HELENA — The Blackfeet Indian Reservation rolls across the plains just east of Glacier National Park. There's a hotel and casino. There are gas stations, a few eateries and a museum to learn about the culture and history of the people that have occupied the territory long before the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry and the hordes of modern-day visitors who roll into the nearby mountains.
But despite its proximity to the national park, little of the money spent by tourists end up in the business tills of reservation's communities.
While Montana might be known internationally for recreational jewels such as Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, Native Americans say the state needs to do more to develop and promote its vast tribal lands as tourist destinations.
Some lawmakers want the state to invest more into drawing visitors to places of historical and cultural importance to the state's Indian tribes — not only to spark entrepreneurship but also help outsiders better understand Native Americans.
"Folks want to come, and they want to see Native American people, and see our culture, and learn about our history. I think that's going to create income when they come flying in," said Democratic state Sen. Lea Whitford, who represents Browning and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. "It's just going to increase the flow of dollars into the state."
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Tourism is one of the Montana's most important and lucrative industries, generating more than $4 billion annually from 12.3 million visitors and supporting nearly 55,000 jobs. Little of that money or jobs go to the state's tribal members.
Whitford and other members of the Legislature's Native American caucus want improved representation on the state's tourism advisory council, which she said might not be aware of the potential for cultural tourism. They also want a sliver of money generated by lodging facility taxes to go toward tribal economic development.
To be sure, many of Montana's Native American communities lack the infrastructure — like hotels, restaurants and well-developed attractions and amenities — to begin marketing themselves as tourist attractions. But tribes haven't received much help to identify and develop opportunities, said Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Democrat from the Crow Indian Reservation.
They say it would be a modest step toward incubating entrepreneurship on tribal and help combat the rampant joblessness on the state's seven Indian reservations.
"Everything seems to be about Yellowstone and Glacier. But there's other places like Little Bighorn Battlefield and other historical places, which have stories to tell — and should be told — but can't be fully appreciated because the spotlight isn't there," Stewart-Peregoy said. The battlefield marks the site of one the last clashes between the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.
"It's Main Street Native America that will bring forth the economic vitality to each of the tribes," she said. "It's not going to be the tribal government. It's going to be the citizens of those tribes that when they are empowered to become entrepreneurs and businesspeople, then Main Street Crow Agency, Main Street Browning and Main Street Rocky Boy will begin to flourish."