"So, how long have you been Native?": Self-commodification in the Native-owned cultural tourism industry

Alexis C Bunten
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles
July, 2006


This dissertation addresses the ways that Native Americans control their presentation of ethnicity to non-Native, paying audiences in the emerging Native-owned tourism venue, and how these processes, in turn, affect Native peoples' understandings of their own cultural identities. I argue that the cultural representation taking place at the Native-owned tourism site fits into larger arenas of cultural production in which local traditions are negotiated, maintained, revitalized and reproduced. My dissertation research took place over a three-year period. During this, time I worked for "Tribal Tours," a Native-owned cultural tourism business in Sitka, Alaska and participated in all aspects of cultural tourism. I have also been an active member of the national American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

I define self-commodification as "a set-of beliefs and practices in which an individual chooses to construct a marketable identity product while striving to avoid alienating oneself throughout the duration of interaction with an outside, purchasing party." Self-commodification is a dual process; it is both an economic response to the global expansion of the service sector, as well as a politically motivated expression of identity. The emotional labor combined with the cross-cultural skills necessary to entertain groups of tourists contribute to the Native tour guide's construction of a "commodified persona." This process highlights the tensions between structure and agency in the post-capitalist tourism setting. The self-commodification taking place at the tourist site is conducted within a well-ordered framework of political, economic, and social structures. However, there is room at the individual level to respond to micro and macro-structural political-economic domains, and even to confront them.

Though the activities off self-commodification, Native tour guides display a sophisticated understanding of cross-cultural concepts of "what it means to be Native." It is not surprising then, as my findings show, that Native cultural tourism workers are involved with other aspects of local cultural production. Thus, my dissertation adds new dimensions to the body of work that explores indigenous practices around the world in which economic independence, self-determination, cultural sovereignty, and the maintenance of Native traditions are linked.