FARGO — The five indigenous nations in North Dakota have teamed up to promote Indian Country to the world as the 2016 Standing Rock protest over the Dakota Access oil pipeline helped put tribal tourism on the map.

The controversy “opened up the world’s eyes again to Indian Country,” said Les Thomas, chairman of the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance. “The whole world wants to know about Indian Country. They’re interested.”

Thomas, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, helped start the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance three years ago in the hopes of attracting international tourists in search of cultural experiences and developing the state’s tribal economies. He said he wants to "preserve, protect and promote Native cultures" and educate non-indigenous peoples.

His pitch to newcomers? Take an evening cruise on a yacht down Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Reservation, watch the buffalo graze in parks at Standing Rock or Sisseton Wahpeton, sit on lakefront property at the Spirit Lake Reservation, or watch the horse races during Chippewa Downs at Turtle Mountain.

Four Bears Bridge over Lake Sakakawea is seen July 8, 2014, near New Town, N.D. Forum file photo
Four Bears Bridge over Lake Sakakawea is seen July 8, 2014, near New Town, N.D. Forum file photo

Each of the five tribal nations in the state — the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux, Spirit Lake, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara — has two members on the alliance’s board. And each tribal government has developed or is in the process of creating a tourism package for potential travelers.

Thomas has been a “local champion” for starting tribal tourism in the state, said Ed Hall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs tourism coordinator. He’s gathered partners for the alliance, such as North Dakota Tourism, the Northwest Area Foundation and George Washington University, which has helped in the planning and funding.

Darian Morsette, vice chair of the alliance and director of tourism for the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation of the Fort Berthold Reservation, said tourism is an “economic driver” for small towns, as tourists help communities when they spend money at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.

For every million dollars spent in Indian Country, about five jobs are created, according to a report from the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association. As of 2015, about 41,000 jobs in the U.S. in total were supported by international visitors to Indian Country alone, the association’s data shows.

Morsette said Fort Berthold is ready to “bring in busloads of people, international and national” to experience the yacht cruise, interpretive center and Earth Lodge Village.

Hall, who grew up on the Fort Berthold Reservation, said for many tribes in the U.S., tourism isn’t a priority because they’re focused on more critical needs. That’s why Hall is working to not only show “tourism as a way to provide economic development but also an avenue to justify additional investment in the basic needs the community already has on its list,” he said.

Hall said the alliance’s success in North Dakota has pushed tribes in neighboring states South Dakota and Montana to look into their own versions of a tourism association.

The Chippewa Downs horse races take place annually at the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Nation. Special to The Forum
The Chippewa Downs horse races take place annually at the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Nation. Special to The Forum

Turtle Mountain Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure said the Native Tourism Alliance is a “beacon” for tribes across the country to come together.

“You’re talking about representatives from all tribes showcasing the assets that each individual sovereign nation has,” he said. “It’s everybody working together to enhance each other. Instead of 200 years ago where tribes are still at war with each other, we’re peacekeepers that are pushing each other in a peaceful way.”

Azure said looking at Turtle Mountain’s 10-year economic plan, “It all hinges on tourism.”

“It’s all about bringing in that outside dollar,” he said. “And that’s how we become self-sufficient as a Native nation.”