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Northern Rockies

Want to really get away?

The vast Native American lands of the Northern Rockies are waiting for you

Sometimes you just need a break.

While visiting big cities, giant amusement parks or crowded events may seem like a great vacation to some, others need a vacation where they can unplug, take in the Great American outdoors, and just – finally – relax.  Maybe even learn something new, and have an incredible cultural and spiritual experience to refresh your mind and spirit.

If this is you, it might be time to think about a trip to the Northern Rockies – namely the Native American homelands in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Idaho.  This region is not only known for its incredible national parks and stunning natural beauty, but also for its amazing geographic and cultural diversity.  Whether it’s the badlands, plains, soaring mountaintops, vast canyons or breathtaking glaciers, you won’t believe how much there is to see so relatively close together.  It’s a vacation you won’t ever forget (or likely want to leave).

So let’s get to it.  Here are the best Native places to visit in the Northern Rockies states, that you may not even know about.

Wyoming

Devil’s Tower

One of the most iconic natural monuments of the west, Devil’s Tower is a laccolithic butte standing 867 feet high in northeastern Wyoming.  It was the very first National Monument in the United States, dedicated in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt.

However, the history of the incredible structure far predates that.  Known as Bear Lodge by the Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Lakota, Kiowa and other tribes for centuries, it was the spiritual epicenter of the area.  Countless indigenous ceremonies and services have taken place at the base of this tower, as tribal elders pass down stories about it from generation to generation.

One Crow tribe legend has it that a giant bear clawed the grooves into the mountainside while chasing two young women, after The Great Spirit grew the rock far out of the ground, so the women could escape the bear.  The two women still sit atop the tower, fearful of the bear should they ever come down.

Some interesting facts: The name “Devils Tower” actually comes from a misinterpretation, when white explorers misread Bear Lodge as “Bad Gods Tower.”  Also, the monument was featured in the 1977 Stephen Spielberg movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Today, the natural wonder remains a sacred site to the indigenous people that have lived in the region for centuries.  It is a place for worship, for paying tribute to the deceased, for celebrations of life and nature.  Tourists often come across these sacred rituals during their visit, such as the Sun Dance.  Others find cloths, art or other native items around the base of the monument, left as prayer offerings or in memoriam.  The small, colored bundles of cloth are the most commonly seen tributes around the base of Devils Tower, and are considered to be sacred.  So it is important that visitors not disturb them in any way,

Tourists may partake in one of the ranger-led programs, spend the night on the grounds camping, go hiking and or even climb to the top of Devils Tower.  In fact, more than 150 rock climbing routes have been established on Devils Tower and attracts rock climbers from all over the world, even though many tribe members consider climbing a desecration of the sacred site.  That is why Devils Tower closes to rock climbing every June, so tribes may practice their ceremonies in peace and without the distraction of climbers dangling from their sacred monument.

Wind River Indian Reservation

The seventh largest Native American Reservation in the continental United States has just about everything an outdoor adventurer or naturalist could possibly hope for.

Totaling a staggering 2.2 million acres, the Wind River Indian Reservation is home to no less than 240 lakes, and countless streams and rivers.  It is also home to thousands of members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, along with the communities of the Arapaho, Crowheart, Ethete and Fort Washakie.  It is the only reservation in America where the government allowed Native Americans to choose their own land.

Wind River is mostly famous for two main outdoor enthusiast tourist attractions: the Absaroka Mountains and Boysen State Park. The Absaroka Mountains attract adventurers from around the globe, known mostly for hunting and fishing expeditions in the summers and skiing and snowmobiling in the winters.  The mountains themselves are volcanic breccia created from years of lava flows.

The Boysen Reservoir is considered a bucket list for avid fishermen, with game fish in abundance such as largemouth bass, bluegill, stonecat, black bullhead, mountain whitefish, lake trout and dozens of other species.

However, the reservation is rich in true Native experiences as well.

The Vore Buffalo Jump is one of the most historically significant archaeological sites of the region, a natural sinkhole that was used as a bison trap from about 1500 to 1800 A.D by at least five different tribes.  It has been said that over 10,000 bison were caught there.  It is open to the public during the summer months, and when it is, tourists can learn not only about the techniques the tribes used to trap bison, the food and other products they were able to use from the buffalo, but also the cultural and spiritual elements of the hunt as well.

