This blog post was updated on August 23, 2022.
Learning about and experiencing other cultures is a big part of traveling. Many would say that it’s the whole point. They’d also say it’s only achieved through international travel, but that’s not true. There are plenty of unique cultural experiences that can be found without leaving the United States, especially if you’re interested in Native American culture.
The concept of Native American history/culture is immense and extensive. The term is applied to a multitude of different groups — some of which were historically independent of each other, others were connected in some ways. But all of them are Indigenous people originally from the continental United States and Alaska. There are 574 officially recognized tribes living within the US today. So, it’s understandable if someone interested in learning more about Native American culture firsthand can feel more than a little confused on just where to go and what to do.
So why not plan your next vacation around broadening your appreciation of all things Native American? Here are seven destinations and events across the US that are some of the best places to explore, learn, and immerse yourself in the culture and history of different Native American people.
The National Museum of the American Indian — Washington, D.C. & New York City
This museum was established by an act of Congress in 1989 as a “living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions.” The National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian, features two locations: Its main branch on the National Mall in Washington DC and the George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan. The museum’s collection is one of the largest of native American arts and artifacts in the world (with over 800,000 items from over 1,000 cultures and spanning more than 12,000 years), its calendar is filled with cultural events every month, and its cafeteria is world-famous for serving a unique menu of Native American dishes.
The American Indian Film Festival & Institute — San Francisco
Started in 1975, the American Indian Film Festival is one of the premier events of contemporary Native American media and the oldest one dedicated to Native American cinema. In 1977, it moved from Seattle to its permanent home in San Francisco, where its organizers launched the American Indian Film Institute in 1979. The festival itself usually runs in November, but the institute hosts and coordinates events throughout the year and in other parts of the country, which they publicize on their website and social media.
The Gathering of Nations — Albuquerque
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Held every fourth weekend of April, Albuquerque, New Mexico becomes home to what is considered the largest pow-wow in North America with over 500 tribes represented in a celebration of Native American dance, music, and culture. The three-day Gathering of Nations, which also welcomes non-Native guests, features the Miss Indian World pageant; competitions in various categories for dance, singing, and drumming; an “Indian Traders Market”; and a concert of contemporary Native American music.
Oklahoma is rich in Native American culture. After California, it’s the state with the second-largest Native American population, including many members of the Cherokee, one of the largest groups of Native Americans, who were forced to relocate to Oklahoma via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the mid-1800s. Today, two of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, included the Cherokee Nation (the largest), are headquartered in the city of Tahlequah. Visitors will find the city’s street signs in both English and Cherokee in the Tahlequah Original Historic Townsite District and can learn more about the Cherokee people and history in the numerous museums and tourism centers, including the Cherokee National History Museum, the John Ross Museum, and the Cherokee Heritage Center.
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Santa Fe, New Mexico
If there’s one city that’s perfect for anyone interested in Native American art, it’s Sante Fe. It’s a great destination for cheap flights in September or any other time of year. Not only is the area home to nearly countless vendors, galleries, and shops selling authentic Native art and jewelry, but there’s also the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. And then there’s the world-famous Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ annual Santa Fe Indian Market, which has been going on for over 90 years and which takes place every August.
The Crow Fair — Crow Agency, Montana
Created over 100 years ago as a gathering for members of the Crow tribe, the Crow Fair in Montana has since become open to all Native American tribes. The fair, which takes place on the Crow reservation about 60 miles outside of Billings, is often billed as “the teepee capital of the world,” due to the massive amount of traditional tents that are set up by participants, and is also known as the largest Northern Native American gathering. The fair features a variety of different pow-wows and dance displays, as well as a rodeo, a daily parade each morning, and more. The event attracts an estimated 40,000-50,000 people every year and welcomes “spectators and guests from all walks of life.” The Crow Fair usually takes place in mid-August.
The Suquamish Museum — Seattle
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Despite the celebrated art and iconography of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, their history and culture haven’t received as much mainstream attention as those in the East. Thankfully, there’s the Suquamish Museum. Based across the Puget Sound from Seattle on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, the museum preserves and houses artifacts and exhibits documenting the history of the Suquamish tribe.
Do you have a suggestion that’s not on the list? Feel free to leave it in the comments sections below!