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The American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) recognized the best travel and cultural tourism across Native Nations and communities at its annual Excellence in Tourism Industry Awards on October 4. 

“We are thrilled to recognize these renowned hospitality industry programs and professionals,” said Sherry L. Rupert, AIANTA, Chief Executive Officer in a press release. “These honorees epitomize how Native cultural and heritage tourism programs can successfully attract visitors and grow economic development while celebrating their own heritage and culture, and we congratulate all the award recipients and nominees.”

Every year, AIANTA recognizes enterprises and individuals in four different categories: Tribal Destination of the Year; Best Cultural Heritage Experience; Excellence in Customer Service; and Industry Professional of the Year. 

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This years awardees include:  

Tribal Destination of the Year: Cherokee Nation Anna Mitchell Cultural and Welcome Center. Named in honor of the late Cherokee National Treasure Anna Belle Sixkiller Mitchell, the center shares the history of both the Cherokee Nation and the Vinita community while honoring Mitchell’s efforts to revitalize Cherokee pottery. The destination answered a call for action and created a platform for the preservation and promotion of Cherokee history, art and culture on a national and even international level. The historic Route 66, also known as the Mother Road, is a highly recognized celebration of America’s rich and diverse stories, but the iconic road lacked inclusion of the Cherokee Nation as a pivotal stop for travelers. Cherokee Nation invested in every opportunity to incorporate its culture into the overall experience at the Cherokee Nation Anna Mitchell Cultural & Welcome Center. The property exemplifies AIANTA’s mission as it seeks to reach new and/or underserved audiences, share the authentic Cherokee story, and amplify tribal tourism within the Cherokee Nation and beyond.

Best Cultural Heritage Experience: First Americans Museum Solstice Equinox Event. The cultural heritage experience embodies a transformative commitment to American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian tourism, specifically the heritage as 21st Century Moonbuilders with its FAM Mound. The event introduces participants to the spiritual significance of the solstice and equinox, aligning with the museum’s educational mission. Visitors watch as the setting sun aligns in the Winter Solstice tunnel or atop the FAM Mound. The rising sun through the courtyard during the vernal and autumnal equinox epitomizes the museum’s interactive approach and connection to the natural world. In essence, this experience encapsulates the museum’s dedication to Indigenous tourism, perpetuating traditions and values while fostering profound connections. It is a living narrative that redefines heritage and nurtures understanding among visitors.

Excellence in Customer Service Award: Dineh Tours, LLC of Page, Arizona. When Dineh Tours CEO Tilford Bedoni founded the company in 2017, the primary goal was to share Navajo culture with guests on every visit, while providing an immersive experience full of stories and traditions of the Navajo people. Exemplifying excellence in customer service, guests regularly leave heartfelt memories and reviews acknowledging the tour directors’ hard work and dedication to sharing the Navajo culture as they go beyond general Canyon tour talks. Dineh Tours focuses on the once-in-a-lifetime experience visitors have while on tour to learn personal stories from tour directors as they share Navajo culture and growing up on the reservation.

The Industry Professional of the Year Award: Shoshana Wasserman, Deputy Director of the First Americans Museum. As Deputy Director of First Americans Museum and tribal citizen of both Thlopthlocco Tribal Town and Muscogee Nation, she has made a profound impact on Indigenous tribal tourism, consistently advancing the mission of AIANTA. Her impassioned leadership brings cultural practices and modern organizational development together and has bolstered the growth and recognition of Indigenous tourism while forging connections that transcend cultural boundaries. Wasserman’s commitment to preserving and promoting Indigenous heritage is evident in her 18 years of steadfast work at the First Americans Museum and her role has been pivotal in developing exhibits that authentically represent tribal communities. By curating immersive experiences that delve into the depth of Indigenous traditions, she has redefined how cultural narratives are shared with the world.

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