Tazbah McCullah

Within the past three decades, many New Mexico tribes have made big strides in developing sustainable tourism on their lands and have garnered a reputation for NM as a national leader in tribal tourism. The first tribal tourism association and tribal visitor’s guide were developed here, inspiring tribes across the country.

All 22 tribes in NM continue to hold their land base, languages, cultures and traditions, and are committed to telling their own story in their own words. “New Mexico is one of the few places in the United States where tribes weren’t disenfranchised and sent to another region,” said Chris Cordova, President of CRC & Associates, an Albuquerque-based research firm. “In many cases, their societies never fell apart. They stayed here, and being agrarian societies, the people are tied to the land.” Long-term stability and a strong sense of place enhance the cohesion and collaboration that strengthens tribal tourism in New Mexico.

Former Indian Tourism Program Manager/Development Division Director for the NM Tourism Department, Travis Suazo, says that tribal sovereignty has been an essential ingredient in tribal sustainability. “Throughout the hundreds of years of changes of reign in this region by Mexico, Spain and the U.S., the sovereignty of the pueblos has been recognized and maintained by all of those governments.” Suazo (Laguna/Acoma/Taos) is currently heading up a project to be launched at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) in Albuquerque titled, “100 Years of State & Federal Policies: The Impact on Pueblo Nations.”

Ron Solimon, President and CEO of the IPCC noted that tourism is the second largest employer and revenue generator in NM. “Deep investments by the tribes in capital projects have benefited surrounding communities and have created a multiplier effect on the economy in the state as a whole,” he said. According to a story in the NM Business Weekly, Indian casinos paid $62.2 million to the state in 2009.

The Inn of the Mountain Gods, owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern NM, under the leadership of former President Wendall Chino, opened the first tribally owned resort in the country in 1975. Destination resort/casino developments such as Route 66 Casino (Laguna) Hardrock Casino (Isleta) Buffalo Thunder Resort (Pojoaque) and Tamaya (Santa Ana) have provided jobs in marketing, design, architecture, construction, law, accounting and technology.

There are varying opinions on the impacts of casinos. According to Hayes Lewis (Zuni) in the book Creative Tourism – A Global Conversation (Sunstone Press), “Casino gaming…has not benefited all who have chosen this path. Many tribes are now strapped with unanticipated human, social, and cultural costs on top of the price of doing business…while the scale of the carbon footprint and environmental damage has become larger… Artisans, craftsmen, farmers and tribal members gain strength from cultural enterprises of a smaller scale that are linked to spirituality, ecology, culture, and the sacredness of place and space.”

There are now a number of tribally owned destination resorts in central and northern NM that, in addition to offering golf, recreation, spas, convention facilities, art, and regional cuisine, also offer various forms of an “authentic experience.” Of course, while sacred spaces within tribal communities are off limits and need protection from curious outsiders, according to Suazo, the future of tribal tourism should always “remain authentic to our cultures and traditions and share that in a respectful manner with all visitors.”

Tribal-State Relations

New Mexico was the first state to have a Native American liaison for tourism between the tribes and the state. The “Indian Tourism” desk within the Tourism Department was first occupied in the late 90’s by former Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Calvin Tafoya. His successor during the Gary Johnson era was Lorentino Lalio (Zuni). Travis Suazo was Bill Richardson’s pick. The position, however, was abolished this year by New Mexico’s new governor, Susanna Martinez.

There are a number of existing tribal consortiums such as the IPCC, the NM Indian Tourism Association, Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, and the All Indian Pueblos Council, that were formed by necessity for political, cultural and economic initiatives. These consortiums have facilitated cooperation among the tribes and have been important to tourism development.

A first for Indian Tourism occurred recently with the appointment of Ron Solimon to the U.S. Travel Association’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. Solimon had been nominated by the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau. Native Americans now have a voice at the regional and national tourism tables.

Solimon also sits on the board of directors of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (www.aianta.org). AIANTA is a nonprofit organization made up of member tribes from six regions: Eastern, Plains, Midwest, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. The association serves as the voice and resource for its constituents in marketing tourism, providing training and educational resources to tribal members, and serves as the liaison between Indian Country and governmental and private entities for the development of Indian Country tourism.

AIANTA chose to locate its national headquarters in Albuquerque at the IPCC. Executive Director Rebecca Martinez says that the decision was influenced by the large Native American populations in the state and throughout the region.

The past 30 years growing NM’s Indian Tourism has not been without challenges. Besides national economic trends that affect travel such as fuel prices, other obstacles could arise, according to Travis Suazo. “If tribal funding sources such as gaming that support the tribal cultural centers, museums and historic sites were restricted, the ability to deliver tourism services would be impacted.”

“We’ve been welcoming visitors to our lands long before Europeans stepped foot on this continent,” said Suazo “Native people have been traveling in and out of their homelands to trade, barter, visit and engage in commerce for who knows how long. Take the macaw parrot feathers that we use in ceremonies being brought up on that commerce trail from South America, or our unique gems finding their way from trails to and from the West Coast. That’s sustainability.”

Tazbah McCullah (Navajo) holds a BA in journalism from the UNM. For the past 9 years she has served as marketing director for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Inc. and Indian Pueblos Marketing, Inc. www.indianpueblo.org