Visit Reservations

Arizona's tribes are looking to boost tourism income while maintaining privacy and traditional values

The Mission San Xavier throws long winter shadows across a broad plaza, where John Fendenheim is tidying his cozy tourist shop. Rising from flat desert on the 2.8-million-acre Tohono O'odham Reservation west of Tucson, the Spanish mission has been a pillar of O'odham life for nearly three centuries. But along with casinos, it's also become a financial foothold for the reservation's 24,000 residents, says Fendenheim, a tribal member.

"San Xavier is Tucson's No. 1 tourist destination. I worked hard to get a shop in here."

This is the second store Fendenheim has opened on the reservation, since obtaining a $60,000 start-up loan from the tribal government in 1999. Today, his business generates around $1 million a year. But he says the road to success can include collisions between reservation culture and the thousands of visitors drawn to sights such as San Xavier, dramatic Baboquivari Peak and a national astronomy observatory, all on tribal land. When new tourist-related businesses such as tours, hotels or stores are proposed, "Traditional values are really thought about," says Fendenheim. "Do O'odham people really want more non-Indians walking around? How do you confine it? These are the kind of questions that are asked."

Similar questions are being posed on an increasing number of reservations, where developing a steady tourist trade comes at a price. It's one thing to have outsiders visiting a casino, and quite another thing to have them traipsing through backyards or stumbling onto sacred sites.

That's a huge challenge to Indian nations, says Tohono O'odham Vice Chairman Ned Norris Jr.

"When you look at encouraging tourism," he says, "whether it's coming out to Baboquivari Peak or the Kitt Peak Observatory, you get mixed feelings from tribal members. On one hand, it's good. On the other hand, the feeling is, 'We don't need people coming out onto the nation, because they don't have the kind of respect that we expect for the land, for the people, and for sacred sites.' There are a lot of tribal members who don't encourage tourism, and I think for valid reasons."

Still, Indian Country tourism "is a growing trend within tribes nationally, and a significant economic benefit for them," says Gloria Cobb, a Wisconsin Ojibwe and board member of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. At workshops the association sponsors across the country, she tells tribal officials: "They are going to have visitors whether they want (them) or not. The idea is to control the tourism, and manage it so that tribes see some economic benefit."

The need for such economic development is often dire. While Indian casinos generate up to $10 billion each year, only about one-third of the nation's tribes have gaming. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of Indian children live in poverty, and unemployment runs as high as 80 percent on some reservations.

Still, even when visitors come to reservations, they often don't leave much money behind, and they usually don't spend the night. The same remote beauty and unusual culture that draws travelers often drives them away when the sun sets, says Mark St. Pierre, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce, on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. "They worry, 'Will I feel welcome? Will I feel safe?' There's a lot of confusion, and it takes marketing to overcome these things."

To acquaint visitors with Pine Ridge, St. Pierre spearheaded an annual "Ridin' the Rez" motorcycle rally. Like much tourism on reservations, the event blends pure recreation with a dose of history. Covering nearly 200 miles, the ride traverses some of the Badlands' most striking areas, and historic sites such as Wounded Knee. It has been a boon to the roughly 40 tourism-related businesses, including campgrounds and grocery stores, scattered across the Connecticut-sized reservation.

But even if visitors were willing to stay for several days, many reservations lack the overnight accommodations necessary to make the most of tourism. The 22,600-square-mile Navajo Reservation, which spreads across parts of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, is notoriously short of hotel rooms. Visitors typically spend the day at the Navajo National Monument or Canyon de Chelly, and then retreat to off-reservation cities such as Flagstaff for the night.

A 2002 study found that tourists who visit the reservation pump $100 million each year into the regional economy, but only a small percentage remains on the reservation.

"We don't have the facilities to keep up with tourist demand," explains Roberta John, of the Navajo Nation Tourism Department. Now the tribal government is streamlining the permitting process for new businesses, and at least one Days Inn is planned for the reservation.

Reservation entrepreneurs also face financing hurdles. Since tribal land is collectively owned, it can't be used as property collateral for traditional bank loans. To fill this credit vacuum, many tribes such as the Tohono O'odham earmark a percentage of gaming proceeds for business loans. John Fendenheim was able to expand only with loans from a $15 million economic-development fund established by the tribe.

Others encourage outside investors to partner with reservation businessmen, but non-Indians can get frustrated with unfamiliar social customs and sensitivities. For example, outsiders who make their pitches too aggressively--a trait disdained by many Indian people--can find themselves politely ignored.

"It can be difficult for non-tribal members to deliver their message on the reservation," says Tia Jones, president of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association, from her office on the San Carlos Apache Reservation near Globe. Her group acts as a intermediary with potential investors, shepherding them through "the different cultural norms on the reservation. We help interpret their message."

Still, funding means little without teaching reservation entrepreneurs the ropes of tourism, says Ed Hall, tourism coordinator for the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Hall works with tribes "to provide technical assistance, arrange workshops, and develop tourism planning."

Realizing the potential tourism revenues for their own coffers, many states are also getting involved. Gov. Janet Napolitano recently designated a special liaison position to coordinate tourism development with reservations, and the Arizona Office of Tourism is devoted to "building closer ties to the tribes," says spokesman James Ahlers.

But there remains some understandable resistance to opening reservations to swarms of visitors, says the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association's Cobb. "We've been burned in the past. However, tribes finally get to a point where they say, 'Are we going to pay someone to tell our stories, or are we going to do it ourselves? And if we do, we have to do it right.' We're tired of just being a picture in a magazine and being used as an attraction."

Fendehnheim's Mission San Xavier shop has turned that notion on its head. Today, Fendehnheim makes a tidy living from people who come to an historic attraction, take plenty pictures and drop some cash. Still, reservation entrepreneurs constantly straddle a fine line between profit and exploitation.

"We're trying to develop something that, when tourist dollars come here, they stay there," he says. "But should sacred areas like Baboquivari Peak be marketed, put in a package and sold? I don't think so. Sacred places should not become a commodity."