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Bringing Local Culture to Hotels

Along with other 20th-century anthropologists, Margaret Mead helped popularize a sophisticated understanding of cultural differences, one that overturned colonial ideas about "primitive natives." She also discovered a central conundrum of anthropology: that even a neutral observer affects the reactions of her subjects. How could she be sure, for example, that the Samoan teenagers weren't elaborating on their sexual behavior just to impress her?Now, decades later, regular travelers are interacting with societies far removed from their own at new resorts—resorts that represent an emerging paradigm for cultural tourism. And like Mead, these ersatz anthropologists are getting a more authentic view of foreign cultures, while also being left to wonder about their own role in the game.

Gone are the days when indigenous peoples were restricted to hawking their crafts in the lobby, or when the only close encounters with locals were likely to take place at turndown. Now, they own the hotel. From Botswana to Mongolia, native populations are launching properties—often in partnership with outfitters, international aid organizations, or even established hotel brands—that reflect their own worldview rather than exploit it. This new model has the added value of benefiting entire communities, not just the most enterprising members, by reducing dependence on government assistance programs, or what Australian Aborigines call sit-down money (getting paid to sit around and do nothing). Many groups have even established foundations or trusts with their profits, which in turn finance desperately needed health and education initiatives.

Overlooking Kenya's Great Rift Valley at the edge of the Nguruman Escarpment, Shompole Lodge is a successful alliance between a private safari company and the Masai, who are employed as hotel staff and rangers. At present, the Shompole Group Ranch community receives conservation fees and increasing shares in the lodge. (By 2018, they are expected to gain majority ownership.) This gradual earn-in gives the Masai time to hone their operational skills while the safari company maintains a base in one of the world's most spectacular game reserves. The lodge is a lavish introduction to the African bush, but it was never intended to be representative of how the local tribes live. To learn that, it's necessary to travel southwest into Botswana's Okavango Delta, to Gudigwa Camp, which is fully owned by the Bukakhwe San bushmen and comes closer to the real deal (except for Western-style plumbing). Guests sleep in simple grass huts (there are six) and walk the veld with villagers who practice the earliest of hunter-gatherer traditions.

At some retreats, safeguarding old ways is an unofficial obligation; at others, it's the raison d'être. Jalsa Urubshurowfounded the Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in his ancestral country of Mongolia to help reestablish nomadic traditions banned by the former Communist regime. In a remote realm infrequently visited by Westerners, the Mongolian staff double as interpreters during festivals that celebrate such Kazakh customs as hunting with golden eagles, camel races, and hoomi (throat) singing. Ancient practices are also being revived at Gunya Titjikala, a tent camp on Aboriginal lands in Australia's Simpson Desert, 90 miles south of Alice Springs. Clan members relate dreamtime stories and prepare bush food for guests. (Yes, witchetty grubs are on the menu.) According to Mark Provost, Gunya Tourism's director, this new outlet gives the Titjikala people a reason to pass along their expertise. "At our opening, the ladies performed a dance that hadn't been conducted in the area for twelve years," he says. "Children are once again going on foraging trips with grandparents and learning desert-survival skills."

"Twilight at Kalahuipaa," a ritual at the Mauna Lani Resort on Hawaii's Big Island, is another perfect model of authentic cultural conservation. Once a month, at sunset, locals and guests gather informally to "talk story" beside a series of ancient fish ponds on the resort grounds. "There are few places left where residents can hear real Hawaiian music," managing director Kurt Matsumoto says. "'Twilight' isn't highly programmed or stylized; it's like sitting in your own backyard—it's entertainment the way it was before television." The custom wasn't created by a marketing team. It's a natural synthesis of communal need and responsible stewardship by the resort. And no one has to wear a grass skirt who doesn't feel like it.

There's no point in creating programs that perpetuate clichés or don't connect people in a genuine manner. And because competition for tourist dollars continues to be fierce, "cultural skimming" is no longer sufficient; in fact, it's demeaning. Which is why authenticity—difficult as it is to achieve—is the ultimate goal of these destinations that try to preserve ancient folkways. Yet the question remains: When donning your grass skirt is no longer a daily ritual but rather a means of making a buck, is this exchange ethical?

Authenticity is certainly on my mind as I make my way to a 640-square-mile reservation outside Phoenix where the Akimel O'odham and Pee Posh tribes (better known to present-day Arizonans as the Pima and Maricopa) have used casino gambling proceeds to fund their Native American-themed Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. There, guests can listen to a Grammy-nominated Native American duo perform at night, and ride mustangs through the Sonoran Desert with a Lakota Sioux wrangler by day. En route to the Gila River Indian Community, an Alamo van drops me at the rental-car lot outside Phoenix International Airport, where I'm given a Pontiac Sunbird. A white one. The irony deepens when I pull under the resort's porte cochère. A valet cheerfully greets me with a chilled bottle of Arrowhead spring water—bottled by Nestlé. My guest room in the Maricopa wing looks out on a two-story pool slide shaped like the Casa Grande archaeological site. The Tashogith facial in the Aji spa uses white clay imported from Switzerland. Caught up in the artifice, I almost miss the actual point of this Sheraton-managed resort.

It's only after talking to the staff that I understand how Wild Horse Pass distinguishes itself from every other Phoenix hotel. Ginger Sunbird Martin, the Akimel O'odham cultural concierge, explains that the Gila River tribes built this resort as a hedge fund, in case Arizona repeals casino gambling and their revenue stream dries up, like the river that once flowed through this stretch of high desert. (Dams put an end to a 2,300-year tradition of irrigation farming.) Also unique, a tribal oversight committee retains complete control over design, from commissioning native artwork to interpreting Native American ideology for the architectural firm Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo.

While resorts like Wild Horse Pass foster an appreciation for native cultures, going to them is still supposed to be a vacation, not an accredited course in anthropology. That's just as well, because taking your experience too seriously can lead to mischief. (Even Mead suffered from this: in 1983, her groundbreaking study among the Samoans was compromised by the accusation that her subjects had been telling outrageous whoppers to the gullible ethnologist.) During a trail ride with Steve Bruguier, a burly Sioux wrangler at Wild Horse's 2,400-acre Koli Equestrian Center, he hammers this point home while relating an uncomfortable exchange with a guest after one of the horses was attacked by a rattlesnake. The vet was notified immediately, but the angry rider still accused the staff of neglect. A quick-thinking Pee Posh wrangler calmed him down by slathering the horse's leg with an impromptu mud poultice, explaining it was an old Indian trick to heal snakebites. Pushing his hat back, at the end of his tale, Bruguier looks at me with a straight face, so I'm compelled to ask, "Really?" He flashes a titanium-white grin. That says it all, kemosabe.

SHANE MITCHELL is a T+L contributing editor.

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