Bringing tourism back to tribal lands

·10 min read

Jul. 26—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Once the first COVID-19 cases appeared in New Mexico last March, Acoma Pueblo was among the first tribal nations in the state to introduce restrictions.

Within the week, schools were closed, businesses were shuttered, and checkpoints were established to keep non-tribal members out, according to Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo.

"I suppose we could have stayed open a few more days, but we didn't see any rationale in doing that," Vallo told the Journal in July. "We had to protect our people."

It would be nearly 16 long months before Acoma Pueblo's partial reopening began earlier this month. Beginning July 2, Acoma reopened a number of pueblo-operated businesses and authorized tribal members living outside the pueblo footprint to return for the first time.

Perhaps most importantly, Vallo said tribal members were able to return to Sky City, the historic center of the pueblo, for gatherings and observances of the community's cultural calendar for the first time since the pandemic began.

"This was probably one of the most devastating pieces to all of this, is that the pandemic did not allow us to be Acoma, full Acoma," Vallo said. "We could not engage in our culture and our traditions."

Even with the newfound freedom, Vallo said restrictions remain. In order to protect leaders and the traditions they maintain, Vallo said tribal members must show a negative test or proof of vaccination before visiting Sky City. The adjacent Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum remains closed to non-Acoma visitors and popular walking tours of Sky City are not running.

Vallo acknowledged that the restrictions have been hard on local businesses, cutting off much-needed tourism revenue. However, he said safety was his first priority as case counts spiked during the winter.

"We're not in a place yet to reopen fully, despite what everyone else around us might be doing," Vallo said.

Across New Mexico, tribal nations are grappling with similar questions. For many of the 23 tribal nations in New Mexico, tourism, in the form of overnight stays at resorts or visits to cultural sites like Sky City, was an important part of their pre-pandemic local economies. By not allowing visitors during the pandemic, tribal nations incurred significant economic impacts in order to protect vulnerable citizens.

New Mexico lifted its own restrictions at the start of the month, and has seen renewed visitation and tourism activity. But some tribal nations, which are free to set and remove their restrictions as sovereign nations, have done so piecemeal. Acoma, Nambe and Cochiti pueblos remain partially or fully closed to visitors, citing safety concerns, even as casinos on Sandia and Isleta pueblos reopen. The Navajo Nation, where more than 1,300 people died from COVID-19, reopened parks, casinos and other facilities to visitors on July 8.

"After 16 months of this pandemic here on our nation, and our businesses having a difficult time,... I think it was time for us to reopen," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told the Journal earlier this month.

Tribal leaders who spoke with the Journal said they're cautiously optimistic about reopening to visitors, even as they're keeping a close eye on COVID-19 variants. But most acknowledged that it would take more than reopening to offset the cost the virus inflicted on tribal communities in New Mexico.

Tribes hard-hit

Few groups have been hit as hard by the pandemic as Indigenous communities in New Mexico and across the country. According to data compiled by the American Public Media Research Lab in March, the death rate for Indigenous Americans is roughly twice as high as the rate among white Americans. In New Mexico, McKinley County, where around three-quarters of the population is Indigenous, had the highest per-capita case count by far.

Lynn Trujillo, cabinet secretary for New Mexico's Department of Indian Affairs and a member of Sandia Pueblo, said pre-existing disparities in access to drinking water, fuel and other essentials have exacerbated the impact on Indigenous communities in New Mexico. On the Navajo Nation, where the Environmental Protection Agency recently concluded that roughly 15% of residents don't have access to piped water in their homes, Trujillo said it was harder for some residents to follow cleaning guidelines and avoid travel.

"I'm appalled, and I think we should be ashamed by the fact that, even today, there are communities that don't have clean, safe drinking water," she said.

Trujillo added that inter-generational housing, which is tied to a shortage of housing on tribal land, also may have helped the virus spread.

In part because of that, Trujillo said many tribal communities have opted for more stringent restrictions than the state, and have kept them in place for longer, despite the economic costs.

"It may not be a popular or well-received decision, but they're all doing it because they care for their people," she said.

Vallo, along with other tribal leaders, declined to provide statistics on the economic impact of the pandemic closures, but acknowledged that it has had a substantial impact on a poor community. Vallo said losing Sky City Casino Hotel, which generated more revenue than any other business in Acoma Pueblo, contributed to the bulk of their losses. Additionally, keeping Sky City tours closed has been hard on local artisans who sell their art on the route and at the cultural center.

"Especially in those earlier months, with everything else closing ... these families who rely solely on their art to sustain families as their only source of income were impacted in a significant way," Vallo said.

