Finding native America
More Native Americans live in the Four Corners region than anywhere else in the United States. (Dallas Stribley/LPI/Getty)
From the gnarled desert canyons of the Southwest to the windy sweep of the Great Plains, the United States’ cinematic landscapes are interwoven with Native American tribal lore and traditions. Within the country’s national parks and historic sites, which encompass ancient cliff dwellings, ghost dance sites, Old West trading posts and more, you can explore the past -- and present -- of Native American culture.
Mesa Verde National Park
Start in the Four Corners region, where the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. More Native Americans live here today than anywhere else in the United States. It is also the historical homeland of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who built elaborate cliff dwellings on the Colorado Plateau between 600 and 1300. Today a Unesco World Heritage Site, Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is home to more than 5,000 archaeological sites and scores of indigenous pueblos (villages) built into vertical cliff faces high atop the mesas. Ranger-guided tours visit Cliff Palace, the park’s largest and most impressively preserved cliff dwelling, and Balcony House, which is reached by climbing wooden ladders and twisting through narrow tunnels to glimpse the 800-year-old kivas (underground ceremonial rooms).
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Many Native American tribes were forced to relocate to the Four Corners region during the US’s 19th-century western expansion, but indigenous people had already been living here for almost a thousand years prior to the arrival of the military and pioneer homesteaders. Across the Southwest, a vast network of roads built by the Ancestral Pueblo people all lead to Chaco, the prehistoric city located at the centre of the complex Chaco Culture, which flourished between 800 and 1100. You can drive the park’s loop road in a day, stopping to walk through eerily-deserted adobe houses and plazas and past ancient petroglyphs etched into rocky cliffs. Located in a remote area of New Mexico, Chaco is one of the Southwest’s most isolated parks -- its dark skies so far from any city lights that it is perfect for star-gazing, either from the park’s astronomical observatory or your own campsite.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Generations of Native Americans have sought out hidden life-giving pockets within the Four Corners region. Canyon de Chelly, located in northeastern Arizona, is one such place, with natural springs that sustained ancient pueblos, fruit orchards and fields of corn, beans and squash. Hopi people settled the canyon, followed by the Navajo, who still reside here. Take a back country 4X4 tour with a Navajo guide, or drive to lookout points along the canyon’s rim and hike the one mile-long White House Trail. Elsewhere in the Navajo Nation, do not miss the exquisitely preserved Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, with its prized Navajo rug room and daily demonstrations of traditional weaving techniques.
Badlands National Park
If you want to see how the American West looked to Native Americans for centuries before US military forces and settlers arrived, head for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here, countless Hollywood westerns have been filmed. For the most cinematic scenery, seek out the mesmerizing eroded pinnacles and buttes of Badlands National Park. Spy on bison, which once covered the plains in herds millions of animals strong, hunted by Native Americans as a source of food and raw materials for clothing, shelter and weapons. The park’s southern section is on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux. Here the last ghost dances – in which Native Americans ritually danced and prayed for peace against the onslaught of the US government – took place in the late 19th Century. It is also the site of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre, the final armed confrontation between US Cavalry troops and Native Americans, which closed the frontier forever in 1890. Stop by the park’s White River Visitor Center and the Red Cloud Indian School’s Heritage Center to learn more about the heartbreaking history of this land, recently proposed to become the US’s first tribal national park.
Ask before taking photos of any people on tribal reservations or Native Americans working at national parks and historical sites.
Practice “leave no trace” principles at all archaeological sites and in the wilderness. Do not touch, move or otherwise disturb any artefacts or existing structures. Report any new discoveries to park or tribal rangers.
Always stay on paved walkways and signposted hiking trails unless accompanied by a park or tribal ranger or an officially licensed tour guide.
Buying, selling, possessing, consuming or transporting alcohol is illegal on some Native American reservations, including the Navajo Nation.