Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

Thoughtful Travel: Go Native America Eschews Heavy Promotion For Nuanced Approach to Exploring Indian Country

Tish Leizens
6/21/12

If you want to access the beauty of Indian country through the tour company Go Native America of Billings, Montana, here’s some advice: Don’t come as a tourist but as a guest of the Native tribes. Be respectful of their history, culture and traditions. And listen carefully to the stories they tell.

“We do not consider ourselves in the tourism business,” said Sarah Chapman, a passionate guide and co-owner of Go Native America. “We take people on journeys. We tell the truth.”

Chapman now runs the day-to-day business operations of the company with her husband, Serle Chapman, a well-respected photographer and author of several Native American history, art and culture books. They established Go Native America in 1995.

“When we started out we never intended to be in tourism,” said Sarah. Rather, the business evolved as Serle started to write books. Sarah recalled that on their first research trip for his work, they took a few people with them to the Southwest. After the initial tour, people began to ask if they would lead the same kind of outing because there was nothing else like it.

Soon, they determined to follow tribal etiquette and create a travel company that seamlessly combined the joy of discovering a new place with the necessary respect of the culture and traditions of the sovereign land where their guests were traveling. The process evolved organically.

“We did sustainable and respectful trips,” Sarah said. “We did not sit down to do a business plan.”

Today, their venture is flourishing. More tourists are knocking on their (often virtual) door. The annual tours on the calendar have increased. There are more American Indian guides employed and traffic is building on their website, GoNativeAmerica.com, is growing. The site gives a glimpse of their offerings, including tours by region such as the Great Plains and the Southwest and to such sites as Little Bighorn and the Grand Canyon.

“We have now gotten to the point that we can take tourists to Canada,” Sarah said, citing Alberta and British Columbia as two destinations rich with indigenous history.

There are scheduled tours each year, from May to November, plus 20 to 25 day tours annually. All the tours emphasize a journey to Native land and target those who want to understand American Indian history, culture and art through the eyes of Native guides.

From June 17 to 24, the tour was about stones. “Lakota Stories in Stones” was a journey through some of the most significant rock structures in the country. “We attempt to decipher human and ecological codes left through the ages in the beauty of the Bighorn Mountains, the serenity of Wind River Canyon, and the immense splendor of the Tetons,” reads a tour brochure.

The theme from August 13 to 23 is “It’s All Indian Country.” The journey takes guests from the grandeur of Yellowstone, to the pine-studded serenity of Paha Sapa, Lakota for the Black Hills. “Take time to listen for wolves, look for bears, interpret messages left in stone, hear indigenous stories and explanations,” advises the website.

“Our policy is to stay in tribally owned and operated accommodations and businesses where possible,” Sarah Chapman said, adding that she and her husband encourage visitors to buy arts and crafts directly from the artists in the indigenous community.

Go Native America’s efforts at respecting Indian country have not gone unnoticed. In 2007, the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards cited Go Native America for “best for conservation of cultural heritage.” And Tourism Concern, an independent organization based in the United Kingdom that fights exploitation in tourism, has recommended the company for nearly two decades.

The media are also paying attention. “A wonderful insight into Native American culture with the spectacular backdrop of the West,” said Condé Nast Traveler. National Geographic Traveler recognized and included the Chapmans’ efforts twice in its annual “50 Tours of a Lifetime” list.

“It has never been about profit for us,” Sarah reflected. “It is not one of those—how much money can we make out of this? The main thing for us now is finding the best way to get the real stories out in a manner that is most compelling.”

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