Navajo woman elected to Arizona tourism board

<i>Courtesy Photo: Geri McCabe-Hongeva</i>

<i>Courtesy Photo: Geri McCabe-Hongeva</i>

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Tourists visit the Navajo Nation from all over the world to see the scenic beauty firsthand.

In March, Geri McCabe-Hongeva, 34, web designer for the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, was elected to the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association Board of Directors.

Hongeva is Yei Dine Tachiinii (Red Running Into The Water Clan) born for Tsenjijinkini (Cliff Dwelling Clan). Her maternal grandfathers are Kinlichii'nii (Red House People) and her paternal grandfathers are Bihh Bitoo'nii (Deer Spring Clan).

To promote the development of Indian tourism in Arizona while respecting the cultural integrity of the tribes is the mission of the AAITA.

Incorporated in 1994, the AAITA was eventually granted 501(c)(3) non profit status in 1996 and has guided tribes through the maze of the tourism industry by providing funding sources, networking and creating sustainable operations among Arizona's native population.

The AAITA is governed by the board of directors, which is filled with a diverse tribal membership including members of the Navajo Nation. The board is elected by the membership and must be in good standing with the association.

"My goals with AAITA and NNPRD are to network with other tribes who have similar goals for their travel/tourism industry," Hongeva said.

Focusing on economic and marketing enhancement is a key result area for the NNPRD and to be involved with the AAITA brings the goal closer and more achievable, she noted.

"There are so many tour companies out there that are not native-owned, or do not work closely with the tribes to make their tours more culturally enhanced to reflect tribal values," she said.

Joining Hongeva on the board of directors to change that trend is Donovan Hanely, another Navajo tribal member who is currently director of sales for Navajo Nation Hospitality.

Department director Ray Russell is happy with Hongeva's appointment to the board and said her expertise in website development is impressive.

"Since she joined our team, the department has aggressively exceeded the expectations we had set in our strategic marketing plan," Russell said.

Born on the Navajo Nation and raised in Black Mesa, Hongeva went to school at Northern Arizona University and graduated with a Bachelor's of Fine Arts degree in visual communication in 2001.

"I accomplished all my educational goals and graduated with a degree thanks to the Navajo Nation Scholarship Program. I wanted to come back to my tribe and help with the knowledge I gained and to be of service where I am needed," she said.

Hongeva began working for the NNPRD in the spring of 2005, inspired by the mission statement of the department to protect, preserve and manage Navajo tribal parks.

"I have always been a conservative person," she said. "We do not have running water or electricity at my grandmother's house and I have always been taught to take care of the land.

"It is how we have survived. The land provides the resources we need and in return, we are stewards of the land," she added.

Since she began working for the NNPRD, Hongeva has taken the lead role on website production for the department, including the creation of a DVD showcasing some of the Navajo Nation's most pristine destinations.

Working with KTVK Channel 3 from Phoenix, Hongeva's selection by her co-workers to be the department spokesperson resulted in the "Travel Navajo Nation" DVD, a 30-minute video produced from four months of shooting across the reservation.

"We wanted to package a product to feature all six of our tribal parks that we manage: Little Colorado River Gorge, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners Monument, Window Rock Veteran's Memorial, and Bowl Canyon Recreation," she said.

The opportunity to share the Navajo lifestyle with tourists exists she says, because the Navajo Nation offers some of the most beautiful places in the world.

Captured on the DVD are comments from tourists visiting from as far away as Paris. The scenes of sacred Navajo lands are enhanced further with unparalleled birds eye views of the Navajo parks.

"Travel Navajo Nation" first aired on Channel 3 on Nov. 25, 2007 with no commercial interruptions and the response was overwhelming. The station was flooded with calls on where people could purchase a copy.

"One of the most memorable moments while filming was when we landed on top of Spear Head Mesa in Monument Valley," Hongeva said. "As I stood there overlooking the Mittens, I remember feeling 'this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.'"

"I was so emotional, tears came rolling down," she said.

NNPRD is currently in the process of packaging the DVD for release to the public in 2009.

"Growing up listening to the elders about how much we used to travel and visit our relatives across the reservation, or even being invited to a social dance with neighboring tribes, these stories come back to me when I think of tourists and visitors coming to Navajo country," she said.

Practicing hospitality is second nature for Navajo people because our tribe is a very social tribe, she observed. The efforts to show visitors the unique elements the reservation has to offer will produce a positive memory and special experience for visitors, she said.

Other Arizona tribes like the Haualapi, Ft. McDowell Mohave-Apache, Yavapai-Apache, Akimel O'otham, Gila River, San Carlos and Hopi are members of the association. All push for the same cultural synergy in promoting tourism.

"When we come together, we all brainstorm and bounce ideas off one another," Hongeva said. "Working with other tribes in the tourism industry is very important for us because we refer each other's points of interests and give contacts if needed."

Sharing the Navajo Nation's points of interests online has generated a lot of traffic for the NNPRD website, netting between 250,000-450,000 hits each month. The most visited pages are also the most popular tribal parks - Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley.

Hongeva is currently working on getting Internet service to all of the tribal parks and sees the development of web cams in the near future.

She commends the hard work of the park managers and said they should be recognized for the outstanding job that they do.

"There are hard working individuals at NNPRD who keep the department focused and moving forward. I would like the Navajo people to know how much work these individuals do daily in being stewards of the land," Hongeva said.

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