Alaska Natives Share Culture, History
Corporations diversify into visitor industry
A brown bear watches her cubs play at the Kodiak Brown Bear Center.
Alaska Native corporations have earned positive reputations for their work with government contracting and in the oil and gas industry. However, a number of corporations have balanced and diversified their portfolios with tourism industry assets.
One strong selling point for these business—beyond the wild beauty of Alaska they grant access to—is the opportunity for socially conscious tourists to directly support Native groups as well as have a direct conduit to learn about the history and the traditions of the people who have a long, deep connection to the land.
St. Paul Island Tour
“The blend of traditional lifestyle with modern life is very subtle, yet very distinct. We have passionate leaders on the island who work to preserve our culture, particularly for the youth and generations to come,” says Ron Philemonoff, CEO of Tanadgusix Corporation, a shareholder-owned Aleut Alaska Native village corporation that owns and operates The St. Paul Island Tour.
“Our island is famous for attracting worldwide birders to the island and naturalists [and] photographers seeking incredible natural beauty … to view our fur seal population, reindeer herd, and Arctic fox. On our tour we incorporate stories of our heritage [and] language in relation to all that they see.”
St. Paul Island, also known as the Galapagos of the North, is the largest of the Pribilof Islands, situated in the Bering Sea far off the coast of the Alaska mainland.
“Everyone in the community is a shareholder and owner of the tour program we operate. Their only wish is that we succeed and that we sustainably operate the program for the future generations,” Philemonoff says.
However, Philemonoff is not confident that with the current amount of state support the company, based in the remote community of 400 people, will last.
“We do our best to support marketing of our tour program with digital delivery to targeted channels. There is never enough money to do this adequately, and we have traditionally relied on the state tourism authority to put Alaska on the map, so to speak, as a choice destination,” he says. “The future looks troubling with just what looks like barely $3 million in state marketing funds. We will seek cooperation with other like-minded natural adventure and outdoor tour operators to maybe cooperate with us in some way to bundle our tour.”
Philemonoff hopes that their membership in the American Indian and Alaska Natives Travel Association will also help boost the island’s global appeal.
“The future for this cultural heritage and history [tour] is huge and growing, particularly from China and Asia, [which shows] 15 percent to 20 percent growth per year,” he says. “It is worrisome that Alaska is poorly prepared to grow for tour groups, independent groups, and individual travelers that take us off the grid.
“That grid [is] large hotels and infrastructure owned by cruise ship lines, which jams people through their pipeline in a short four-month season when in fact we need another million visitors visiting us year-round.”
Though high season for the island runs from May 15 to September 30, the King Eider Hotel is open all year and regardless of season guests can always book a tour. In addition to birding and wildlife viewing tours, St. Paul Island Tour provides cultural context for visitors.
“We offer heritage and history, and a tour of the Russian Orthodox Church, and our museum, which is rich in natural, archaeological, and cultural history. Our community of St. Paul supports the tour program with a smile and a wave in treating all visitors to the island,” Philemonoff says.
“As time permits on tour, we offer visits to our senior center offering opportunity for guests visiting the island to meet our elders and hear stories of life on the island. We also have our youth on the island learning Aleut language and offering short programs with costumes and dance.”
A brown bear plays with her cub at the Kodiak Brown Bear Center on Kodiak.
Back on the mainland, at the heart of the tourism industry in the Interior, is the Kantishna Roadhouse, one of only four small lodges inside Denali National Park and the only Alaska Native-owned and operated lodge in the area.
“All of the lodges offer similar services; however, our lodge employs Doyon shareholders and thus guests are able to meet and interact with Native people from throughout the Doyon region,” says Marie Monroe, general manager of Doyon Tourism.
Located ninety-two miles inside the national park, the full-service, all-inclusive Kantishna Roadhouse is open one hundred days a year from June 4 to September 12. Aside from those dates, the Denali Park Road is not maintained or open to traffic. The roadhouse boasts thirty-two wood cabins that can accommodate up to five people, while the family cabin can sleep up to seven.
“We function very much as any remote Alaskan village; we produce our own power, operate and treat our water system, grow a lot of our vegetables in our large greenhouse, et cetera,” Monroe says.
The lodge has, in fact, recently received a Gold LEED certification in acknowledgement of its efforts in conserving energy, recycling, and striving to have a minimal impact on the natural surroundings.
“A big draw for guests booking a stay in Kantishna is guided hiking. Our naturalist guide staff is made up of highly trained interpreters who not only keep guests safe on their hikes but educate them as well,” Monroe says.
“Our hikes and other interpretive programs often focus on the culture and history of the Native people of Interior Alaska and how they have lived in harmony with nature for centuries.”
In addition to boarding, Kantishna Roadhouse offers a day tour—Kantishna Wilderness Trails—that leaves the entrance of Denali National Park early every morning, arriving at the Kantishna Roadhouse for lunch and activities.
Monroe points out that Alaska is a “bucket list” destination for people throughout the world, which is a boon for the tourism industry. However, she believes the state can do more to showcase the wonders of Alaska to people around the world.
“There has been a decline in the amount of money appropriated in the state budget for advertising tourism in Alaska over the past several years,” Monroe says. “Travelers need to be reminded that Alaska is a safe, accessible, and exciting destination.”
