COMMENTARY: I miss the Festival of Native Peoples

by Sep 12, 2019OPINIONS





Tourism is a business that changes with the generations. And even within a generation, the tastes and desires of the traveling public may be as varied as the ages, and individual tastes seem to evolve at the drop of a hat. Tourism and marketing advertising are moving targets, and you need expert archers to fire the advertising arrows in your quiver. And you do want an expert doing it because those arrows are expensive; and on top of that, we are being outspent by most of the significant municipalities around us for the family and cultural traveler. And since gaming clientele is not necessarily family and cultural tourism clientele, our marketers get to figure out how to compete with the “casino town” identity that seems to follow when tribes have adult gaming as a primary source of income. 

The Totonac Pole Flyers from Mexico perform at the 2010 Festival of Native Peoples. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photos)

Many municipalities, like Asheville, for example, use tourism dollars for capital investments into attractions that will result in long term increases in traffic. Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is spending 25 percent of its Fiscal Year 2019 occupancy collections (estimated at $6.75 million) on long term capital projects. Asheville and the county have a Tourism Management and Investment Plan that they update regularly and follow annually. 

I hope that with the “new” Kituwah LLC, more emphasis will be placed on anchor projects for family and cultural tourism. We have talked about it in the past with some fruit to show for it; Fire Mountain Trails and the greenway project, but more needs to be done quicker. Analysis needs to take place, or whatever investigation already has taken place needs to be translated into a management and investment plan, like a Comprehensive Strategic Economic Development Plan. Part of our challenge as a Tribe is not to be afraid of an idea. Every two years, we slow or pause economic growth executions as we come to potential political change dates. There is a legitimate reason for this in that even significant decisions may be altered or done away with altogether based on the outcome of tribal elections. Again, hopefully, the new tribal business entity will eliminate or at least reduce some of the temporary nature of planning on the Qualla Boundary. 

There are great minds in our tribal government, some of the best in our community. By and large, our leaders understand that we cannot market Cherokee using elementary tactics. It is just that, over the years in the tourism department, the leadership and staff of Travel and Tourism (later Destination Marketing) have been at the mercy of some officials who based their direction to the department on their personal experiences in vacationing rather than what would have drawn family and cultural tourists to the Boundary. I had one leader tell me that since they were “the same age and income level, the right demographic profile,” anything they liked as far as destination amenities should be the way we market Cherokee. Of course, I had to mention that, ethnically speaking, we were not targeting our people for our tourism product. That was not received well by the leader. 

We have the resources to analyze that other municipalities around us may not. We have the talent to create great attractions and enough marketing resources to reach people around the world. We just need to learn to point the arrow before we shoot it.

Will Tushka, a member of the Warriors of Anikituwah, dances with the group during the opening session of the Festival of Native Peoples at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds on Friday, July 12, 2013. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather)

I miss the Festival of Native Peoples (FONP). Don’t you? Tribes from all over the northern continent were coming together to fellowship and share native cultures with each other. I think tourists loved it too, although the FONP suffered from lack of significant marketing. Those who came to it were loyal to it; year after year coming to see the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), Mayans, Aztecs, Hopi, Apache, and many other nations express ourselves through dance, storytelling, and craft tables. 

I have great memories of the Festival, including experiencing a good friend, late Tribal Council representative Diamond Brown Jr., who would show our brother and sister nations, and the visiting public, a taste of life in the mountains circa the 18th century through his period encampment. Diamond had a kind demeanor, was intelligent, and soft-spoken. Young and old alike would be engrossed in his storytelling, craft exhibit, and demonstrations. He would sit by his fire, smoke his pipe, and share stories of the Cherokee. And, he would always draw a crowd. Diamond has made his journey home, but there are still those around with the abilities that he made look so easy. 

The great thing about FONP was the cultural sharing. As much as the tourists learned about the EBCI, so did our tribal members learn about other native cultures that we call “brothers and sisters”. Indeed, we share commonality as indigenous, or first inhabitants, of this continent. We also share a unique history in America. We are all better mentally, spiritually, and physically – both native and non-native alike – in knowing our native cultures, past and present. Respect is rooted in understanding. 

The first FONP was a collaboration with the Folkmoot organization, at first. Much of the plan for the event was modeled on the Folkmoot event, including taking small performing troupes to the local schools to let the children and administration “sample” what they would experience at FONP. It also created a word-of-mouth advertising campaign among those groups. FONP was a fantastic opportunity for schools to provide living history lessons for their students. The Southeast Tribes Festival created similar opportunities. Both events were funded in large part by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. 

These events were eventually phased-out of the tourism marketing event schedule. The direct monetary return on investment was identified as the reason for the cancellations. I think if the advertising for FONP had been appropriately planned and executed, and if the technology for pre-sale tickets had been in place, FONP would have been and would continue to be a signature event for the Tribe. 

One of the most dramatic elements of the Festival of Native Peoples was the group who performed the Danza de los Voladores or “Dance of the Flyers.” The dance is of Mayan origin based on an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony or ritual. The group of five men would scale a 100-foot pole on the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds and swing via ropes to the ground in spectacular fashion. An explanation of the ceremony was provided, along with a history lesson on the Mayan culture. One historical note indicates that “the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought”.  This is just one of the many Peoples who shared their histories, cultures, and traditions at Festival of Native Peoples. 

Try as we might, governmental event production will never have the impact that a bonafide tourism attraction could have on tourism traffic. It is not the fault of the government or the staff. It is just not a model for cultural or family tourism that may generate enough income to sustain itself. In other municipalities, more governments and tourism authorities rely on private entities – event producers and business vendors – to prepare, promote, and execute events. Tourism Development Authorities -government sanctioned organizations funded by occupancy dollars – drive the tourism marketing efforts, which typically focus on advertising, public relations, and even capital investments. Those authorities might invest in or put promotional dollars toward events but would never foot the bill for total production. 

Our Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconaluftee Indian Village, and Mountainside Theatre have a long, robust history of sharing the Cherokee story with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of visitors for over five decades of operation. They continue to be a source of pride for our people. But they require updating, overhauling, and reinvention. One or all could be the anchor attraction(s) for the Tribe. The latest generations of tourists challenge these entities. 

My generation, the Baby Boomers, are fast being overtaken in population by the Millennials.  Pew Research Center has announced that this year, 2019, will be the year that Millennials will be the largest demographic group in America. The report states that Millennials “make up nearly a quarter of the total U.S. population, 30 percent of the voting-age population, and almost two-fifths of the working-age population”.

In my tourism career, I found the Millennial group to be one of the most challenging to target for marketing. They are a very diverse group and are incredibly experiential. Their interests and tastes are broad spectra. Many times, trying to create a marketing plan for Millennials was like throwing darts at a spinning target. Once you let go of the dart, this group’s tastes would have moved to a new location. Anticipating Millennials is a game of extensive research and planning and cannot be based on “feeling,” “guess,” or “let’s throw it up there and see if it sticks” mentality. 

We certainly are not working from scratch. We have competent tourism leadership, expert contractors, and resources. Even with the best of archers, and top-of-the-line bow and arrows, the beast of travel marketing may be hard to hit. Research, diligence, and strategy will be needed for the hope of a positive outcome. About tourism traffic and income, we as a community, like the Danza de los Voladores, say “Make it rain!”