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Cultural Tourism: Alaska Native Heritage Center ready to rouse a sleeping economic giant

 <i>Dancers from the Alaska Native Heritage Center bless a newly crafted totem pole.</i>
Photo by Matt Faubion, Alaska Public Media.
Dancers from the Alaska Native Heritage Center bless a newly crafted totem pole.

Research shows cultural tourism is on the rise in Indian Country, because travelers crave authenticity and want deeper experiences with Indigenous peoples – a trend that could help Alaska tribes develop their own tourism businesses.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center is one of five Native groups that will receive federal money to expand cultural tourism. The Heritage Center’s director, Emily Edenshaw, predicts it will benefit the state’s entire travel industry.

“It’s a sleeping giant,” Edenshaw said. “It’s untapped.”

Edenshaw says it’s an opportunity to re-think tourism in Alaska, which she believes has come to rely too much on wildlife and scenery to draw tourists.

“Come and see the mountains and the brown bears -- and come explore and discover and go on the glaciers and look at the berries,” says Edenshaw, reciting the typical travel industry pitch that she says needs to be updated. “What about the Indigenous experience? Our people have been here for 10,000 years, in some cases even longer than that.”

The Heritage Center will receive about $50,000 to boost tourism. The money comes from the Office of Indian Economic Development, under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has partnered with the American Indian Alaska Native Travel Association (AIANTA) to oversee the grants.

The association’s director, Sherry Rupert, says it’s a good time to invest in Indigenous tourism.

“Visitation to our communities is increasing. That’s why we’re so interested in supporting efforts up in Alaska,” Rupert said. “Alaska has the largest number of federally recognized tribes than in any other state. There is so much potential there for these small communities.”

Rupert says cultural tourism not only creates jobs and economic opportunity, but also helps tribes hold on to their heritage.

“I think it really sparks a light and really sparks that pride in who they are, so it helps us to preserve our cultural identity.”

Edenshaw says the AINATA grant will be used to create a new position, a cultural tourism navigator, who will work with other communities to develop their own visitor experiences.

The grant will also be leveraged with other public and private funds – and will augment ongoing efforts at the Heritage Center to study on the impacts of cultural tourism.

“We need to get the data. We need to know how many jobs it creates. We need to know the economic impact through a cultural tourism lens,” said Edenshaw. “And the truth is, this has never happened in Alaska.”

As the Alaska Native Heritage Center approaches its 25th anniversary, Edenshaw says tourism is not just about how Alaska Native cultures lived in the past. She says it’s also about their future.

Edenshaw hopes that as Indigenous tourism grows, it will help to bridge cultural divides within the state by giving Alaskans an appreciation for Native cultures, as well as generate empathy and understanding for some of the struggles and historical trauma Native peoples have faced.

Other organizations to receive AINATA funding for cultural tourism are: the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York, The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce in South Dakota, the Shonto Economic Development Corporation in Arizona, and the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association in Honolulu.
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