as the hub, where you can view the full story.”
Seminole Tribe of Florida
The entire Seminole Tribe of Florida may have ended up in Oklahoma if it hadn’t retreated deep into the undesirable Everglades swamps in the 1800s. During this time, the United States forcibly removed many Seminoles and other tribes from the state. Because the tribe never signed a peace treaty with the government, it claims to be the only unconquered tribe in America.
Groups can learn the tribe’s fascinating story with a visit to the Big Cypress Reservation, one of the tribe’s six reservations. One hour and 20 minutes west of Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Everglades destination houses the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the Billie Swamp Safari for ecotours and nature shows.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum offers a film on the tribe’s history as well as interactive exhibits. Guests can walk on a boardwalk through a cypress swamp, explore an art gallery and view a reconstructed village.
“We are in the process of revamping the whole museum,” said Seminole spokesman Gilbert Fevry. “We are also bringing more activities like zip lines to the safari experience.”
Billie Swamp Safari invites travelers to delve deep into the primeval landscape of the Everglades with airboat tours and swamp buggies. Live alligator shows, snake shows and other animal-related shows add up-close entertainment elements.
In 2010, the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulfur, Oklahoma, opened as a symbolic home for the Chickasaw Nation and an invitation to the world to meet the tribe’s people.
“The Chickasaw Nation has been welcoming people from the very beginning,” said Lona Barrick, executive officer of cultural tourism at the Chickasaw Nation. “From the beginning, they were good businesspeople and tradespeople. Our hospitality continues today. In every attraction we build, we want to stay true to who we are. We want to show our strength and our perseverance.”
The Chickasaw Cultural Center is one of many attractions in Chickasaw Nation, which spans 13 counties. Most of these attractions lie in easy proximity to Interstate 35, which runs through the reservation.
Today, the museum offers interactive exhibits, botanical displays and traditional dwellings on the 100-acre lot. The Aaimpa’ Cafe serves traditional tribal cuisine, such as grape dumplings and a corn soup.
Sulfur is also known as the gateway to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, which preserves mineral waters, streams and stunning landscapes. Other top Chickasaw attractions include demonstrations at Bedre Fine Chocolates, family-type shows at the 1920s McSwain Theatre and historic tours at the Chickasaw National Capital Building in Tishomingo.
American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association
For many Native American tribes, marketing their reservation’s tourism attractions proved difficult because of lack of funding. The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, introduced a website filled with Instagram-worthy photos and easy-to-use travel tools to help remedy the situation in 2015.
Now groups can easily plan longer trips through Native American reservations with www.nativeamerica.travel. The website’s interactive map divides the country into regions and promotes the authentic Native American offerings in each area.
Tribes whose own websites do not provide travel information can now inform interested visitors on upcoming events and attractions. The nonprofit AIANTA developed the site on behalf of all 573 federally recognized tribes to promote tourism and provide resources for tribes.
Now groups can organize a tour at the Seneca Art and Culture Center in Victor, New York; an overnight at a Navajo hogan in Utah; and a basket-weaving lesson from Hopi artists in Arizona; all in one place. The sophisticated site also contains group itineraries, such as American Indians and Route 66.