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Rocky Boy explores tourism options

This year Chippewa Cree tribal members could be taking tourists on guided horseback rides and hikes, holding dance performances, running van-loads of people to the tribe's casino, and providing a host of other tourism packages on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

First, though, people at Rocky Boy have to weigh the benefits of extra tourism - more money, jobs and activities for enrolled members - versus its inevitable corollary - more non-native traffic on the reservation.

That's the subject of a public meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday at Rocky Boy Catholic Church. Jason Belcourt, project coordinator for the fledgling Rocky Boy Tourism Project, hopes the meeting will help the team choose 10 to 15 tourism packages to be developed on the reservation. The meeting is open to both tribal members and nonmembers interested in tourism opportunities on the reservation.

"There's some areas that we don't want tourists to go to, and there's some things that I think the community has a lot to offer in terms of cultural sharing (and) recreational activities," Belcourt said.

"What we want to get from the community is, we want to get their support and make sure Rocky Boy is going in the right direction with this," he said.

The bottom line is creating new jobs on the reservation, he said.

The tourism project's ultimate goal is to create a year-round recreational resort on the reservation, Belcourt said. That could involve hiking, horseback riding and camping in the spring and summer, hunting in the fall, and snowmobile tours in the winter, as well as an expanded ski resort where people could stay the night. Other options include bird-watching and nature photography packages, van tours through the reservation, a package where guests would stay in a teepee and see dance performances, and a dude ranch.

To get some of those ideas started, the tribe has received a federal Administration for Native Americans grant for $295,000 for each of two years, said Robert "Sonny" Belcourt, the tribe's natural resource director. ANA is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The money came through in November. Part was used to hire four employees to work on the tourism project. The rest will be used to train and hire guides, which may begin as early as this spring, he said.

By the end of the two-year period, the tribe will have a 10-year tourism plan. A seven-member advisory board, including tribal council members Tony Belcourt and Charles "Rusty" Gopher, are giving the project direction, Jason Belcourt said.

The ANA grant comes on the heels of work done last year to restore 16 existing campsites in the Pah-Nah-To Recreational Park, he said.

That work, which involved putting in new picnic tables, grills and garbage cans and other improvements, was paid for by a $30,000 grant from the tribal council, Jason Belcourt said.

That work will continue this summer.

Virgil Chiefstick was one of many people hired last year to make the campsite improvements, build outdoor toilets and doing finishing work to the cabins. Recently hired as tribal operations manager of the tourism project, Chiefstick will continue to put the finishing touches on the cabins this spring.

"The cabins, we need to do a little more touch-up work to them and they'll be rented out," he said.

Four cabins and nine teepees will be available for rent beginning this spring. The department hopes they will attract people who want to hold events like weddings and reunions there. The one-room cabins, which don't have electricity or running water, each have four bunk beds.

Plans include opening up 15 more campsites this summer, and eventually opening an RV campground that would accommodate 10 RVs, Jason Belcourt said.

Rocky Boy is also a member of the Montana Tribal Tourism Alliance. The alliance will offer other kinds of assistance like helping set up a tourism Web site and helping the project network with the tourism programs of other Montana tribes, he said.

Visitors are not the only ones who will be able to take advantage of the programs.

"It's going to go a long ways toward creating employment and just giving people things to do," Jason Belcourt said. "Right now in the community there's not much for our youth to do. The more we create for recreation, the better."


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