canada africa partner reservation Honoring the Code: An Indigenous Travel Guide

Honoring the Code: An Indigenous Travel Guide

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Destinations rich in indigenous culture and history can enhance any travel experience, but it is important to proceed with respect and knowledge of the protocols.

When visiting places of cultural and historical significance to Native Americans, it is important to understand and observe boundaries. That’s common sense, of course, and it’s a message reinforced by Sherry Rupert (Paiute/Washoe), the CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA).

“If anyone is considering visiting one of our Indigenous nations – and communities are one of their destinations or experiences – it is always good to do some research before coming out,” Rupert said. This code of conduct may include simply paying attention to signage by stakeholders, requesting permission to record an event or activity, or not collecting or removing artifacts or objects. Rules obviously vary per site. Tribal nations try to balance community and tradition while providing positive experiences for visitors, Rupert says.


A trek through Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) country in Idaho (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy Nez Perce Tourism).


In many cases, especially at museums—including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma—photos are allowed unless otherwise noted. However, there are exceptions, so it’s important to pay attention. At Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, visitors can immerse themselves in Native American culture, including one of the best preserved sites of Ancestral Puebloans. But leave your drones at home. They are prohibited according to the rules stated on the park website.

“Often the tribes will have information on their websites about their expectations for visitors and any permits they need, so everyone understands well in advance what is expected of them – because there is a difference between public lands and tribal lands or indigenous homelands,” says Rupert, who has promoted Native American tourism for nearly two decades.


Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House in the historic Haida Village Kasaan in Alaska (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of Historic Haida Village).


Rupert’s nonprofit organization (AIANTA) helps tourists with his online guide, NativeAmerica.travel, a website that shares experiences available to travelers throughout Indian Country. The site is a valuable travel and planning tool that divides the United States into twelve regions. It highlights various travel experiences, from art and culture to living history and historical monuments. Various thematic visits are proposed in the route section. There are also maps, calendars, blog posts highlighting events and, most importantly, practical guidelines that can be applied to any trip.

“I think it’s very easy to make a misstep because we’re all so used to pulling out our cell phone and taking a video or photo,” she says. “And so we have to be aware of that in some places on indigenous lands. That’s not allowed.”


Campsites at Blackfeet in Montana Nation (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of Blackfeet Nation).


Rupert discovered this himself during a visit to New Mexico. “I’m not from New Mexico. And when I came here, I wanted to learn everything about the Pueblos of New Mexico,” she says. “So I was invited to the various holidays and ceremonies for a few Pueblos, and one of the things I noticed right away was that there were signs saying ‘no cameras, ‘no filming,’ things like that. . And I was like, “Oh, okay. Yes, no cameras, no filming.’ But I quickly realized that what they meant was no phones, no cameras, no filming, and there are people in the crowd, and they’re looking for people who are acting out of habit or filming something they shouldn’t.

“They came by and took those cell phones and kept them. And I thought, ‘Wow, wow.’ But then I realized that it is really up to that particular Pueblo how they want to treat visitors who come to their land. And (there are) things they want to keep sacred. They (do this by having) these rules or policies for their visitors.”


The Yurok Tribe Canoe Building in California (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of the Yurok Tribe).


She saw a different perspective when she worked as the director of Indian Affairs for the state of Nevada. A TV production crew requested several times to shoot a ghost hunting show on the grounds of a boarding school. Rupert refused every request. “I would refuse because we believed we didn’t want to upset the spirits. Just leave them alone, let them rest,” says Rupert. “So I actually had to work with the state of Nevada to make sure they supported my decision as well. So if they got a call from one of these entities, they would also decline.”

The increased representation of Native Americans in mainstream media has also led to increased interest in tourism. Killers of the Flower Moon and the Hulu television series Reservation dogs are two of the high-profile productions about Native Americans that have led to an increase in visits to Oklahoma. Murderers, the Martin Scorsese-directed film that was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, has drawn tourists to several locations in the Osage Nation. The state director of tourism reminded visitors to be respectful during the revival.


Oneida Nation of Wisconsin’s Walk of Legends (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of Oneida of Wisconsin Tourism).


“As we welcome visitors to Osage County to learn more about this history, it is important to remind everyone how they can be respectful of the land, its people and its historic sites,” said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation. The ministry said this in a statement last year.

Rupert worked with Congress to pass the Experience: Native American Tourism and Improving Visitor Experience (NATIVE) Act in 2016, which encouraged coordination and resource sharing between communities and the federal government. She believes Indian tourism is now at an all-time high. “People are very interested in knowing more; we have a lot of time to think about what’s important to us – and it’s no longer just an Instagram photo.

“It means understanding people, understanding culture, visiting them and seeing where they are. And so we’re certainly seeing that trend in the momentum for indigenous tourism in this country.”


Start with the basics

Readers of NativeAmerica.travel will be reminded of general protocols regardless of the tribe or region visited:

  • Be alert for signage and follow individual tribal rules and regulations.
  • Weapons, drugs and alcohol abuse will not be tolerated.
  • Respect the privacy of residential communities.
  • Ask before photographing or documenting a person, an event or an activity.
  • Do not pick up or remove artifacts or objects.
  • Cemeteries and religious ceremonies are sacred and may not be entered.

Sculpture Acoma Pueblo (PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of Sky City Cultural Center).


Visit NativeAmerica.travel for more information information about protocols and codes for travel to indigenous lands and locations.

From our July 2024 issue.

HEADER IMAGE: Blackfeet Tipi Camp in MT (PHOTOGRAPHY: courtesy Bruce Rettig)