Every summer, the Eagle Spirit Singers and Dancers – made up of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho dancers – perform every Wednesday night through August 12 at the Museum of the American West in Lander.   Each performance begins with a grand entrance where the dancers enter the circle, followed by various styles of dance – traditional, fancy feather, grass, jingle dress, fancy shawl and hoop dancing.  You’ll learn about the dance styles, meet the dancers and the drum group.  Performances are free, and children and cameras are welcome.

The largest annual event on the reservation is Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, a three-day celebration traditionally held the last week of June at Fort Washakie powwow grounds.  Hundreds of dancers come together to compete for large prizes and the community enjoys traditional Native arts, food and games.  The event features one of the largest powwows in the region and a reenactment of the signing of the Treaty of 1868.

Montana

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the continental United States, and becoming more popular by the day.  Last year over 3 million people visited the park, a number that is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.

As the name suggests, the park is home to 25 active glaciers – one of the only places you can see glaciers in the United States outside of Alaska.  With over 200 gorgeous lakes, waterfalls and just about every landscape you can imagine across 1,600 square miles, Glacier National Park is a must see for any outdoor or nature enthusiast.

The land has traditionally been the home of the Blackfeet, or Blackfoot, tribe.  The Blackfeet are divided into three bands – the Piegan, the Blood and the Siksika – and hunted bison on these lands for centuries.  Tensions between the Blackfeet and the United States government have existed for well over 100 years, after the park was established in the late nineteenth century and Blackfeet rights to access the mountains – which they consider sacred and the backbone of the world – were stripped, along with hunting and fishing rights.

However, over the decades, relations between park officials and the tribe have improved, and tribal members welcome visitors onto their reservation and offer tours of Glacier National Park from the Blackfeet perspective – explaining in detail the wildlife and plantlife on the preserve, and how their ancestors used them for medicine and food.  Each summer, tourists are treated to an extensive series of presentations and performances by members of the Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai and Kalispel tribes.  Today, approximately 10,000 Blackfeet live within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

For many visitors, the highlight of the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a jaw-dropping 50 mile, paved two-lane highway that spans the width of Glacier National Park going east and west.  In 1983 Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1985 was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

The road gives the visitor a spectacular view of everything from glaciers, to forests, to lakes to windswept tundra.  Scenic viewpoints and stops are lined up throughout the road in both directions, so drivers can stop for extended views and photos.  For example, on the road’s east side, tourists can witness the park’s disappearing glaciers on the Jackson Glacier Overlook.  On the west side of the road, visitors get a great look at Bird Woman Falls, a 560 foot waterfall over a hanging valley left behind by a tributary glacier that had since receded.

Medicine Wheel

The Medicine Wheel, located in the Bighorn National Forest on the western peak of Medicine Mountain, is one of the most fascinating ancient archaeological finds in North America.

While scientists have discovered dozens of medicine wheels throughout the great plains and Canada (anywhere from 70 to 150), the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the most famous and well preserved.  It was one of the first to be scientifically and archaeologically studied, and continues to be to this day,

The Medicine Wheel is roughly 75 feet in diameter, with circular alignment of rocks extending from the center.  From an aerial view it looks similar to an old wagon wheel.  Researchers believe that evidence found at the site dates it back nearly 7,000 years to the prehistoric era.  Artifacts unearthed in and around the wheel identify with the Shoshone and Crow tribes from the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The exact usage of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is still largely unknown, but it is clear that it has been sacred Native American grounds for millennia.  Several ancient ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars and fasting enclosures are in plain sight close by.  Many tourists who make the trek up to the hallowed ground speak of being able to feel the spiritual power of the Medicine Wheel, and a connection to the ancient people who worshiped there.

Little Bighorn National Monument

Known mostly as Custer Battlefield National Monument until 1991, Little Bighorn National Monument is pretty much what you’d expect: a tribute to the fallen Lakotas and Cheyennes who defeated Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s US Army 7th Cavalry in one of the most famous, and last, victorious Native counter offensives to preserve their way of life.   Originally preserved to protect the graves of the U.S. soldiers who died there, the historical site has since shifted from once only paying tribute to Custer and his fallen troops to incorporating the tribes’ perspective and sacrifices in the conflict, to tell the true history of the battle.

