Native village in charge of its own tourism destiny

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tourists making a port call at Metlakatla can count on dropping dollars in the Tsimshian Indian community in Southeast Alaska.

The Annette Island town run by the Metlakatla Indian Community is the only reservation in Alaska, with its own courts and power to manage fish and game use. And unlike other destinations in Alaska where Outside tour companies often have a stake in everything from geegaws to glacier viewing, the village runs its own visitor industry.

Once visitors cross a tour ship gangway, they are met by village-owned buses and taken to village-run events like Native dancing performances and art shows.

Even walking tours come at a price.

''When they get off the ship, they have to spend money,'' said Patricia Beal, director of tourism for the Metlakatla Indian Community.

In this village where nearly 80 percent of the 1,800 residents are unemployed, tourism dollars are welcomed.

It wasn't always that way.

''Tourism actually started here in 1975 or 1976 when small groups would fly in from Ketchikan,'' said Beal, who heads a nine-member village tourism department. ''The community didn't benefit because there was no money being spent in the community.''

Tourists would come in, take a look around and leave. At best, a few carvings or some bead work would be purchased from local artisans.

With commercial fishing and timber industries on the decline, village leaders in the mid-1990s looked to visitors as a source of revenue.

It is one of the first Alaska Native villages to embrace tourism.

''We're really feeling the impact of no timber now,'' said Beal. ''People have moved to work at sawmills in Washington and school enrollment is down.''

Metlakatla always has taken a different approach to its destiny.

The Annette Island community a dozen miles south of Ketchikan was founded under the leadership of preacher William Duncan in the 1880s, when more than 800 Canadian Tsimshians emigrated from Old Metlakatla, near Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

More than three decades ago, Tsimshian leaders opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which terminated the aboriginal rights of Alaska Natives in exchange for 44 million acres of land and a cash settlement of $962.5 million.

Metlakatla tribal leaders wanted no part of ANCSA, turning down the money and land. Instead, tribal leaders chose to keep their reservation status, enacted by Congress in 1887 and later deemed Indian land by presidential proclamation.

As a reservation, Metlakatla has its own court system and police force, and is able to handle all cases except for serious misdemeanors and felonies.

Its handling of the tourism industry has been equally successful, Beal said.

She would not disclose the amount of money being spent in the community on the southernmost tip of Annette Island, known as Alaska's ''banana belt'' for its relatively balmy climate.

But the money is coming in.

''All artists are happy with what they are earning,'' Beal said. ''It's been really nice.''

Tourism has grown from 6,700 people in 2001 to about 8,700 this year. The community expects more than 10,000 tourists to visit via small cruise ships next summer, Beal said.

The big jump will be due in part to a dozen new trips by Glacier Bay Cruiseline, owned by Goldbelt Inc., Juneau's urban Alaska Native corporation.

The Native-owned cruise company will have a dozen ''culturally focused'' trips next year to Metlakatla, Wrangell, Petersburg and Hoonah, a Tlingit community of about 900, 40 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island.

Gary Droubay, Goldbelt president, said the cruise company has for several years run small cruise operations to Southeast and Glacier Bay, but never focused on the many Alaska Native villages in the region.

''Here we are a Native corporation and we found on our comment cards that people weren't getting enough cultural information. That's when we decided we better get with it,'' Droubay said.

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