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  • More like Ourselves:Indigenous Capitalism through Tourism
  • Alexis Celeste Bunten (bio)

In the most remote and beautiful parts of the world where much of the world's rural Indigenous populations still live, sustainable tourism is presented as an economic panacea for communities whose traditional economies and ways of life have been compromised by the dominant societies to which they belong. Indigenous communities are responding to this opportunity (or threat, depending on perspective) in unique and innovative ways that set them apart from their non-Indigenous counterparts. In an edited volume on the topic of Indigenous tourism Nelson Graburn and I defined it as "any service or product that is a) owned and operated at least in part by an Indigenous group and b) results from a means of exchange with outside guests."1 Some of these businesses may not appear to stray far from non-Indigenous-owned tourism in terms of products offered, but their company ethos reflects the values that set apart Indigenous-owned tourism from its mainstream counterparts. Through a comparison of Indigenous-owned cultural tourism businesses in southeastern Alaska and New Zealand as well as secondary data examining Indigenous tourism across the Pacific, this article introduces the concept of "Indigenous capitalism" as a distinct strategy to achieve ethical, culturally appropriate, and successful Indigenous participation within the global economy.

Indigenous peoples have been involved with tourism since they first hosted guests through exploratory and early colonial encounters, yet Indigenous ownership and control of such venues is a relatively new phenomenon worldwide. Indigenous tourism encompasses a wide range of experiences, including cultural tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism, gaming, resorts, and other related services. Most Indigenous tourism [End Page 285] venues are less than a decade old, made possible largely through increased communications technology, the rapid expansion of the international tourism industry, and neoliberal government policies aimed to boost national economies through international visitorship and to rectify multigenerational trauma resulting from past colonial engagements, assimilationist policies, genocide, and slavery. While a growing body of literature in a variety of disciplines touches upon aspects of the Indigenous tourism industry, such scholarship has tended to emphasize a development-based theoretical framework that regards tourism as a panacea for struggling communities to revitalize their economies. This article considers the development of Indigenous business from an American Indian studies perspective, pointing out similarities in business strategies rooted in what could loosely be termed "Indigenous value systems" while keeping in mind the individual nature of each community's engagement with dominant political economies over time.

From the outset I wish to make it clear that while Indigenous tourism is growing at a rapid pace, there are many Indigenous peoples around the world who remain disenfranchised from the dominant political economy and cannot take advantage of the opportunities afforded through economic development in tourism. Still others choose not to capitalize upon their cultural patrimony through touristic performance and display. For those who decide to take part in this industry, tourism affords multiple benefits for Indigenous communities. Finally, this piece intends to reach its audience in the form of a generalized editorial. There are very few quantitative studies of the local and global impacts of tourism for Indigenous proprietors. While I am aware of this emerging body of work on the topic of Indigenous tourism (mostly in hospitality and management), traditional measures of economic success such as gross income and job creation tend to ignore the social factors that determine local communities' individual values. Beyond a purely economic analysis, tourism can be a catalyst for cultural perpetuation, the protection of natural resources, and an instrument of community pride and building bridges between peoples.

My authority on this topic stems from nearly a decade of experience working as a Native Alaskan tour guide and conducting research in the Indigenous heritage industry. After working for two museums and then two institutions devoted to promoting Alaska Native cultures, I began my graduate studies in anthropology to gain a better understanding [End Page 286] of systemic social, political, and economic processes affecting the Indigenous heritage industry. My doctoral research focused on American Indian engagements with cultural tourism. As part of this project I resumed working as a Native tour guide in 2003...


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pp. 285-311
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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