In the late nineteenth century, after news of the discovery of gold on Sioux land spread, Custer and his troops were sent in to drive them further off of their land in violation of a peace treaty between the United States and the Sioux.

Custer was ordered only to contain the Native tribes until reinforcements arrived. However the over-confident Custer decided to fight the Sioux on his own.  On June 25 and 26th of 1876, Custer, along with the entire 7th Cavalry were decimated by an estimated three thousand Indian warriors, led by Chief Crazy Horse.

North Dakota

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

An often overlooked tourist destination is Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, the oldest state park in North Dakota.  The park is a portal traveling back in time, a way to experience first hand what life was like for Native Americans and US soldiers alike in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The land was once home to Mandan Native Americans who lived at On-a-Slant Village for an estimated 200 years, near the base of the Heart River with the Missouri River.  Roughly 1000 Mandan Natives lived in an estimated 75-100 earth lodges before a 1781 smallpox epidemic nearly wiped them out.

The site has preserved important archeological artifacts of the original On-a-Slant Village.  The Visitor Center Museum is also a tremendous resource to learn all about Mandan life and culture, while the park offers interactive experiences such as interpretive tours, visiting one of five reconstructed earth lodges or camping for the night in a real tipi.

Of course, Fort Abraham Lincoln was also where a military post was established to provide a base of operations for the US Army’s ongoing campaigns against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne nations between 1876 and 1877.  Abandoned in 1891, the remnants of the fort are still well preserved, as tourists can peek inside furnished barracks or officer quarters and gain an understanding of what life was like for the soldiers living there.

The park offers over 100 campsites as well, so visitors can take in the breathtaking natural beauty of the sacred site, whether it is the incredible views of the Heart and Missouri Rivers at sunrise or the crystal clear skies at night.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Another great site to experience Native American history first hand, the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site features a fully restored earth lodge, a Hidatsa garden, and village sites where tourists can see the archaeological remains of the Awatixa Xi’e Village, Awatixa Village and the Big Hidatsa village, which was established around 1600 (although Awatixa Xi’e is believed to be the oldest village).

The site preserves the historic and archaeological remnants of bands of Hidatsa, Northern Plains Indians along what once was a major trading outpost.  The exhibits feature artifacts recovered from the village sites as well as decorative arts of Northern Plains Indians.  There are also several incredible trails, including one that runs along the Knife River.

White Horse Hill National Game Preserve

One of the most extraordinary big game reserves anywhere in the United States, the 1,674-acre White Horse Hill National Game Preserve on the south shores of Devils Lake is a must see for any outdoors enthusiast.

One of the most popular attractions in North Dakota, over 80,000 tourists visit each year to witness American bison, elk, black-tailed prairie dogs, and other wildlife up close, not to mention the vast eco-community that includes oak, ash, basswood, and aspen woodlands, mixed-grass prairie, and interspersed wetlands.  More than 250 species of birds have been recorded at the Preserve as well, making the preserve a destination for hikers and bird-watchers year-round.

Most tourists prefer to hike, take photographs and explore the preserve on their own, but for others there are auto tours, and several other opportunities for visitors and school outings to learn about the animals and natural wonders from trained and knowledgeable staff.

Idaho

Nez Perce National Historical Park

There are five federally recognized Native American tribes in Idaho: Nez Perce, Kootenai, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute, and Coeur d’Alene.  All reservations are worth a visit, as all go to great lengths to preserve and teach their history and culture for future generations, often in the midst of incredible natural beauty and world class entertainment.  But if you are seeking true adventure and history, there is one park that cannot be overlooked.

The Nez Perce National Historical Park comprises 38 discontiguous sites spanning three main ecoregions, across the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.  These are the traditional lands of the Nez Perce people, and the 38 sites have been designated to commemorate the stories, culture and history of the Nez Perce over the centuries.  The park’s headquarters is located in Spalding, Idaho.

