'We're very much alive and ... want to share our stories': How to see America through Native travel

Travelers will go across the world to immerse themselves in other cultures when there are hundreds to explore right here at home.

"With the impact of COVID-19 on travel, people have been wanting to get out of the metropolitan cities, away from people, and get to those beautiful outdoor spaces in their own backyard," said Sherry Rupert, CEO of the nonprofit American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. "A lot of people don't realize that in their backyard are these 574 tribes that are so unique and diverse at the same time."

There are 574 federally recognized Native tribes across the U.S. and many members have opened their doors to cultural tourism, sharing their heritage while bringing business to their communities.

"Your experience in Alaska with the Alaska Natives is going to be very different than the Pueblos in New Mexico versus your experience with the Native Hawaiians in Hawaii," said Rupert, who is Paiute and Washoe.

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Hawaiian Outrigger Experience offers much more than adventure. Owner Kevin Pi'ilani Hoke shares his Native Hawaiian culture and traditions with guests.
Hawaiian Outrigger Experience offers much more than adventure. Owner Kevin Pi'ilani Hoke shares his Native Hawaiian culture and traditions with guests.

Adventure awaits

Kevin Pi'ilani Hoke can trace his Hawaiian lineage back to King Kamehameha and even earlier to some of the first settlers of Hawaii. Hoke learned a lot about his heritage from his late grandmother, Eleanor Leilehua Hiram Hoke, a master of ancient hula. Now he proudly shares his traditions with tourists through his company, Hawaiian Outrigger Experience.

"I teach them about Hawaiian culture, history and navigation (wayfinding)," said Hoke, who also owns Maui-based Aloha Surf School and Hawaiian Ocean Sports.

Outrigger canoeing dates back centuries in the islands. Traditionally, the iconic canoes were used for travel and fishing.

When Hoke takes travelers on the water today, he teaches them to do it like his ancestors did.

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"Anytime you enter a mountain or the ocean, it was protocol to ask for permission," he said. "Where in the world do we ask permission to do anything these days? I try to increase awareness, sensitivity ... to always have aloha, to have a love for one another, for the land, the culture, the ocean, and all of our natural resources and traditions."

To truly understand aloha, Hoke says it needs to be broken down into its two parts: "alo," meaning face to face or in the presence of, and "ha," the breath of life.

"When Hawaiians greet one another, they traditionally exchange breath by touching your nose to nose or face to face, inhaling together to share your life force, your breath of life," he said.

He tries to impart that connectedness to travelers, encouraging them to take a bit of Hawaii back home with them and leave a piece of themselves behind.

Soaking it in

Across the ocean, visitors to Spa Pechanga in Temecula, California, may go in for a facial or massage, but they walk away with much more.

"I wanted a space where folks would be comfortable and feel like they're getting this learned experience but also still coming for the relaxation that they are paying for," said Myra Masiel, who is Pechanga and curator and tribal archaeologist for the Pechanga Tribal Government.

The spa and larger Pechanga Resort Casino are owned and operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.

"Everywhere you look is a representation of our culture," said Masiel, whose team helped develop the spa. "We were involved in every single step, including the chandeliers to the lighting to the colors. It's designed to make you feel like you're outside. Being outside is very important to our culture ... It was all inspired to feel like you were getting a cultural experience at the same time you were getting your treatment."

The treatments themselves are made with Native plants like acorns, a staple food, and prickly pear, which Masiel said has been historically used to reduce blemishes and dark spots.

"They're all based on treatments that we traditionally use for ourselves," she said, noting that self-care is part of Pechanga culture. "(When) we think of self-care, it's not just relaxing and taking care of your body, but also what you're putting into your body."

A taste of history

Travelers have a lot to take in at Owamni by The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis.

The fine-dining restaurant serves modern takes on Native cuisine using traditional ingredients sourced from Indigenous and local food producers.

According to its website, that includes "a mix of Indigenous game, fish, birds, and insects along with wild plants, Native American heirloom farm varieties, and locally grown produce" and avoids "colonial foods not originally from this land."

"It is more than just delicious food; it's an insight into a culture that has really not gotten a lot of attention over the years," said Dana Thompson, co-owner and COO of The Sioux Chef and founder and Executive Director of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, which aims to facilitate Indigenous food access and promote Indigenous foodways education.

Her heritage is Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota. Her Sioux Chef co-owner, James Beard award-winning chef Sean Sherman, is Oglala Lakota.

Thompson explained that Owamni means the place of swirling waters, and it's become a destination.

"People are flying from all over the nation and all over the world just to have a meal at Owamni, and it's been really humbling and beautiful," she said.

Thompson doesn't want guests to stop there.

"We want people to be inspired to try Indigenous food in every area that they go to," she said. "We hope that people will go to different areas and understand the diversity of Indigenous peoples all over North America."

A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Utah on May 16, 2015.
A Navajo man on a horse poses for tourists in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Utah on May 16, 2015.

Sharing stories

There is plenty of opportunity for that. A new report by the nonprofit American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association and SMS Research finds Native tourism is a $14 billion industry, and it's growing.

Last week the tourism association and the National Park Service announced a five-year partnership to bring Indigenous voices and contributions into parks programming, exhibits and outreach around the country.

"We're really excited about it," said Rupert. "We've been working with the national parks for quite some time, really building that relationship and doing some really great groundbreaking work including tribes in their Indigenous spaces, where their voices have not been heard before."

Past collaborations include the Grand CanyonLewis & Clark National Historic Trail and Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, spotlighting not only Indigenous histories but the communities still living there today. More experiences are featured on the tourism association's NativeAmerica.travel website.

"We're not an extinct people," Rupert said. "We're very much alive and thriving and want to share our stories with people."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Native America: Indigenous travel experiences to try close to home