Glacier National Park, Montana (Flickr/Creative Commons dconvertini https://tinyurl.com/y7smvfby)
Native American life is historically rich and incomparable. It’s no wonder more and more people want to experience it. The American Indian Alaskan Native Tourism Association reports that travelers interested in exploring Indian Country to learn about native culture and history are growing at a faster rate than regular tourists to the United States.
In Montana, the state’s 12 tribes are hoping to cash in on this growing fascination for authentic Native experiences in the United States. With help from the Montana Office of Tourism and earmarked funds from the state legislature, tourists can now get a feel for what it is like to live like a Native in Big Sky Country.
“According to a recent survey, 82 percent of leisure travelers to Montana has expressed an interest in exploring sites and experiences specific to Native American histories,” says Heather Sobrepena, program manager of Montana’s Office of Indian Country Economic Development who worked on a team to expand and update Montana’s tourism website, visitmt.com, to include authentic Native experiences.
“We are working with each of our tribal partners—governments, communities and individual tourism operators—to talk about those sites and experiences that they want to share with the rest of the world,” explains Sobrepena, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota and a Crow descendant.
In addition to its updated website, the state’s tourism office has employed a number of other tools to spread the word about tribal tourism offerings, including a live Facebook tour of the Battle of Little Bighorn, inspirational videos, TV episodes, maps, tradeshows and a new guidebook called “Seven Lodges.”
In 2017, more than 12.5 million visitors to Montana spent nearly $3.4 billion. That’s music to Ed DesRosier’s ears. The Blackfeet Nation tribal member has owned Sun Tours since 1992, after a rough start getting the sightseeing business off the ground. “We had to fight the National Park Service to be recognized as a legitimate concession company. My tribe represented us, and we appealed all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.” In the end, it never had to go that far.
DesRosier started Sun Tours with just one Ford van and now runs a thriving, 11-vehicle bus-tour business through Glacier National Park—from the point of view of the Blackfeet Nation. “All our guides are tribal members who give a perspective you won’t find anywhere else,” he says with pride. “This is our indigenous homeland. We grew up hearing the stories and history of the sacred places, and we feel it is important for travelers to learn about it, authentically, from us.”
According to the 65-year-old business owner, Montana tourism has always recognized tribal culture, lore and history. “That romantic image has always been out there. But we also need an image of a contemporary Indian driving a bus full of people on a tour.”
Highlights of DesRosier’s interpretive bus tours include the scenic St. Mary Valley, the eastern gateway to Glacier National Park; the Two Medicine region; Going-to-the-Sun Road; buffalo herds: and the legendary Old North Trail. Tourists can choose between full- or half-day tours, ranging from $55 to $115 for adult tickets. Children five years old and under are free. Tours are seasonal and run from May 15 to Oct. 15.
“We are really fortunate to have this landscape that the Creator blessed us with,” says DesRosier. “To share Glacier National Park with new eyes, people who are visitors, gives us an even deeper appreciation for the place we call home.”
Like every smart entrepreneur, DesRosier is expanding his business into new markets, adding custom, high-end private tours for corporations, families, executives and celebrities. “It’s a new audience that has really grown,” he says. Notable clients have included Bonnie Raitt and the Indigo Girls. “Mark Zuckerberg came last year, but he rode on my competitor’s red bus,” laughs DesRosier.
DesRosier, recently named the 2018 Montana Tourism Ambassador by the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Recreation, believes the future looks bright for tribal tourism. “Our tribe has recognized the economic force that is Native tourism. It will do nothing but grow. And people are starting to pay attention.”
You’ll find Sun Tours and many other Native tourism experiences, such as Indian Battle Tours, on the newly revamped website visitmt.com. “Tourists can reach out to tribes individually or contact us,” instructs Sobrepena. “We can point them in the right direction and put them on a path where they can turn ideas into actionable trip plans.”