This includes sites associated with the Nez Perce War of 1877, and the flight of Chief Joseph and his band, who in June 1877 migrated from Oregon in an attempt to avoid capture in Canada after fighting against relocation. They were pursued relentlessly by the U.S. Army and fought several battles against them during the Nez Perce War, when the Nez Perce reservation was reduced to one-tenth its original size and Tribal members were evicted from their homeland and forced to relocate onto a new reservation.  The war eventually ended with Chief Joseph’s surrender in the Montana Territory.

First, “Nez Perce” is a bit of a misnomer.  The actual name of the tribe, what they called themselves, is “Nimi’ipuu”, translated in Sahaptin as ‘we, the people’.  However, French-Canadian fur trappers translated the name as “pierced nose” despite the fact that the tribe did not pierce their noses.  Still, the French “Nezz Purse” name remained, all the way to the present day.

The best place to start your visit is the National Historic Museum and Visitor Center located 10 miles east of Lewiston, Idaho.  This is an excellent resource to learn all about the tribe and its unique history, art and culture, not to mention the tribe’s advancements in ranching and agriculture technology that rivals any civilization of its era.  Park staff also provide tours and talks that include museum tours and tipi pitching.

55 miles east of the Visitors Center is the historic Heart of the Monster, a 53 acre site sacred to the Nez Perce people within the breathtaking Clearwater River valley.  According to legend, Iceye’ye (Coyote) killed a large monster along the Clearwater River, thus creating the different tribes in the region, including the Nimiipuu. A rock formation in the area is said to represent the heart of the monster described in the legend.

This site has an interpretive shelter with two exhibits and an audio program. These give you the background information on the role of legends in Nez Perce culture and tell part of the “Coyote and the Monster” legend in Nez Perce and in English. A short trail leads to the “Heart of the Monster” feature and a small semi circle of seating.

Another great way to explore the reservation is to take a trip down the river to Buffalo Eddy, and witness the petroglyphs left behind by Nez Perce ancestors thousands of years ago.  There are two groups of rock formations with several petroglyphs on both sides of the Snake River. One side is in Washington and one side is in Idaho.

In Idaho, there are several other sites of the reservation that are well worth the visit as well.

The Ant and Yellowjacket were arguing over who had the right to sit on a particular rock to enjoy some Salmon when they got into an argument. Coyote asked them to stop. They continued to fight despite Coyote’s warnings, so Coyote turned them into a stone arch.  The Ant and Yellowjacket monument is a popular stop for amateur and professional photographers alike.

Weis Rockshelter was the home of prehistoric ancestors of the Nez Perce, which dates as far as back as 8,000 years ago.  The shelter is not a cave, but a small niche in a wall of basalt. The shelter was continuously inhabited until about 600 years ago.

The White Bird Battlefield is the location of the first battle of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877, or more accurately, the first battle of the Nez Perce War.  US Captain David Perry and his cavalry troops moved into the canyon to attack the Nez Perce who were sheltering in one of their winter villages. The soldiers encountered a peace party of six Nez Perce warriors carrying a white flag riding towards them.

When the peace party was shot at, The Nez Perce charged and the U.S. cavalry was decimated. The victorious Nez Perce then began their long walk to find safety and sanctuary.  A self-guided walking tour of the battlefield is recommended to learn more about the people and tactics used in the conflict.

Oklahoma: First Nation in the Heartland

Perhaps nowhere else in the United States can you get a more in-depth look at Native American history than in one of the original “Indian Territories” itself – Oklahoma.

No less than 67 Tribal nations have called Oklahoma home, some of which date back as far as 14,000 years ago – the time of the last ice age.  The long, storied history of Native people on this land is a history of overcoming grave injustices time and time again, rising from the ashes, and preserving their identities, their culture and their way of life against all odds.

The story of Native Oklahoma is in its own way, a uniquely American story – overcoming the countless government attempts to erase them from history to bear witness to the building of numerous museums and historical landmarks honoring and preserving that history today.

There is a piece of that history in every corner of Oklahoma, with no shortage of Native locals eager to share the story and traditions of their people with those who wish to listen.  It’s why tourists come from all over the world to visit the Native cultural landmarks of Oklahoma and experience Native culture and history like nowhere else.

