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Visiting North America can be more than just big city experiences and dramatic landscapes. There’s a whole historic culture to discover amongst the Native American Indians, as Dagmara Ginter discovers.

A Native American dancer performs at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada

A Native American dancer performs at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada

Visiting New England in the fall, Christmas shopping in New York or staring into the Grand Canyon might be the sort of things that spring to mind when thinking of planning a trip to North America. But this part of the continent was inhabited long before those who created the New World. The United States and Canada have lots to offer that explores the life and heritage of the indigenous population: interpretative centres, annual powwows and festivals, and package tours to places of cultural and historical interest as well as horseback trips guided by Native Americans.

USA

The Great Plains

The Great Plains, which constitute the central part of the United States, have been inhabited by the most ‘typical’ Indian of North America,i.e. an Indian with long black hair and prominent cheekbones who was an excellent horse rider and warrior putting up a heroic resistance to the Americans` encroachment upon his territory. He lived in a tipi, the most easily recognisable dwelling of a Native American, and drew sustenance from buffalo.

Nowadays, the Great Plains boast of many attractions and events for those who would like to learn the ancient ways of life of that most popularised ‘Red Indian’.
Summer in Montana features several well-known intertribal events worth attending. Each June, Fort Peck Reservation in Frazer hosts Red Bottom Celebration, a four-day pow-wow.
North American Indian Days are held in July on the Blackfeet Celebration Grounds in Browning, inviting Native Americans from every corner of the US and Canada.

Crow Fair and Rodeo is a three-day celebration in August, held at Crow Agency, 60 miles south of Billings. It welcomes Native Americans from both the U.S. and Canada, who camp along the Little Bighorn River. The event features daily parades of Indians wearing traditional clothing – women in elk teeth dresses and men in beaded shirts, leggings and war bonnets.

It is possible to visit the Crow Fair as part of a seven-day package organised by First Nations Tours. At the Crow Fair, you are invited to stay with a Native American family in their tipi. The second day of the tour takes you to Custer Battlefield at the Little Bighorn, where in 1876 the Sioux and Cheyenne won their great military victory against the American army. A Crow historian awaits you there with a special tour. Other highlights of the trip include a visit to Pryor, the most traditional community of the Crow Indians, and to the home of the last chief of the tribe, Plenty Coup. First Nations Tours are operated by Going-to-the-Sun Institute, which was founded by Curly Bear Wagner, great-grandson of a famous Blackfeet chief, Red Crow.

Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village, near Browning

Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village, near Browning

Lodgepole Gallery and Tipi Village, located two and a half miles west of Browning, offers Blackfeet Cultural History Tours led by a Blackfeet artist. The tour includes two nights in a tipi, an evening round the campfire with talks about the Blackfeet culture, two dinners with buffalo, deer or antelope and a tour of the Blackfeet Reservation with a visit to the Museum of the Plains Indian. You will also have a chance to meet the herd of Spanish Mustang, considered to be the Native Americans’ original horses. There is a discount for groups of eight or more. Cheyenne Trail Riders is a family business operated by Joe and Brenda Grinsell from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Their ranch is located near Busby, Montana, and offers tipi rental and horse rides. You can tour the Northern Cheyenne Reservation on horseback and visit the ancient tipi rings. Groups are welcome for both short and long stays – anything from an hour to a week.

Montana Old West Oufitters, located 17 miles from Cut Bank Montana, provide horseback trips in the company of Blackfeet cowboys and cowgirls in the spectacular Rocky Mountains scenery as well as a vehicular tour to the Museum of the Plains Indian, sites of ancient encampments and buffalo jumps in the Blackfeet country. Other activities include fly-fishing on the Blackfeet Reservation and big and small game hunts.

Crazy Horse was a famous Oglala Sioux from South Dakota. Largely responsible for the defeat of General Custer in 1876, he is regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of the Plains Indians. Today, a direct descendant of his extended family organises Crazy Horse Tours to places sacred for Native Americans of the Great Plains.The two-day tour from Rapid City, South Dakota starts with a journey to Bear Butte in the Black Hills. Devils Tower is another place held in great reverence for it was there that the Sioux nations used to meet every year for the Sundance. The trip takes you next to Inyan Kaga where Indians still gather rocks for their Sundance and to the open prairie, Beaver Creek. The last highlight of the first day is Crazy Horse Monument, a 563-foot statue of the great Indian leader. Day Two begins with South Unit, Badlands. You will then visit Crazy Horse Burial Site and Wounded Knee, the scene of one of the most atrocious encounters between the American Army and the Sioux.

