The American West, with its vast landscapes and diverse populations, is a tapestry woven together by the histories and cultures of countless Native American tribes. This region—and the nation as a whole—is home to a wealth of Indigenous traditions, languages, and customs that have shaped its identity for millennia. From the rolling plains of the Midwest to the rugged Pacific coastlines, Native American culture thrives, offering a glimpse into the rich heritage of the first peoples of these lands.
Homelands in the Heartland
The Midwest, often referred to as the heartland of America, is steeped in Native American history and culture. The Plains tribes, including the Great Sioux Nation, Cheyenne, and Comanche, among others, have left an indelible mark on this region. Their nomadic lifestyle and deep spiritual connection to the land are integral to the Midwest’s identity.
The heartland region is perfect for group tours to learn about and appreciate Indigenous heritage. For instance, the Crazy Horse Memorial in western South Dakota pays tribute to the Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, while the Blackfeet Heritage Center in Montana offers a glimpse into the Blackfeet Nation’s heritage. In Rapid City, the annual Lakota Nation Invitational celebrates Lakota culture through sports, art, and traditional games. Each year in December, attendees can witness the vibrant regalia of dancers and partake in cultural exchanges.
Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is renowned for its well-preserved cliff dwellings, which were once home to ancestral Puebloan people. Visitors can explore these ancient structures and learn about the history and culture of the Puebloans at the Chapin Mesa Museum, located about 20 miles from the park’s entrance.
Sharing Heritage in the Southwest
In Phoenix, Arizona, the Heard Museum works with artists and tribal communities to provide visitors with a distinctive perspective about the art and history of Native people, especially those from the Southwest. Managed in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly in Chinle features stunning red rock canyons and ancient ruins. Navajo guides provide tours, sharing stories of the canyon’s history and significance to the Navajo people.
Also, worth adding to the itinerary is a stop at the ever-famous Antelope Canyon, located near the Arizona-Utah border. Antelope Canyon’s otherworldly beauty is the result of millions of years of erosion, and it is one of the most in-demand travel destinations in the world. Tours of this natural marvel are granted only with a Navajo guide.
In New Mexico, Acoma Pueblo—often called “Sky City”—is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. Guided tours provide insight into Acoma culture, history, and art—not to mention, the views from the mesa are breathtaking. About a 2.5-hour drive north of Acoma Pueblo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park was once a major center of Puebloan culture and features an intricate network of ancient buildings, kivas, and celestial observatories. Group tours offer in-depth insights into the astronomical, architectural, and cultural significance of the site.
Respect the Past, Embrace the Future
The American West is not only home to breathtaking landscapes but also living tapestries of Native American culture and history. From the Plains tribes of the Midwest to the diverse peoples of the West Coast, this expansive region offers a fresh perspective on Indigenous heritage. By exploring museums, attending cultural celebrations, and supporting Indigenous-owned businesses, visitors can embark on a profound journey through the traditions, stories, and resilience of Native American communities in the American West.
When planning group tours to these sites, it’s advisable to check with the respective institutions for availability, tour options, and any specific cultural protocols or guidelines to ensure a respectful and educational experience for all participants.
Celebrations of Life & Friendship
Powwows are vibrant celebrations of Native American culture that continue to thrive across the country. These events feature traditional dances, music, and food, making for an immersive experience for attendees. The Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one of the largest powwows in North America, attracting thousands of dancers and visitors each year in April. It is the largest powwow in the U.S. and is also a marketplace for Native arts and crafts. Here are several other annual powwow celebrations in the West:
- Black Hills Pow Wow—Rapid City, South Dakota (October)
- Denver March Powwow—Denver, Colorado (third weekend of March)
- Eastern Shoshone Indian Days—Fort Washakie, Wyoming (June)
- Red Earth Festival—Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (June)
- Puyallup Labor Day Powwow—Puyallup, Washington (Labor Day weekend)
- San Manuel Pow Wow—San Bernardino, California (September)
- United Tribes Powwow—Bismarck, North Dakota (second weekend of September)
- Winnebago Homecoming Celebration—Winnebago, Nebraska (last weekend in July)
By Alesha Taylor
Main Image: Mesa Verde National Park, Mesa Verde, Colorado. Credit: Adobe/Patrick Jennings