Hopi Try to Create Culturally Compatible Tourism

Flagstaff, AZ – When you go on a vacation, chances are the first thing you pack is your camera. But be careful if you're visiting the Hopi reservation.

"I've confiscated cameras," recalls Micah Lomaomvaya. "I've taken out rolls of film, because I knew they were doing something they weren't supposed to do."

Lomaomvaya remembers tourists driving through his village of Shongopavi. They'd often take pictures of his clan's eagles, which are used in some Hopi religious ceremonies.

"Of course it was the most inappropriate thing to take a picture of," he says. "I really didn't have a problem with telling them to give me their film."

20 years later, Lomaomvaya, with his long jet-black hair pulled back, is now welcoming those tourists. A trained archaeologist, he now runs his own company, Hopi Tours, full-time.

"My main initiative is to educate people," he says. "There are lines within our culture that can't be crossed, but also to show those things that we can share with them."

Lomaomvaya calls it "cultural education" tourism. He says most of his clients are respectful, they just don't understand what's appropriate.

Indeed being a tourist on the Hopi reservation takes some fortitude. There are only a handful of gas stations and restaurants dotting the lonesome landscape. There aren't any signs directing visitors to attractions. There aren't even any street addresses.

"You're going to have to stumble your way around until eventually you find the right person that points you in the right direction," says Gary Tso, another Hopi tour guide.

Tso's company is called the Left Handed Hunter Tour Company. His goal is also to educate outsiders, to provide an honest and positive view of Hopi people. But his second aim is to introduce tourists to Hopi artists.

"75% of the economy on the rez is based upon art and therefore tourism," Tso says. "So another thing I do is help drive traffic to these vendors. Hopefully so we can all benefit from this visitation."

Tso himself is a kachina doll carver. When we met he was sawing a piece of cottonwood root in his house on Second Mesa. Eventually it will be a colorful White Bear kachina.

"I'm not getting rich," he admits, "but it provides me a certain lifestyle. I'm a single father, it allows me to stay at home, it's really important for me to be at home when my kids get home, and be here when they leave every day."

It also keeps him close to the phone to make reservations for his tour business, which he started 12 years ago. At the time his was the only Hopi-owned tour company. Now there are at least a dozen. Arts and crafts galleries have also sprouted up along the highway that crosses the reservation.

Still, Tso says Hopi people have always been ambiguous about tourism. "It brings positive changes," he says, "but negative ones as well. How will we change once we begin to experience more visitation? But, other than coal, I don't see any other resources as far as us building a modern kind of economy."

But it's a resource that's largely untapped. Tony Skrelunas directs the Native America Program at the Grand Canyon Trust. He's also the former Economic Development Director for the Navajo Nation.

"Hopi," he says, "is one of the tribes where you see this tremendous tourism potential, from the cultural tourism, to the foods, to the homes, you have all those possibilities."

Skrelunas helped develop a tourism strategic plan for the Hopi tribe two years ago. He recommended the creation of a quasi-governmental tourism authority, similar to what exists on the Navajo Nation, which collects a hotel occupancy tax and funnels it back into its tourism program. Hopi officials say that's still probably at least two years away.

In the meantime Skrelunas says Hopi villages need to decide what kind of tourism they want. "Do they want big busses coming to their ceremonies? Do they have someone give a talk to the tourists before they set foot on their land? He says those are the kinds of questions the Hopi need to answer.

Skrelunas believes both the Hopi and Navajo nations should target more affluent tourists: educated, culturally sensitive visitors looking for an alternative to DisneyLand.

"That's the potential I see with these two tribes," he says. "Visitors paying top dollar to stay at a sheep camp, or going to Hopi to help plant, help harvest. There's a lot of potential there. To me, that's a better experience for the people, the community and also the visitor."

And that's exactly the experience the Hopi village of Moenkopi is hoping to create. The Moenkopi Development Corporation is building the Moenkopi Legacy Inn, slated to open in October. The hotel will offer 100 rooms, a conference center, a huge pool, even an outdoor area with a replica of a kiva, an underground ceremonial chamber. General Manager Randy Wolf says he hopes to make the hotel a tourist gateway to Hopiland.

"The angle that we're going towards," he says, "is tours at the villages and on the mesas. There are artists out there that will just knock your socks off. We want to take people their in tours and introduce them."

But the overarching goal of any tourism effort on the Hopi reservation is to create jobs. The hotel, together with a new travel center and restaurant, will create over 100 new positions in Moenkopi. Which allow Hopi people like Veera Pooyouma, who works for the Development Corporation, to come home.

"I looked into coming back home for quite a while," she says, but there were no jobs. "This is a great opportunity for people like me to come home, to work for their own people."

Some Hopi, though, are likely to be squeamish about vanloads of new tourists, despite the economic boost they'll bring. The hotel plans to post on its website a calendar of Hopi religious ceremonies that are open to the public. But Randy Wolf insists they'll educate visitors about how to behave. As he puts it: "No shirt, no shoes, no ceremony."