A brief history of Native Oklahoma

A millennium before Europeans arrived in North America, Native people were already flourishing in the land now known as Oklahoma.  One of the most famous were the Spiro Mound builders, who were Caddoan speaking indigenous people of the prehistoric era.  These natives created one of the most complex trade networks in the entire Americas, and had advancements in technology and governance that was considered far ahead of its time by historians.  It is believed their political system controlled the entire region, which extended southeast as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

The Spiro Mound Builders in Oklahoma were likely ancestors of the Caddo and Wichita tribes we know today.  Over the centuries many other tribes settled along the rivers, including Pawnee, Osage and Quapaw.  Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Apache would also move into the region and claim its fertile hunting and fishing grounds.

By the 1800’s, there were five dominant tribes in the southeast region of the US territories, who were described as the “Five Civilized Tribes” by colonialists – the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations.  They were referred to as “civilized” because of their seeming acceptance of many aspects of European and American culture into their own – including horticulture, widespread adoption of Christianity, and a centralized form of government.  The term was also used to distinguish them from other “savage” tribes who continued to rely on traditional hunting and kept to their customary religious practices.

However, whatever peaceful co-existence that Tribal nations had with white settlers was abruptly shattered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced these and other tribes to relocate from their ancestral homeland to a newly established “Indian Territory”, which largely encompassed what is now Oklahoma, minus the panhandle.

At least half of the populations of the Muscogee and Cherokee died as they were forcibly uprooted and marched against their will over 2,000 miles under unbearable conditions to Indian Territory, a tragic chapter in American history known as the Trail of Tears.  Once they arrived, they were forced to quickly learn to co-habitat with the tribes that already lived there, the aforementioned Apache, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, Osage and Wichita.  As years passed, other tribes were also forced from their homes to relocate to Indian Territory, such as the Kaw, Ponca, Otoe, Missouri, Alabama, the Delaware, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Peoria, Ottawa, Wyandotte, Seneca, and Iowa.  In all, by the end of the nineteenth century, 67 tribes were forced to call Indian Territory their new home, never to see their spiritual and cultural homelands again.

After the onset of the American Civil War, the tribes of Indian Territory were forced to enlist and fight – many for the Confederacy – as both the North and South fought for control of the region.  In fact, one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War was fought in Indian Territory – the Battle of Honey Springs, or the Affairs at Elk Creek as it is also known.  The Union victory at Elk Creek denied the Confederacy of critical supply lines, and was later acknowledged as a turning point in the war.

However, after the Civil War ended, the Union retaliated against the tribes that were pressured to fight for the Confederacy, forcing them to sign the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866, which reduced their territory even further and allowed western railroads to be built across their land.

Over the course of the late nineteenth century, Oklahoma reservations for the tribes were finally created after hard fought battles during the Indian Wars.  Then, just as the Oklahoma tribes had to persevere in the face of adversity and re-establish their traditional way of life amid their new environment after forced resettlement, they found themselves having to fight for their own cultural survival once again.

“Manifest Destiny” – the notion that the United States is destined by God to expand its reach across the entire North American continent – had firmly taken hold by the late 1800’s, as countless white settlers headed West.  Rumors of gold, silver, cattle and other natural treasures soon followed and hundreds of thousands of outsiders were flocking to Oklahoma.

To make room, the Curtis Act of 1898, dissolved all formal tribal governments, ended reservation status and nullified tribal schools and judicial systems – a direct assault on Native rights and sovereignty.  Soon after, Oklahoma declared statehood in 1907 and assumed all jurisdiction over all its territory, including Indian Lands.  Indian tribes responded by demanding a state of their own, called the State of Sequoyah, but were simply ignored by Congress and the White House.

Despite all of these terrible injustices over the course of two centuries, despite continuously fighting attacks on their sovereignty and traditions, the Native people of Oklahoma persevered.  Tribal governments still ran most tribes’ affairs, despite federal laws meant to disband them. The Indian nations did not disappear.  Thanks to the development of their own written language, as well as storytelling by the elders through the generations, sacred customs and traditions were still observed and honored.  Ceremonies continued to be practiced on a regular basis.

Despite being forcibly removed from their homeland, tribes adapted to their environments, and continued to live their lives by the sun, wind, earth and water as they had for centuries.  No matter the hardships they endured, the indigenous people Oklahoma survived, as did their identity and way of life.

