Friday, December 8, 2023

Native California, a Just-Launched Online Database, Connects Travelers to the State’s Indigenous Heritage

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Across the U.S., tourism boards guide visitors on where to eat, sleep, and explore in their destinations. But for too long, Native American-owned establishments and experiences have largely been left out of the conversation.

“The tourism industry isn’t set up for tribes to be successful,” says Sherry Rupert (Paiute/Washoe), the CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA). 

A new initiative in California seeks to change that. Launching this week, Visit Native California is an online hub from the state’s tourism bureau, intended to help local residents as well as visitors plan trips to places linked to the original occupants of the area. It’s one of the first state-led guides of this nature. “I’m hoping other states will take notice,” Rupert says.

At a performance in Palm Springs, California, the Young Family donned their regalia to celebrate the launch of Native California. 

Visit California/Max Whittaker

Kate Anderson, the director of public relations at the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and a member of the Potawatomi Nation, says the idea of a central guide to activities, experiences, and businesses with Indigenous connections grew naturally from living and working in Palm Springs. The region is a global tourist destination that “grew up around the Agua Caliente tribe,” Anderson says, “but people don’t realize they’re there among the tribe, or that they might be participating in our culture.” 

The Agua Caliente have tried to shift the narrative in recent years, with local efforts like a cultural center in downtown Palm Springs focused on highlighting the region’s history, and a forthcoming update to the tribe’s longstanding hot mineral springs and spa attraction that reflects its heritage (the full redesign will be unveiled this spring, in mid-April 2023). When she started looking at what else was happening in California, Anderson says she found efforts similar to Agua Caliente’s across the state, from other tribes working to put a spotlight on their heritage.

“There are all these beautiful hidden secrets everywhere,” Anderson says. “All culture is not for tourism, but a lot is.” Some things, such as regalia or certain ceremonies, are sacred, and only intended for members of the community, of course—but there are plenty of experiences that Anderson, for one, would love to share with her non-Native neighbors and visitors alike. 

Exploring Andreas Canyon in Palm Springs, California, which is the ancestral land of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians .

Visit California/Max Whittaker

A meal prepared by Indigenous chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo) of Wahpepah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California. 

Visit California/Max Whittaker

It was Anderson who approached Visit California to suggest a centralized resource for people who want to consciously engage with Indigenous experiences throughout California. The initiative stalled for two years due to a lack of funding until pandemic-era funds intended for tribes finally presented a way forward. 

Unsurprisingly, Visit California encountered some “healthy skepticism” from tribes at first, says Visit California Vice President of Communications Ryan Becker. But Rupert stepped in to broker some relationships, and to help ensure that the site reflects a diversity of Indigenous-owned and -run listings. “We’re being very deliberate to make sure we’re doing this the right way,” Becker says of the measured rollout. “It’s not lost on us that this could turn exploitative.” 

At launch, the site will contain 500 points of interest, venues, and attractions across the state, broken down into general interest areas as varied as publicly accessible Pow Wows, Native American-owned breweries and Indigenous-specific aspects to state parks. Together, the recommendations serve as guideposts for travelers to plot out visits (or even connect a few on multi-stop itineraries through the state). While more experiences are to come from the already-involved tribes, the hope is that other Indigenous groups will contact Visit California for inclusion as time goes on. By this summer, Becker expects the number of experiences on the site to double; the goal for this fall is to have over a thousand recommendations. “And we’ll continue to update it as time goes on,” Becker says. “This will be a perpetual part of Visit California’s program.” Storytelling, and stoking a broader awareness of the Indigenous presence in the state, is an overarching aim of the site.

Oakland’s Indigenous Red Market features products from native vendors and artists all around the country. 

Visit California/Max Whittaker

In addition to the usual museums and cultural centers, Visit California points visitors to outdoor activities and hikes, restaurants, hotels, and shopping. Some, like the Chumash exhibit at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum have a strong educational bent, while others, like the Indigenous Red Market in Oakland, are breezier affairs. Most activities are self-guided, though Becker hopes that will change as the guide evolves and more Indigenous-owned tour companies are added.

The website is “a big open window that celebrates Native American life, today,” Anderson says, and an effort that Becker says is strongly influenced by similar hubs across Canada (for example, in British Columbia and nationally focused site Destination Indigenous). They’ve really embraced” Indigenous-focused tourism, Becker says.

Rupert hopes that California will act as a similar model for the rest of the U.S. “I think that Visit California is going to be a leader in this space,” she says. “Not only have they recognized the value of cultural tourism, they’ve prioritized it.”

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