Marketing Indigenous Cultures: A Primer

February 11, 2021
Silhouette of handicraft dream catcher against the breeze and dusk sky

Traveling to the Pacific islands or to some remote African safari destination tops so many bucket lists. The native, indigenous people of those places, however, have not historically been a true part of those experiences. Not systematically, at least.

While indigenous cultures like the Maori in New Zealand have captured travelers’ attention over the years, many native people, across all continents, never become part of a conversation. That’s all changing, however, as more and more native cultures are making their heritage and culture a destination in and of itself.

As inclusivity becomes more of a de facto response in the tourism industry, marketers are coming face to face more often with questions that, beforehand, we may not have thought to ask. Or, perhaps, we were just too uncomfortable to ask them.

Now, especially following this turbulent year and the progress pushed forward by the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re creating spaces and vocabulary to have these conversations. There is still a lot of work to do.Whether it’s acknowledging colonialism in a remote destination or recognizing the tribal destinations in your own backyard, travel marketing has a role to play in all of it.

Paige Shepherd, Director of Corporate Development and Tourism for the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, spoke to DCI about taking steps towards marketing First American cultures and, most importantly, a few of the challenges to be aware of before embarking on such a feat.

1. Best Practice?
One major problem that Shepherd identified is the lack of best practice or examples that can help guide marketers. It’s difficult to find examples of how others do it because indigenous destinations are so varied and the research is limited. She cites the U.S. alone has 574 federally recognized tribes with distinct cultures, so trying to find comparable models is almost impossible.

“You have to build your own path which is a great thing because we’re all different and we’re all unique,” she said. This is a key takeaway for marketers to acknowledge immediately, to understand that from tribe to tribe, or island to island, no indigenous peoples are the same.

“It’s a different balance for every culture depending on their tourism resources and goals,” Shepherd said.

2. Native to Where?
Another challenge, especially, but not only, in the U.S., is recognizing some First American peoples have been removed from their homelands. Often, indigenous cultures exist today in places that are not rooted in their indigenous lands. Many have been displaced or suppressed, and these are hurdles to overcome.

“We are no longer located in our traditional homelands. Everything that we have, we had to build and establish post removal,” she said. When visiting cultural destinations, tourists often expect to see remains, ancient landmarks and historic architecture.

Other tribes, however, are rooted in their original homelands. Marketers need to be aware of this, to understand how people and place relate to each other to help overcome the specific hurdles that each tribe or group of peoples has in marketing themselves.

3. What’s the Hook?
A huge challenge for many indigenous tribes and people looking to attract travelers is a lack of recognition. Indigenous cultures don’t always have an association between their tribes and the land they inhabit. The Maori have New Zealand, a draw in and of itself, while Tahitians have name brand recognition with islands like Bora Bora, but less populated geographical locations might not have a draw.

Shepherd described that Chickasaw Country is in the latter category. “We don’t have the iconic hook, like Hawaii, Bora Bora, or the Grand Canyon,” she said. As Americans look to more local, less mainstream travel, a bit of anonymity may be a good thing. “I think with COVID-19, a destination like Chickasaw Country will have a temporary advantage, but how long will that last?” she said.

Marketers, however, can take advantage of this relative obscurity to propel cultural tourism by making friends and networking with bigger attractions and destinations. “We can partner with everyone since we have something unique to offer. Every destination is an alternative, but no one is competition,” Shepherd said. Other destinations must also look to leverage the draws around them to help elevate the indigenous cultures that are looking to get their share of visitors.

4. Which Stereotypes?
While all too obvious a challenge, overcoming stereotypes is much more of a conversation now than ever before. At the onset of 2021, having difficult conversations is no longer taboo and, quite on the contrary, something that the travel industry encourages. For indigenous cultures, however, this means understanding the stereotypes and prejudgments that visitors will bring to the table when visiting.

Not every First American tribe sleeps in tipis, for example, yet we all have preconceived notions due to media or film representations.

“While you as a traveler, as a human, go in with certain expectations, it doesn’t mean it’s representative of the indigenous culture you are visiting. We need to work on how to prepare a visitor to be open and expectant that what they learn is different from what history books taught or what they saw in movies,” Shepherd said.

People don’t always look the way we expect, and different cultures have amalgamated over the generations. Many expectations that we have aren’t reflective of what we see when we arrive, and marketing efforts must prepare visitors for that. It can be as small as making sure we’re all using the right nomenclature to understand how the term “Indian” has evolved to “Native American” and today to “First American.”

5. Who Is the Storyteller?
Another challenge for marketers is to know their place. In the case of Chickasaw Country, the destination that Shepherd represents, her biggest challenge is just being heard. “We need marketers and PR teams to open doors and allow us to be the storytellers that we are. You don’t have to be an expert on the local cultures, you need to get us to the people we can share our stories with,” she said.

This may feel unfamiliar for some more hands-off destinations where marketers can work their magic. For indigenous people, however, their voices need to be heard more than in most destinations. More than anything marketers need to be bringing representatives of indigenous cultures to the table so that they can tell their story. Their relative anonymity or overly stereotyped images are obstacles that they hope to overcome by telling their stories directly.

While the struggles are very real, Shepherd and others working to promote indigenous cultures are encouraged that society is more receptive than ever to discover their offerings. “People are hungry to understand other cultures because the conversation is ever-present. The more it’s in the media, the more people will want to plan a trip for themselves to experience First American culture.” Shepherd said.

It’s up to marketers to do that – and to do it right.

Curious to discuss more about how indigenous cultures in your region can participate more actively in your destination’s strategy? Get in touch with Kayla Leska at [email protected] to learn more about how DCI can help get the conversation started.