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Indigenous leaders request more federal investment in tourism initiatives

Alyssa Chubbuck, left, and Dan Bennett hold arms around each other whil looking out over a deep canyon with a river winding through it.
John Locher
Alyssa Chubbuck, left, and Dan Bennett embrace while watching the sunset at Guano Point overlooking the Colorado River on the Hualapai reservation, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, in northwestern Arizona. Many of the expansions in tourism Indigenous leaders proposed this week centered on natural and cultural wonders on Indigenous lands.

Indigenous leaders met in Washington, D.C., recently to discuss federal partnerships to boost tourism, as well as a path to building on existing relationships.

Some leaders said federal assistance that was expected nearly a decade ago is arriving more slowly than anticipated. While there are many different programs working to help develop tourism in Indigenous communities, Indigenous leaders are calling on federal agencies to step up and honor their obligations under the NATIVE Act.

When President Barack Obama signed the NATIVE Act in 2016, Indigenous leaders were hopeful it would stimulate a vibrant tourism industry in their communities. The act called for some federal agencies to assist Indigenous communities in developing tourism— although the act did not provide specific definitions about what that assistance would look like.

That doesn't mean that the act hasn't accomplished anything. A multi-agency report to Congress documented the impacts that the act had in Indigenous communities around the United States.

In recent years, the report said, millions of dollars have gone to Indigenous businesses and programs to help develop a tourism economy. For example, in 2021 the Office of Indian Economic Development gave just under $150,000 to the Pueblo of San Felipe for a feasibility study on tribal tourism and a business plan based on that research.

The report also outlined plans for the Office of Indian Economic Development and Forest Service would distribute millions of dollars in FY 2023 for tourism-focused initiatives on tribal land.

Yet the Forest Service notes in the report that its assistance is limited because the Department of Agriculture isn't given "granting authority" under the NATIVE Act. The act defines federal agencies that have an obligation under the act very ambiguously. Any agency that does anything related to domestic tourism is included, although exactly how that's determined is also vague.

“The NATIVE Act attempts to address the need for long-term investment from the federal government in building tribal capacity for tourism and economic development,” said Wizipan Little Elk Garriott, who is principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Interior Department and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. "This includes supporting tribes with creating, developing and promoting tourist experiences on their lands as a vital part of building the tribal economic base.”

Garriott, the keynote speaker at the meeting in Washington, said federal agencies were sluggish to meet the provisions of the act after the first year.

The act was meant to mandate agencies involved in tourism to help development the industry on native land. Indigenous leaders across the U.S. want to pick up the momentum again.

Garriott said he will continue to encourage agencies to meet the act's terms and work to gain support in Congress, although he didn't specify what that would look like. He also discussed long-term plans for getting federal agencies on board with the NATIVE Act through lobbying members of Congress and federal agencies.

“The act continues to really have a strong mandate, and everyone is supportive – the tribes, Congress. And it's really about how can we implement, and how can we continue to think about strengthening these efforts,” Garriott said.

He said the federal government should do more to honor the language of the law.

“Part of the reason I'm here today is to issue a call to action to our federal partners who share responsibility for implementing the NATIVE Act at their respective agencies,” Garriott said.

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