Between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, the ancestors of contemporary Native Americans first roamed the North American continent, developing complex societies from the present-day California coast to the forests of New England. In the 15th century, the first English settlers arrived to find a continent full of natural resources and more than 600 diverse Native American civilizations—complete with robust cities and strong spiritual and cultural ties to the land. European contact led to disease, war, and forced relocation, drastically reshaping life for America’s first peoples. Despite the many hardships tribes across the continent face—and continue to face—Native Americans practice and share their culture and traditions that have existed for thousands of years. Today, 5 million Native Americans live in the United States, where 574 sovereign Native nations are federally recognized. These Native culture centers and historic sites share stories, artwork, and artifacts that illustrate the diversity of the Native American experience, then and now.
History & Heroes
Native history stretches back thousands upon thousands of years, and there are many historic sites related to Native spirituality, conflict, and trade. One of the oldest Indigenous archeological sites in the country, The Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village features a huge rock overhang that contains evidence of being used as a shelter 19,000 years ago. The site is located in Avella, Pennsylvania—land that was once home to prehistoric hunters and gatherers. In the historic village, visitors can practice spear throwing or watch a blacksmith forge iron at re-creations of wigwams, log cabins, and a trading post. In Wyoming, Devils Tower is a striking geological formation that showcases the oral traditions of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota nations. Today, many Indigenous people offer prayers, perform sun dances, and participate in spiritual ceremonies at this monument.
Native American heroes like Sitting Bull of the Lakota and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce were brave leaders in the face of colonialism, and there are several sites dedicated to honoring and sharing their stories. In Mobridge, South Dakota, find the Sitting Bull and Sakakawea Monuments, thought to be the final resting place of the aforementioned warrior. Also in South Dakota, the Crazy Horse Memorial rock carving is the largest sculptural undertaking in the world. The memorial honors its namesake, a chief of the Oglala band of the Lakota peoples who was a leader against colonists and grew up in the modern-day Black Hills area. Your group can learn more about Crazy Horse and other Native American heroes at The Indian Museum of North America and The Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
In addition to Native military history, groups can also learn how Native culture, diplomacy, and trade flourished along the rivers of the Great Plains. Once an important trading site, the Fort Union Trading Post in Williston, North Dakota, hosted seven Northern Plains Tribes in the mid-1800s, as they often exchanged furs along the Upper Missouri River. At the Trade House, living history interpreters and park rangers answer questions about Native life on the Plains and demonstrate skills like blacksmithing.
Across the United States, there are many museums dedicated to educating the public about Native American culture and history. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, has locations in New York City and Washington, D.C. Both museums illustrate Native American innovation, artistry, and resilience through engaging exhibits, presentations, and films. Outside the museum’s D.C. location is the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which recognizes the service of Natives in every branch of the U.S. military. The memorial was designed by Harvey Pratt, a member of the Cheyenne tribe in Oklahoma, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.
The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City focuses on the 39 tribes native to present-day Oklahoma. The curvature of the building is an homage to Native American mound-building, a sacred practice that dates back thousands of years. While there, learn about the sports, games, songs, and languages of the original residents of Oklahoma. Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois, offers film screenings, mural viewings, and information regarding Native heritage markers in the Chicago area. One of the Mitchell Museum’s tour options is the Regional Tour of American Indian Cultures, where groups can get an overview of the art and material culture of Native Americans.
Overlooking the mighty Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota, the Dignity of Earth & Sky sculpture’s gaze cuts across the horizon. This 50-foot stainless-steel statue of a Native American woman and her star quilt was built to honor the Lakota and Dakota peoples. Designed by Dale Lamphere, artist laureate of South Dakota, this gleaming statue is an awe-inspiring monument to the Native peoples of the region. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, is built on the lands of the Miami and Lenape people and has a large collection of older and contemporary Native artwork from tribes across the region. Founded in 1929, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, is internationally recognized for its collection of American Indian art, exhibitions, and educational programs. Groups can tour the museum’s 10 galleries and outdoor courtyards as they take in Native artworks from across the Southwest.
Get To Know The Nations
Each Native tribe has a distinct history and culture, and there are many museums, cultural centers, and exhibits specific to individual tribes, providing an opportunity for an in-depth, authentic look at the diversity of Native American life. Originally from present-day New York state, many members of the Oneida Nation now live in Oneida, Wisconsin. Take a guided tour of the Oneida Museum and the Three Sisters Garden to learn about Iroquois and Oneida cultures. Also in Wisconsin, the George W. Brown, Jr. Ojibwe Museum & Cultural Center in Lac du Flambeau offers seasonal workshops and exhibits on the culture of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. The Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia, Minnesota, covers the storied history of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Browse the region’s largest selection of Native-made artwork, crafts, and gifts at the restored 1930s trading post.
Ledyard, Connecticut, is on the ancestral homelands of the Mashantucket Pequot peoples, and the tribally owned and operated Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center offers tours that explore the connection between Native people, community, and the land. The Seneca Iroquois National Museum is operated by the Seneca Nation. The Seneca people were once the largest tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations, a democratic government that predates the writing of the United States Constitution. The museum, located in Salamanca, New York, offers exhibits and community events that trace the history of the Iroquois peoples.
Voted one of the “Top 10 Best Native American Experiences” by USA Today, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, traces the history of people native to southern Appalachia back 13,000 years. In Clewiston, Florida, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum houses 200,000 artifacts unique to the Seminole people of modern-day Florida. Watch the orientation film, tour the gallery, and stroll along the boardwalk through the Everglades to experience a slice of Seminole history and culture. Also in Florida, visit the Tampa Bay History Center to view the “Florida’s First People” exhibit, see one of the largest collections of Seminole and Miccosukee craftwork, and learn about Coacoochee, a chieftain during the Second Seminole War.
Indigenous communities across North America built impressive structures to serve as their homes, gathering spaces, and storage rooms. Through the advocacy of local tribes and collaboration with government agencies and historical societies, many of these architectural triumphs still partially stand today, a testament to the building skills of early Native Americans. Groups can marvel at the remnants of North America’s first towns and cities.
During the 13th century, Cahokia (near present-day St. Louis, Missouri) was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico—larger than London at the time! At its peak, this agricultural society was home to 20,000 people. Today, Cahokia Mounds is designated as a State Historic Site where groups can tour the archeological remnants of a sophisticated prehistoric city. There are many more well-preserved ruins of Native American dwellings, especially throughout the American West.
The Pueblo people built many communities into the sides of cliffs. In Mesa Verde, Colorado, the buildings of Mesa Verde National Park have stood for 700 years. Start at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center to learn more about the history of this designated World Heritage Site, then visit breathtaking structures like Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House. Montezuma Castle National Monument in Yavapai County, Arizona, is a 20-room structure built into a limestone cliff. At the Montezuma Castle Visitor Center, groups can see household objects, hunting tools, and jewelry used by the Sinagua people. Canyon of the Ancients National Monument has the highest known archeological site density in the U.S., meaning it has the most well-preserved evidence of early Native American cultures, dating back 10,000 years. The site encompasses over 174,000 acres of agricultural fields, cliff dwellings, villages, and petroglyphs.
Main Image: Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture; Credit: South Dakota Department of Tourism