It is possible for groups to explore the Plains Indian nations in Nebraska on a Hoka Hey! tour

It is possible for groups to explore the Plains Indian nations in Nebraska on a Hoka Hey! tour

Go Native America, with its headquarters in both Sheridan, Wyoming, and London, offers a wide range of cultural trips into the tribal lands of the Plains Indians. The fully guided trips last up to 14 days and can be organised for groups of up to 100. Go Native America boasts esteemed native guides, most being descendants of renowned chiefs and leaders. Lakota Moon is a 12-day tour featuring the Black Hills and the Standing Rock Reservation of Sitting Bull’s band, the Hunkpapa Lakota, the Crow Creek Reservation, the Badlands and Pine Ridge, the land of Chief Red Cloud. Hoka Hey! lasts 14 days and explores places of great historical significance for the Plains Indian nations in North and South Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska. The 10-day tour of the Spirit of the Wolf offers an insight into the spiritual life of the Plains Indians, emphasising the significance of the wolf, taking you to the Medicine Wheel in the Bighorns. Land of Gitchi Gumee is a two-week tour and begins with a stay in the Great Lakes with Ojibwa Indians. The second week focuses on the Sioux Territory including Pipestone – one of the most sacred sites of the Great Plains.

The south eastern experience

The largest south-eastern tribe in North America is the Cherokee, who, in 1838, were forced to leave their homeland in North Carolina and were moved to the Indian Territory, the present-day Oklahoma. Their migration is recalled as the ‘Trail of Tears’ in the history of the US. Nowadays, the majority live in Oklahoma, yet, North Carolina has still got a small percentage of those who managed to survive.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, is worth visiting for its large collection of the tribe`s artefacts. But it is the Oconaluftee Indian Village that brings the tribal artefacts to life. Here, you find yourself transported into the 18th century. The Village is a perfect reconstruction of an original Cherokee community with its clay and cane huts and Native Americans involved in such primitive activities as basket weaving.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is inhabited by the largest number of aboriginal communities east of the Mississippi River. Over half a million acres of the state are occupied by reservations, home to 11 independent nations.

The northernmost of Wisconsin is the homeland of two Chippewa communities, located along the coast of Lake Superior. You can participate in many cultural events like the Red Cliff Pow-Wow at the beginning of every July. The pow-wow can generally be defined as a Native American gathering, the purpose of which is to sing, dance and preserve the ancient traditions.

The Lake Superior Chippewa community, Lac Courte Oreilles, offers traditional pow-wows every Wednesday in summer as well as an insight into the Chippewa age-old lifestyle still cherished in Abiinoojii-Aki (‘Our Children`s Land’), a cultural village near Honor the Earth Pow-Wow grounds. Another recreated Chippewa village, open to the public for guided tours, is Wa-Swa-Goning Ojibwe Indian Village, situated in Lac du Flambeau Reservation.

South of Lac Courte Oreilles, the Chippewa Band of St. Croix hosts the Wild Rice Pow-Wow at the end of each August. It is an intertribal event featuring singers and drummers from many parts of the US and Canada.
The Menominee Nation boasts of efficient forest management techniques and the finest concentration of Great Lakes pine, hemlock and hardwood. The Menominee Logging Camp Museum is quite an attraction as its 20,000 artefacts are displayed in seven buildings, replicas of original log buildings from the late 1800s.

In the eastern part of Wisconsin Forest County, Potawatomi share their rich heritage with tourists at the Potawatomi Cultural Center and Museum, where you can explore the ancient ways of life of the woodland tribe as well as the history of the Council of the Three Fires Potawatomi belonged to as allies of the tribes of Ojibwe and Odawa.