By 1936, the federal government had changed its policy with regard to Indian tribes, and Indian nations within the state of Oklahoma were reinstated by the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.  Over the coming decades, Oklahoma tribal members would become an indispensable partner to the Oklahoma economy, lifestyle and experience.  Oklahoma tribes now employ over 96,000 people – most of them non-Native – through tourism and cultural events.  In 2017, the latest year data is available, Oklahoma tribes produced nearly $13 billion in goods and services and paid out $4.6 billion in wages and benefits.

Today, the enduring spirit of the indigenous people of Oklahoma has inspired the creation of dozens of monuments, museums and landmarks to commemorate and celebrate Native Oklahoma.  The collective experience of suffering and triumph, of rising from the ashes again and again, having to rebuild their culture over and over in new lands, all while continuously fighting to preserve their very way of life, has become an inspiration not only to fellow Oklahomans, but to people all around the world.

The incredible landmarks, beautiful Powwows and dances that are celebrated almost daily, and expansive Native museums that now populate Oklahoma are all a testament to that.  A living testament that dozens of Native cultures that fought erasure and disenfranchisement for centuries are now firmly enshrined in Oklahoma for future generations to learn from and experience for years to come.

The best places to experience Oklahoma Native history

First Americans Museum

The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City may be the most exhaustive project celebrating Native American heritage in the state.  It is certainly the most ambitious.

Finally opened in 2021, construction for the museum began 15 years earlier in 2006 but was halted in 2012 when the initial $90 million in funds raised for the museum ran out and the state refused to pour any further money into it.  However, the project resumed four years later when the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma agreed to partner with Oklahoma City to come up with the $175 million needed to finish.

However, tourists who have experienced the First Americans Museum – or FAM – will be the first to tell you the archaeological wonder is well worth the wait.  Three decades of planning went into the launch of the 175,000-square-foot facility, and every aspect of the experience strives to be bigger, bolder and more interactive than any other Native American landmark.

National Geographic may have described it best:

“Most of the details in the museum’s architecture and interior reflect Native American influence. The stone wall leading to the museum’s main entrance represents the original inhabitants—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole—of Oklahoma. The 21st-century mound built around the museum pays homage to the prehistoric Mound Builder cultures and aligns with the cardinal directions. The 10 columns at the entrance symbolize the 10 miles Native communities walked along the Trail of Tears each day. Architects designed the Origins Theater to look like a giant piece of pottery traditionally made by the Caddo people.”

Central to the museum’s mission is to honor each of Oklahoma’s 39 nations, which represent more than 60 percent of all enrolled Native Americans in the U.S.

Okla Homma, the signature exhibition at the FAM in the South Wing, shares the stories of all 39 tribes in Oklahoma today through a highly interactive, multimedia exhibit in an 18,000 square foot gallery (the state’s name comes from two Choctaw words—“Okla” and “Homma,” meaning Red People).

Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center

For those who love to learn about ancient history, the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center is a place you can’t afford to miss.

Once the seat of power during the Mississippian period (circa 800-1500 AD), the Spiro people employed a system of government and trade that dominated the region and an estimated 60 North American tribes.  Now the only prehistoric American Indian archaeological site in Oklahoma open to the general public, tourists can take a step back in time – over a thousand years ago – and learn all about the burial mounds located in the area, discover the history behind the ancient artifacts that have been found here, and learn just how advanced this extraordinary civilization actually was for its time.  The staff archeologist leads daily tours that explore how the Spiro people truly lived (one of the site’s most popular attractions).

The exceptional art, relics, artifacts and of course tombs found in the area were so numerous and historically significant they have since been nicknamed the “King Tut of the Arkansas Valley” signifying one of the great discoveries in archaeological history.  To view and learn about these artifacts and history up close is simply an experience no aspiring history buff should be without.

Cherokee Heritage Center

In eastern Oklahoma, the Cherokee Heritage Center near Tahlequah will give visitors a unique look at Cherokee culture and history through interactive exhibits that celebrate every era of Cherokee existence.

Throughout the site’s 44 acres, you can visit a 1710 Cherokee Village called Diligwa, which provides an excellent showcase of the Cherokee way of life prior to the arrival of European colonists. There is the Adams Corner Rural Village, which depicts a Cherokee community and life during the 1890s with a 19th century church, schoolhouse and log cabin.

