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'Ridin' the Rez': the trials of Indian tourism

Beyond casinos, sightseeing can be a financial boon to reservations - but also fuels a clash of cultures.

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The San Xavier del Bac Mission throws long winter shadows across a broad plaza, where John Fendenheim is tidying his cozy tourist shop. Rising from flat desert on the 2.8 million-acre Tohono O'odham Reservation west of Tucson, the Spanish mission has been a pillar of O'odham life for nearly three centuries. And, along with casinos, it's become a financial foothold for the reservation's 24,000 residents. "San Xavier is Tucson's No. 1 tourist destination. I worked hard to get a shop in here," says Mr. Fendenheim, a tribal member.

This is the second store Fendenheim has opened on the reservation since obtaining a $60,000 loan from the tribal government in 1999. Today, his business generates about $1 million a year.

But he says the road to a success can include collisions between reservation culture and the thousands of visitors drawn to sights such as San Xavier, Baboquivari Peak, or a national astronomy observatory, all on tribal land. When new tourism businesses are proposed, "traditional values are really thought about," Fendenheim says. "Do O'odham people really want more non-Indians walking around? How do you confine it?"

That's a huge challenge to Indian nations, says Tohono O'odham Vice Chairman Ned Norris Jr. "When you look at encouraging tourism ... you get mixed feelings from tribal members. On one hand, it's good. On the other hand, the feeling is, 'We don't need people coming out onto the nation because they don't have the kind of respect that we expect, for the land, for the people, and for sacred sites.' "


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