The Oneida Nation, whose reservation is located in the east of Wisconsin, was one of the six tribes in the 17th to 18th centuries forming an alliance well-known in the history of the US as the Iroquois Confederacy, considered to be the country’s first democratic system. The Oneida Nation offers special tours for groups of 10 or more such as the Deluxe Tour, which lasts about three hours and gives you an opportunity to learn about the culture of the Oneida tribe. Attractions include buildings of the tribal government and the Oneida Nation Museum.

Milwaukee hosts one of the most famous Native American events – Indian Summer Festival – held at Henry Maier Festival Park, along the scenic shore of Lake Michigan, every year the weekend after Labour Day. The Festival is dedicated to strengthening the inter-tribal Native American community as well as raising the general public’s awareness of the diversity of native cultures. The Festival’s major event is the contest Pow-Wow. This emphasises the significance of the drum, recognised as the heartbeat of the aboriginal culture.

Southwestern culture

The Southwestern cultural region, stretching from the south of Utah and Colorado through Arizona and New Mexico, is home to the so-called Pueblo Indians. These Indians, famed for basketry, pottery and weaving, traditionally lived in ‘pueblos’ – settlements consisting of multi-storied houses built of adobe.

Exploring Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona

Exploring Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona

Pueblo of Jemez, situated 55 miles north-west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been occupied since the 16th century. It used to be one of the largest and culturally powerful of the pueblo settlements. Today, it invites tourists from all over the world to learn about the ancient traditions of the Jemez Indians. Walatowa Visitor Center offers pre-arranged interpretative group tours, which can include traditional dance performances, artisan demonstrations or demonstrations of bread baking in special outdoor ovens. The tours can be concluded with a long-established pueblo feast.

TrekAmerica, a specialist in organising adventure package tours for small groups, offers several trips into the Native American Southwest. Southwest Trail, a 10-day trip, gives you an opportunity to explore the Navajo culture of the Monument Valley on the border of Utah and Arizona as well as the ancient dwellings of the Anasazi Indians at Mesa Verde in the south west of Colorado. Canyon and Indian Lands, a seven-day tour, also features Monument Valley as well as Canyon de Chelly in the north east of Arizona where, guided by a Navajo Indian, you visit the 700-hundred year old cliff dwellings of the Anasazi nation.

Canadian destinations

A performance at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival

A performance at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival

Canada also has many Native American links and each November, the Rogers Centre in Toronto hosts the most prestigious Native American event in Canada – the Canadian Aboriginal Festival. One of its main highlights is the Pow-Wow with its Grand Entry, the ceremony honouring traditional warriors. Over 1,000 dancers in tribal costumes participate. The Festival also features performances from musicians, artists and storytellers.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, located a few miles north-west of Fort Macleod, Alberta, is a popular tourist attraction. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is one of the world`s best preserved buffalo jumps bearing testimony to prehistoric life. For about 6,000 years, Native Americans practised the custom of killing buffalo by driving them over the precipice here. Today, the Buffalo Jump offers a tipi camping experience with an opportunity to learn how to assemble a tipi as well as to listen to ancient Indian legends around the campfire.

A buffalo at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in Alberta

A buffalo at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in Alberta

Kootenay Wilderness Tours offers an eight-day Spirit Walker Nature Week in British Columbia. This tour, including hiking, backpacking and river rafting, will give you a chance to experience the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains and Kootenay River Valley with a native guide. At the end of the week you are invited to participate in Native ceremonies.

Takaya Tours provides Native American kayaking and canoeing experiences in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. You can spend hours or days in a reconstructed ocean-going Indian canoe or a sea kayak with Coast Salish Indians singing songs, telling legends and showing the sites of ancient villages.

A display at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

A display at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

Closer to home

For those staying in the UK, July saw the re-opening of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery in Hastings, East Sussex, after a long period of refurbishment and the Museum now boasts three Native American galleries: Grey Owl and the Indians of Grey Owl`s Canada, the Great Plains Indians and the Subarctic.

In Gravesend, groups can visit the burial place of Princess Pocahontas at St George’s Church, where there is also a statue of her, and the British Museum in London also has a collection highlighting artefacts and art from the Native inhabitants of Canada and the United States.