While funding from the federal CARES Act helped Acoma Pueblo continue paying government employees, Vallo said the tribal corporation, which oversees many of the business operations on the pueblo, had to lay off about 120 employees during the heart of the pandemic. Of those, the corporation has only been able to bring about half back to work due to hiring challenges, Vallo said.

"It was frustrating, I'm sure, for our businesses and our tribal members alike," he said.

Inching back to normal

Slowly but surely, as case counts have dropped and vaccination rates have risen, tribes around the state have been more willing to reopen to visitors.

Many of the reopenings have coincided with an uptick in travel to New Mexico. Tourism was among the hardest-hit industries in the state in 2020, but it has slowly rebounded this spring and summer. The Albuquerque International Sunport, after posting declines in traffic in excess of 90% early in the pandemic, recently posted its first single day with more travelers than there were on the same day prior to the pandemic.

Mike Canfield, president and CEO of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, said the center has recently begun seeing more visits from out-of-state tourists. Based on conversations with pueblos that have reopened facilities, Canfield said he believes that trend is occurring across the state.

"People have been stuck in their homes and are hopeful about venturing back out again," Canfield said.

Jen Paul Schroer, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Tourism Department, said tribal amenities are a big draw for tourists when they're open. In 2019, 11% of visitors to New Mexico reported visiting a tribal community or engaging with a tribal experience during their visit — compared to 2% nationally, according to Tourism Department data.

"We know when people come to New Mexico, they have the thirst for authenticity, they have a thirst for culture, and we have very unique assets here that include our tribal nations," Schroer said

Some facilities, including Isleta Resort and Casino, reopened before the state eased its restrictions. Robert Dearstine, director of marketing for the resort, said the facility added an extra layer of cleaning to its normal sanitation efforts once it reopened in February. Slot machines are receiving additional cleaning and high-contact amenities, including the resort's spa and showroom, remain closed until further notice, Dearstine said.

Dearstine acknowledged that revenue was a concern that impacted the pueblo's desire to reopen, but stressed that the reopening was done with safety in mind.

Other resorts, including Sandia Resort and Casino, waited until July to reopen to the public. Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuart Paisano said the pueblo used the closure as an opportunity to remodel and expand the resort, ultimately adding more than 50,000 square feet of entertainment, including a new sports bar and a high limit gaming area. Overall, Paisano said the project generated an economic impact totaling more than $100 million, a boon for a community that opted to close to visitors and lay off a vast majority of its workforce at the beginning of the pandemic, and is working to bring those employees back.

"We invested a substantial amount of money to keep people gainfully employed," Paisano said.

Tribal leaders said their decisions were based largely on low case counts and vaccine rates. Nez, from the Navajo Nation, praised his community's vaccine usage when explaining the decision to reopen to visitors. Nez said the community was able to fully vaccinate around 70% of adults by Fourth of July weekend, along with 90% of citizens who are 75 years old or older, higher than the United States rate overall.

Ahead of the reopening, Nez said the community held a Fourth of July celebration with fireworks, a symbol of renewal in what was once one of the hardest-hit areas of the country.

"That was a transition for us, to say that our government has done their very best to get to community immunity," Nez said.

What's next?

Despite the reopenings, tribal leaders acknowledged that there is still work to be done to fully recover from the impact — economic and otherwise — of the pandemic. Trujillo said she's worried the long-term effect of the pandemic will exacerbate existing wealth disparities in New Mexico and elsewhere.

"I am deeply concerned for all sovereign nations, whether they've decided to open up or not," she said.

Nez said he wants to help the Navajo Nation develop more economic opportunities to help the community be more resilient in the face of future crises. Nez and Trujillo agreed that one key will be developing greater broadband capacity in the area.

"It's easy for someone to tell a Native artisan that they should sell their crafts online, but if you don't have access to broadband, that's really hard to do," Trujillo said. "That impacts your livelihood."

Going forward, Trujillo said she'd like to see tribes play a more active role in the renewable energy industry as it grows in the future.

"I think tribes are well-positioned to be a part of that, as well as to create their own energy sovereignty," she said.

In the meantime, local organizations are trying to help Indigenous New Mexicans on an individual level. In 2017, longtime marketing professional Stephine Poston co-founded Native Women Lead, designed to inspire Native women to start businesses as a way to help close the wealth gap. To date, Poston said Native Women Lead has worked with about 1,000 women in New Mexico and across North America.

Poston said entrepreneurship is a valuable tool to allow artisans and other business-owners to build wealth without sacrificing flexibility.

"As Native women, being able to own your own business, it gives you that flexibility for being a parent, caring for aging parents, being a part of a community," Poston said.

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