When Suki Waters leads her kayak tours from Jenner, she’s doing more than educating visitors about the coastal region’s diverse wildlife and environmental habitats. She’s also giving them a guided tour through the land and water she grew up on as a member of the Kashia Pomo Tribe.
But Waters wasn’t always comfortable including her ancestry as part of the experiences she offers at her WaterTreks business.
“There were some periods that I was focusing more on the wildlife and recreational safety than my Native heritage,” said Waters. “And then, over time, it’s come out that people really do appreciate my Native heritage, and I don’t have to shut up.”
These days, her voice is being sought out.
Earlier this year, Waters was one of five Native Americans to be featured in a video series from Visit California intended to highlight the state’s 109 federally recognized tribes.
In her video, Waters is shown with her granddaughter, Mae, as they “prep boats and practice our kayak strokes.” Waters has devoted her more than 40-year career to outdoor recreational safety and risk management, and has been guiding kayak tours since 1999.
The videos are part of an initiative Visit California announced last year, which resulted in the state’s tourism marketing agency receiving a $1 million federal grant as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
The funds allowed Visit California to launch its Visit Native California platform that highlights “the spirit and diversity of California’s people and promote visitation to tribes’ cultural heritage tourism experiences,” the tourism organization stated in its September 2022 announcement.
But some tribal organizations like the Suscol Intertribal Council in Napa, doesn’t allow tourists to visit its Suscol House, situated on 23 acres of land in rural Napa, said Director Charlie Toledo.
“The intention of the Suscol House when we purchased it (in 1998) was to create a safe ceremonial place for Native Americans to gather,” she said. “We were looking at a lot of places and we felt like if it was in town, it would be more like a museum open to the public. What we ended up with is a place in a rural environment, which is actually what we wanted. … It’s not for tourists.”
The Suscol Intertribal Council develops and facilities an array of classes and events designed to strengthen the community and establish a relationship based in healing and support among the Native and non-Native populations of Napa Valley, according to Toledo.
Still, some of the Council’s events are open to the public, like its annual Pow Wows and Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations, Toledo said.
Toledo said she isn’t against the growing Native American tourism movement; rather, she hopes the focus will be on sustainable ecotourism.
“By using those words, you’re saying that you can visit places and but visit gently, in a way that doesn’t exploit the water, the labor force or the ecology,” she said.
Toledo also noted the North Bay area with the largest Native American presence.
“Sonoma County has seven land-based federally recognized tribes, and the biggest population of Native Americans in Sonoma County lives and works in Santa Rosa,” Toledo said.
In fact, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center has been housed in Santa Rosa since its founding in 1996. The center’s purpose is to educate the public about the history, culture and contemporary life of California Indians and to honor their contributions to civilization, as stated on its website.
The museum, which recommends visitors plan on taking two hours to experience, has diverse offerings that includes a couple of tours. One is of the Ishi Exhibit, which examines the life and cultural legacy of Ishi, who was labeled “the last wild Indian in California.” Another is the Precious Cargo Exhibit Tour, a display on California Indian Cradle Basket Traditions and their meanings, which include interrelated issues of birth, family, community and health.
Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and employment. Reach her at email@example.com or 707-521-4259.