Though the state might be falling short of expectations for promoting tourism, Monroe points out that being owned by a Native corporation provides some stability.
“Being owned by Doyon is helpful in many ways. Doyon is a diverse company and has a long history and solid business reputation in many fields of endeavor,” Monroe says. “Guests are interested and intrigued by the diversity of Doyon and the other regional corporations of Alaska.”
Koyukuk River Tribal Tours
Far more remote than the Kantishna Roadhouse is Koyukuk River Tribal Tours (KRTT), which differs from other Native tourism businesses in many ways—among them ownership.
“We are unique amongst Alaska Native-owned businesses because we are a tribally-owned business as opposed to an ANCSA corporation subsidiary. KRTT is owned by the Hudotl’eekkaakk’e Tribe [dba Hughes Village Council],” says Edwin Bifelt, business manager of Koyukuk River Tribal Tours.
The company offers trips off the beaten track in a region of Alaska that is rarely visited by those
who live outside of the Koyukuk River area. It’s based out of Hughes, one of six Koyukon Athabascan villages located along the Koyukuk River.
“The Koyukuk River spans more than 500 miles from the Brooks Range to the Yukon River. Although there are a few tour operations based out of Bettles/Evansville, we are the only tour operation in the middle Koyukuk River area,” Bifelt says. “KRTT offers guests a short glimpse into life in rural Alaska and an Alaska Native community from those that live in the community. The Koyukon Athabascan people have been living a subsistence life in the Alaska wilderness for thousands of years and are excited to share our stories and culture with the world.”
KRTT’s services include both unguided tours and small-group, all-inclusive guided river camping tours of three days, two nights and six days, five nights.
“We are also able to offer customizable trips for groups. Hughes to Huslia is approximately 200 miles by river, so if a group wants to experience a trip between villages we can offer that,” Bifelt adds.
Elder advisors join the multi-day guided tours.
“They are our greatest resources when it comes to our cultural practices and Denaakk’e language [Koyukon Athabascan] and also the history of the region,” Bifelt says.
The off-the-grid base for KRTT is 200 miles from Fairbanks and accessible only by plane, operating nearly year-round with summer/fall tours from June to October and winter/spring tours from February to May.
“Although it has been a challenge for KRTT to build a consistent sales channel with guests, we believe that in the long-term the visitor industry will become a large part of the local economy in Hughes,” Bifelt says. “As a tribally-owned business, all profits will go to increased services and for the benefit of our tribal members and community.”
Despite the remoteness of the destination, KRTT and the Hughes Village Council have big plans for boosting tourism revenue.
“KRTT and the Hughes Village Council are currently planning to build a visitors’ center in Hughes, with several guest cabins and also hope to have a lodge built at one of the Koyukuk River camps in the future,” Bifelt says. “Although these are long-term goals and may take several years to put together, we believe having these assets will grow our business.”
The Kodiak Brown Bear Center, where these bears were photographed, is accessible only by float plane or helicopter.
Kodiak Brown Bear Center
Also remote is the Kodiak Brown Bear Center (KBBC), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koniag, which represents the Native Alutiiq people of the Kodiak Island archipelago.
Accessible only by float plane or helicopter, KBBC is situated on Camp Island on Karluk Lake on the southwest side of Kodiak Island. Despite the extremely remote location, KBBC offers all the amenities of any upscale resort with 24-hour power, full bathrooms, WiFi, and state-of-the-art power generation and communications, says Edward Ward, the general manager of KBBC.
“KBBC offers a high end guided Kodiak Brown Bear viewing experience for the experiential traveler, wildlife photographers, and wildlife film production and documentary companies,” says Ward.
KBBC has exclusive access to more than 112,000 acres of prime Kodiak Brown Bear habitat on its Native Alutiiq ancestral lands surrounding Karluk Lake and Karluk River.
“KBBC’s guided Kodiak Brown Bear viewing experience includes an in-depth immersion into our rich and vibrant Native Alutiiq culture and heritage,” Ward says. “The cornerstone of our Alutiiq heritage culture is on the very same lands the KBBC sits today. Archeological digs have discovered over seventeen Alutiiq village sites and hundreds of barabaras [sod houses] around Karluk Lake and River; 75 percent of KBBC employees are of Alutiiq descent [and] are humbled knowing that they are walking on the same land and trails their ancestors did for millennia.”
KBBC’s current operating season is July to October, syncing up with the run of migrating sockeye salmon reaching Karluk Lake to spawn, which attracts bears that feast on the fish to put on their winter stores of fat, Ward explains.
“Starting in 2019 the KBBC will be offering its location for corporate and organizational retreats, wildlife and environmental experiential studies, and Alutiiq cultural camps,” Ward says. “With the other services the KBBC plans to start offering in 2019, it will become pretty much a year-round operation operating on the shoulder seasons of our bear viewing.”
Ward points out that being part of a regional corporation is an asset with the networking, support, and knowledge base as well as common interests the regional and village corporations have with each other.
“KBBC provides not only an economic benefit for the community with all the associated goods and services we use through the different businesses,” Ward says, “it also provides opportunities for our regional corporation to give back to the community with sponsorships, donations, and local employment opportunities for shareholders, descendants, and residents of the community.”
Isaac Stone Simonelli is a freelance journalist and former managing editor for the Phuket Gazette.