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REDTT Helps Attract Tourists to Native American Communities

CHACO CANYON - Pueblo Bonito, an ancient, sprawling Anasazi city in the heart of northwestern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, evokes images of a once-bustling Indian metropolis that's become a desolate, dust-blown ghost town.



Brooklyn Lewis (right) points the way through Pueblo Bonito as she and two other students from Cuba High School's Travel Academy give Katherine and Howard Rieder a tour. New Mexico State University's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism project is helping Native American communities increase tourism income by developing tours. (10/24/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

But Brooklyn Lewis, an exuberant, 17-year-old Navajo tour guide, helps capture a sense of life and beauty in the ruins.

"There are places where pueblo people still live like this," said Lewis, kneeling beside a flat rock on the floor of one of the 800 rooms that make up the ruins. "They used this rock to grind corn kernels into cornmeal, and that's something we still do at home. I've ground the corn down to make tortillas too, because it's part of the rites of passage for a Navajo going into womanhood."

Lewis is a student at the Cuba High School Travel Academy, which is marketing Native American tourism attractions in northwestern New Mexico with help from New Mexico State University's Rural Economic Development Through Tourism (REDTT) program.

Lewis and two other students guided an Arizona couple through Pueblo Bonito in October as part of a tour the travel academy is marketing. The couple, Katherine and Howard Rieder, said the students' personal knowledge was a central reason they signed up.

"They gave us a unique perspective on the ruins, and they shared so much of their own background," Katherine Rieder said. "That personal touch was wonderful."

Indeed, that personal touch is what makes the travel academy so unique. Visitors can learn firsthand about Indian customs and traditions.

"I'm glad to be a tour guide," Lewis said. "It's Navajo land they're visiting, so I can share what I know with people."

Like Lewis, most Academy students are Native American, since about 70 percent of Cuba High's student body is Navajo, according to Rudy Valenzuela, travel academy director and school-to-work coordinator.

Travel academy tours, which range from two to five days at a cost of $120 to $736 per person, include visits to many Native American cultural sites, plus an overnight stay at a hogan, the traditional Navajo home. The hogan overnight includes storytelling and arts and crafts by the host family, plus a traditional Navajo meal.

"It's a rare opportunity for tourists to stay at a hogan," Valenzuela said. "It's also a great opportunity for the host families to earn some extra income. That's important in this area, where median income is about $10,000."

The ability to boost tourism income encouraged NMSU's REDTT program to provide technical and financial assistance to develop and promote travel academy tours.

"Our programs share a common goal of marketing Native American attractions as an economic development tool for local communities," said Charlene Selbee, REDTT program coordinator. "It's a win-win opportunity, because the students get hands-on experience in the hospitality industry, local communities can enjoy more tourism income and REDTT gains contacts and experience working with the Indian pueblos."

The REDTT project, begun in 1992 by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, offers technical assistance, training and grants to promote tourism in 16 rural New Mexico counties, including Sandoval County, home to three Navajo chapter houses and seven Indian pueblos.

REDTT helps member counties identify and market tourist attractions. In Sandoval County, REDTT has concentrated on Cuba, providing funds to construct welcome signs to draw in highway travelers, create promotional brochures and help staff a visitor center. REDTT also helped develop Cuba's Holiday Hoe Down, an annual Christmas festival that last year featured a town effort to create the world's longest burrito.

"The Holiday Hoe Down was so successful that we chose Cuba for REDTT's 2002 festival of the year award," said REDTT director Mike Cook. "They're really bringing in the tourist dollars."

In fact, Cuba's lodging revenue grew nearly 25 percent in second quarter 2002, from $70,000 last year to $87,000 in 2002. "That's really significant for a town with a population of just 590," Cook said.

The travel academy particularly appeals to REDTT staff, who want to promote tourism on New Mexico's Indian pueblos.

"The pueblos are a huge part of tourism to New Mexico and we want to make sure the Indian people benefit from that," said Allison Southworth, a REDTT program coordinator who is planning hospitality and customer service training for the pueblos.

REDTT's 2003 annual conference in April will be held at Acoma Pueblo, marking a turning point for the REDTT program, Selbee said.

"The Acoma conference is a launching point for our work with Native American communities," she said. "Conference participants will visit Chaco Canyon and Laguna and Zuni pueblos. There will be a whole track of workshops about Indian attractions."

REDTT provided an all-expense-paid trip for travel academy students to participate in the 2002 annual conference in Las Cruces last spring, and REDTT will pay for another group of students to attend the Acoma conference, Selbee said.

"These kids represent the future of the local tourism industry," she said. "The travel academy is developing an up and coming labor force, and that's critical."

REDTT has provided industry contacts to expand the program, including free online marketing by Ruidoso-based New Mexico Connection and Las Cruces-based Southern New Mexico Online, representing an estimated $4,000 in-kind donation.

The students hope their experiences will translate into career opportunities.

"I'm learning all about how the hospitality industry works," said Pasqualita Toledo, a 17-year-old Navajo from Torreon who wants to be a flight attendant.

Toledo assisted Lewis as a guide for the Rieders' tour of Pueblo Bonito. To prepare, both girls shadowed professional Chaco Canyon tour guides for three days.

"This is real-world experience," Toledo said. "Maybe it will help me get a job after high school."