Montana’s Native American tribes have a rich history, traditions and culture; beautiful artwork, and celebrations and ceremonies that state officials believe would be of immense interest to some of the more than 12 million tourists who visit that state every year.
That’s why the Montana Office of Tourism and Development and the state Tribal Economic Development Commission are working hard to promote tribal tourism to Montana’s Indian Country — the state’s reservations and tribal nations.
Carla Lott, the state tribal tourism officer and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, is part of a team leading the efforts, along with Heather Sobrepena, a Crow descendant and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the state’s Indian Country economic development program manager.
“The reason we have fully engaged in tribal tourism over the last few years as part of our other work for Indian Country economic development is that tribal tourism kept coming up,” Sobrepena said. “We are taking the best assets we see in Native communities and turning those into opportunities for business development and economy boosting.
"Tourists are interested in having an authentic experience, and interest in tribal tourism is what spurred the effort to build capacity within the agency at the Department of Commerce and for promoting Montana as a destination.”
In 2017, the state conducted a national survey of potential visitors and found that 82 percent of leisure travelers express interest in exploring sites related to Native American culture.
“That’s significant,” Sobrepena said. “For the tribal nations, that’s an opportunity to translate that into actionable items in tribal tourism. At the high level, the reason we want to do that is it’s an opportunity that the market is ready and willing. For us, we have to create that marketplace where those transactions can happen."
She said her office is working to create awareness for Native American cultural experiences and events within a target market.
"And we're working on creating capacity within tribal nations and individual people and businesses to do activities, create collateral assets so people wayfind and translate that idea of wanting to have that experience so they definitely can plan a trip around it," she said.
The Department of Commerce’s Indian Nations website gives information about all of the seven reservations, and the Tribal Tourism website lists tour operators that honor authentic first-voice interpretive experiences and sustain cultural traditions and values.” The state tourism website has a dedicated Indian Country page.
Lott said the goal is for tribal tourism to benefit underserved, rural areas of the state while promoting a greater understanding of modern Native American culture.
“We are committed to tribal tourism as it brings positive economic development into these rural areas and underserved individuals and entrepreneurs,” she said. “We’re really being committed to assisting them in their capacity and increasing development. There is a lot of interest outside Montana to have a cultural experience, and First Nations people here are rich and historically rich in culture. And we think we, as tribal people, can be open to the public and welcoming for both the domestic and international leisure traveler.”
Montana’s scenic beauty is not limited to Glacier National Park or its entrance areas to Yellowstone National Park, but those two parks recorded a combined visitation of more than 7 million in 2017. Efforts to boost tribal tourism would direct visitor spending to Montana’s still scenic but less crowded rural landscapes.
“Montana is glorious with amazing and unspoiled landscapes,” Lott said. “We are looking at where we can support the rural entrepreneur and we’re doing our part in Indian Country to have that positive economic drive.”
The state's survey showed that a significant percentage of potential travelers are interested in museums, cultural events, and learning about artisans and craftspeople. Lott and Sobrepena said events like Indian Relay (Native American horse racing) and powwows have the potential to be huge tourists draws, even though they are already very well attended.
“These are top-level events that people can participate in,” Sobrepena explained. “You have a lot of people that know what the Kentucky Derby is, but they don’t know that we in Montana have a really long tradition of horse racing. The Deprtment of Commerce did a Indian Relay episode, and that’s a really great segment that’s gotten a lot of great coverage.”
Sobrepena said this year is the 100th Annual Crow Fair Celebration Powwow and Rodeo at Crow Agency, which organizers say is the “tipi capital of the world” during the four-day event from Aug. 15-20. North American Indian Days from July 12-15 in Browning is one of the largest gatherings of its kind in North America.
“These are really awesome things that happen, and these are beautiful places that people want to visit,” Sobrepena said.
The state recently launched a new marketing campaign, running animated banner ads in the travel section of National Geographic’s website, which gets 24 million visitors a month, to highlight the heritage, tradition and culture of Indian Country.
“The rich culture and history of tribal nations is an integral part of the Montana experience,” said Department of Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote. “Marketing campaigns such as this will encourage visitors to bring the positive economic impacts of tourism into tribal communities and reservations.”