Tourism is South Dakota’s second-largest industry. Nearly 13 million visitors spent $3.4 billion while supporting 59,500 jobs last year, according to the Department of Tourism.
But Native American-operated tourism is underdeveloped and there isn’t much awareness about the experiences that do exist.
The South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance wants to change that.
“I think the South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance is a potential revenue source for our tribes and it’s a way for our tribes to generate income, alleviate poverty and help us to conserve our natural resources and culture,” said Dew Bad Warrior-Ganje, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and vice president of the Black Hills Pow Wow.
The Tourism Alliance stems from the Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act, a 2015 federal law that provides funding and technical assistance for tribal tourism.
An ad-hoc committee of Native American tourism operators, industry experts, and federal, state and tribal leaders have been meeting for the past year-and-a-half to create a plan to support Native Americans interested in the industry while improving marketing for attractions that already exist.
The group has identified current and potential tourism experiences along existing scenic routes. This is meant to usher tourists through multiple reservations while encouraging collaboration and skill sharing among the tribes.
“The idea is really that the tribal nations are working together to attract tourists and not going at it alone. Ensuring that there is this cross-cultural bridge occurring, and education occurring in tourism, along these trails and byways,” said Seleni Matus, director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University.
The institute partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help North and South Dakota develop tourism plans. The North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance is up and running with a contemporary, easy-to-navigate website.
Guss Yellow Hair and his daughter Tianna are Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota. They own Tatanka Rez Tourz, which has been giving tours of the Pine Ridge Reservation and Black Hills for seven years.
“You know the economic situation on the reservation, like almost 60% to 70% unemployment, so we have big dreams and big ideas of being able to help the tribe with that portion of it by training young people in areas of tourism, in areas of art,” Guss said.
We want to work “with the state or with the government on opening up a facility on federal land. So we’re going to approach them with that. I think it’s only fair that we get a piece of the pie,” he added.
The “pie” is the Black Hills, which was taken from the Lakota people and is now a profitable tourism area, but mostly for non-Natives. Guss wants to see tourism partnerships between tribes or tribal members, and the government agencies that own the land.
Similar partnerships exist elsewhere. The Oglala Sioux Tribe comanages the South Unit of the Badlands National Park. In Montana, the Crow Nation gives tours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Tribal members run an art market at a scenic overlook in a national forest near Flagstaff in Arizona.
The Tourism Alliance will share its five-year plan and new website during a Thursday launch party in Rapid City. The event features speakers, a drum group and a Lakota meal. After, attendees are encouraged to tour the Journey Museum, visit downtown Indigenous-owned stores or attend a foraging tour in the Black Hills.
The ad-hoc group will eventually need to decide what kind of permanent organization it wants to form. The North Dakota group went with a nonprofit arrangement.