How Native Entrepreneurs are Tapping into the Grand Canyon Tourism Economy
(Above) Germaine Simonson, owner of Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, is tackling the problem of access to healthy foods by finding ways to sell fresh produce through her remote grocery store in what was once one of the earliest trading posts on the reservation. Photo by Raymond Chee.
There were almost 8 million overnight visitors to northern Arizona in 2017. Collectively they spent $664 million in the region according to the Arizona Office of Tourism. Over half of these visitors are coming to see the Grand Canyon, followed closely by outdoor activities, shopping, and historic sites. Tourism is a driving force in rural northern Arizona, but very little of the economic impact makes its way to Native communities, despite their being situated between the glorious experiences of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and Monument Valley.
The reasons for this are a complicated maze of historical and social phenomena that have left Native communities out of the economic impact loop. Our historical battles over land, water, and natural resources have left us with little to invest in building the roads, power lines, commercial real estate, and information centers to serve visitors to the area. Our communities simply do not have the infrastructure to capture tourism spending and experience the economic benefits of the Grand Canyon, and to build it would take billions of dollars. The good news is that Native entrepreneurs are charting the course to develop the tourism industry in a way that honors the sacred homelands of our people. As Grand Canyon National Park commemorates 100 years, the time is ripe for visitors to rediscover the canyon through the lens of the Indigenous nations of the area.
When you go to the national parks, you see mostly older depictions of Native people and very few opportunities to see us as a living people. Changing this narrative is critical to support the development of a tourism infrastructure in Native communities, one that can enrich the tourism industry in the entire region.
Entrepreneurs like Alberta Henry with Big Hogan or Baya Meehan with Shash Diné Eco-Retreat are offering visitors exclusive insights into the culture of our people while immersing them overnight in the beauty of the landscape. Sacred Edge Tours and Mystical Antelope Canyon Tours invite visitors to tour their land, listen to family history, and experience the spiritual nature of these places. There are also talents like Carlos Deal of AlterNativEats, who is using his culinary knowledge to fuse Asian foods with local tastes and operates a food truck in Tuba City, Arizona. Or Germaine Simonson, of Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, who is tackling the problem of access to healthy foods by finding ways to sell fresh produce through her remote grocery store in what was once one of the earliest trading posts on the reservation. (See more information on these entrepreneurs and their businesses below).
These entrepreneurs are doing two things. One, they are a new generation of Native-American-owned tourism entrepreneurs breaking the mold of tourism development in the Southwest. They are bringing products and services directly to consumers rather than through the types of non-Native brokers we see in the established Southwest art market. Second, they are launching these businesses with very little investment, relying on their own resourcefulness. Some of these business sites are not on the major thoroughfares that visitors usually take from one national park to another; most of these entrepreneurs don’t have a brick-and-mortar location where they can adequately welcome visitors and provide needed information.
There are very few hotels and restaurants on the reservation despite these services being among the highest dollar amount expenditures for tourists. This lack of accessibility and limited opportunity for commerce means visitors spend a majority of their money off the reservation supporting galleries, museums, and retail outlets located where there is easy access for tourists. There is huge competition from border-town communities, like Flagstaff, that have invested in this tourism infrastructure.
Aside from investment dollars, the relationship with national parks, museums, and border towns further exacerbates the isolation of Native communities. The lure of the majestic Grand Canyon is missing one important aspect: the people. Our role as the original inhabitants and stewards of the canyon is missing from the modern-day management of this landscape and visitors whose trip is meant to experience this historical monument of nature are being deprived of a human connection much more than 100 years old. The inaccurate storytelling of the role of local Natives in the Powell expeditions, the inauthentic plastic trinkets, and even the non-Native owned galleries that exploit Native artists, contribute to a narrative that puts Native businesses and entrepreneurs at a disadvantage in creating mutually beneficial commercial opportunities.
For entrepreneurs to make a measurable economic impact in our communities would require us to grow hundreds of new businesses and attract or deploy billions of dollars in investment to build the roads, utilities, and the workforce needed to support them. A recent study called “Reclaiming Native Truth” found that 40 percent of Americans think that Native people no longer exist. Another misconception is that we do not live in the modern world. When you go to the national parks, you see mostly older depictions of Native people and very few opportunities to see us as a living people. Changing this narrative is critical to support the development of a tourism infrastructure in Native communities, one that can enrich the tourism industry in the entire region.
A rediscovery of the Grand Canyon that includes our stories, accurate historical accounts, and true representation of Native people will provide visitors, who are already intrigued, as well as local off-reservation communities, the opportunity to interact with our people in a positive way. We can’t move toward an equally beneficial economic paradigm around tourism until Indigenous knowledge and thought are recognized, honored, and valued.
Article by Jessica Stago She is Bita’nii (Folded Arm) clan from the Dine (Navajo) Nation and born for the White Mountain Apache. Jessica is a cofounder of Change Labs and the Director of Business Incubation, a business incubator and coworking space located on the Navajo Nation supporting Native entrepreneurs. Jessica works with Native entrepreneurs to build and grow their business in an environment that has historically suppressed Native innovation in the private sector. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and a Minor in American Indian Studies at ASU W.P. Carey School of Business and has a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. She teaches business management for cultural arts at Dine College and has served on the boards of the Navajo CDFI, Navajo Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona Family Health Partnership. She is currently is a board member on the Colorado Plateau Foundation.
Native Owned Business Resources:
Rez Rising – A new database of 500+ Native owned small businesses across the Southwest was launched in November.
Big Hogan – Lodging, camping, tours, and a complete cultural experience just east of Grand Canyon National Park. Owned by Alberta Henry
Shash Diné Eco-Retreat – A 5-billion star hogan glamping and Navajo experience near Horseshoe Bend, south of Lake Powell and Page, Arizona. Owned by Baya Meehan.
Mystical Antelope Canyon Tours & Arrowhead Campground – Hogan and tipi lodging, campground, and private tours of Mystical Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon that rivals the popular Antelope Canyon, without the crowds. Owned by Roseann and Lester Littleman.
AlterNativEats by Carlos Deal – Sushi, stir-fries, and Navajo-Asian fusion cuisine food truck at the Chevron station in Tuba City’s main intersection. Daily menus posted to Facebook at – https://www.facebook.com/Alternativeats-103428961136906
Rocky Ridge Gas & Market – A gas station and convenience and grocery store with parking spaces and a hitching post for customers who arrive on horseback, serving travelers and the rural community of Rocky Ridge, Navajo Nation. Owned by Germaine Simonson.