Billings Gazette: International visitors craving authentic Indian Country experiences

When tourists — particularly international visitors — come to Indian Country, they’re eager to become immersed in an authentic experience, like being paired with a tribal elder to learn how to weave a beautiful basket.

Anna Barrera can show visitors true authenticity — maybe even help arrange the trip of a lifetime — with just a few keystrokes.

Barrera and her mentor, Edward Hall, transportation specialist and tourism coordinator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were co-presenters during the second day of the annual economic development and procurement conference put on by the Native American Development Corporation. 

A travel researcher at George Washington University and the co-manager for a new website, at, Barrera noted the growth in experiential tourism, which emphasizes experiences over amenities.

Five percent of overseas visitors include a stop at an American Indian community when visiting the U.S., Barrera said.

“People will show up, invited or not,” she said. “They will pay top dollar for that interactive experience.” helps Native American-owned businesses market those experiences. In its first three months, the site has seen nearly 13,000 unique visitors and about 52,000 page views.

Traditionally, tourism has been “about people spending money in your community,” Hall said, but that’s changing.

“It’s also about education and people wanting to be part of your community,” he said. “Indian Country has a unique opportunity, because you have something unique that nobody else has.”

Visitors and residents want the same things, he said, including restaurants and access to small businesses.

“People are open to understanding who you are,” he said. “When we are open, we are writing ourselves back into history, but we’re making sure the people writing that history is you, the authentic voice.”

Thinking big, creatively

Clarence O’Berry, president and CEO of Mandaree Enterprises, a tribally-owned family of companies based in North Dakota that does business in 26 states and around the worl

“People have said our growth is a direct result of my awesomeness. I don’t know about that,” O’Berry said with a laugh. “Our success is the result of our team. We think big and we think creatively, and we’re supported by very creative people.”

He said his employees laugh at him when he tells them his business plan: “We’re going to buy back America one business at a time.”

Over the past nearly quarter-century, Mandaree Enterprises has parlayed an initial $35,000 investment made by three tribes into $70 million in annual sales.

“We’re just a small example of what can be done,” he said.

Spurring growth 

U.S. Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, also spoke at the conference, which concluded Thursday afternoon.

Daines said he’s working to pass legislation to give tribes and states “a voice in coal leases. We can drive American ingenuity to make coal cleaner. If we walk away, China becomes the leader in coal, and we are better environmental stewards than the Chinese are.”

He said that Montana “is at the top of the list of the states that will feel the burden of anti-energy regulations.”

Daines, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said he attended the conference in part “to put together a to-do list to help Indian Country move forward.”

Bullock labeled it “unacceptable” that Native communities aren’t experiencing the same levels of economic growth as nonreservation portions of Montana.

“We can’t have statewide prosperity if we leave seven reservations, 7 to 8 percent of our population and 12 percent of our K-12 kids behind,” Bullock said.

“The way we make progress isn’t someone from Helena saying, ‘I have the answers to all your problems,’” he said. “We make progress sitting down around the table talking about shared priorities and about how we can collaborate.”

“As many times as you come to us in Helena, I ought to be at your reservation,” he said, adding that he and Jason Smith, Montana’s Indian Affairs director, will do just that during the coming weeks.