There is a powerful Trail of Tears exhibit, which takes the visitor on an emotional tour of the forced removal of the Cherokee, as told through artwork, life-size sculptures and historic documents in six galleries.

The center’s Cherokee National Archives house an impressive collection of important Cherokee historical records, including 167 manuscripts, 579 historic photographs, and 832 audio holdings. Visitors can also explore their own Cherokee heritage at the Cherokee Family Research Center.

Gilcrease Museum

History buffs and tourists seeking the immersive Native experience often gravitate towards museums and ancient cultural landmarks, but for those who truly appreciate Native American art, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is the place for you.

Home to one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of American Indian and Western art, the museum attracts artists and art aficionados from around the world.  Artwork from Native cultures throughout the country are on display within the site’s 475 acres protected acres.  Whether it is handcrafted rugs, jewelry, beadwork or pottery, the renowned artwork – from both modern times and ancient – offers one of the best ways to learn, appreciate and experience Native culture and heritage.

Five Civilized Tribes Museum

The Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, as the name suggests, is home to some of the most well-preserved historical artifacts of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee tribes anywhere in Oklahoma.

The building itself is a historical landmark, as the first Union Indian Agency building to house the Superintendence of the Five Civilized Tribes.  Now converted into a museum, it seamlessly is able to convey the extraordinary culture and rich heritage of these tribes.

Visitors will not only experience well preserved artifacts from Oklahoma centuries ago, as well as traditional artwork and sculptures, but will also include historical documents and artifacts from their ancestral homelands prior to being forcibly relocated to the Indian Territory.  Like many Native cultural sites, the Trail of Tears has a prominent role at this museum, as it should.  It is a dark chapter in American history that should never be forgotten.

As told through artifacts and art, visitors get a true sense of the proud history and culture of these five tribes, both prior to first contact with white settlers, and after – including after incorporating some elements of Western culture into their own (hence the “civilized” moniker given to them by many in the US government).

Traditional art produced by artists of all five tribes adorn the gallery walls, and also proudly features many of the most prominent Native artists of modern times.  Artists such as Willard Stone and Enoch Hane. The museum also has the world’s largest collection of Jerome Tiger originals, including Stickballer, his only major sculpture, which is on permanent display.

Standing Bear

The story of Chief Standing Bear is quite extraordinary.

Wanting to honor his son’s last wish to be buried in the Ponca homeland and not in the new land they were forced to relocate to (Indian Territory), Chief Standing Bear gathered a few members of his tribe and traveled north through the Great Plains until arriving in the Ponca lands they had previously known.  Standing Bear buried the bones of his son along the Niobrara River.

However, because Indians were not allowed to leave their reservation without permission, Standing Bear and his followers were labeled a renegade band and arrested by the US government.  With the help of a local newspaper, Standing Bear secured legal counsel and sued, challenging the federal government’s contention that he and his tribe were not a “person” under the meaning of the law.

At his trial, Standing Bear uttered this now famous quote, which still resonates today: “This hand is not the same color as yours but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”  The U.S. District Court in Omaha ruled in favor of Standing Bear, saying he was in fact a “person” under the law, free to enjoy the rights of any citizen, including the ability to travel away from his designated territory.

Today, a visitor can pay tribute to Chief Standing Bear by visiting the 63-acre Standing Bear Park in Ponca City.   There are walking paths among six tribal viewing courts, a small museum and an awe-inspiring 22-foot bronze statue of the Ponca tribal leader himself.

The inter-tribal Standing Bear Powwow takes place adjacent to the park each September, with native music, singing, dances and traditional food of the six area Native American tribes: Osage, Pawnee, Otoe-Missouria, Kaw, Tonkawa and Ponca.

Chickasaw Cultural Center

Located in the cultural center of the Chickasaw Nation, the 100 acre Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur is widely considered one of the most intensive and interactive Native American experiences in the state.

Ten years in the making, the cultural center hosts reenactments, performances, historical collections, exhibits, classes, and special events.  The Center allows visitors to see, feel and even taste the heritage of the Chickasaw tribe through interactive exhibits, botanical displays and traditional dwellings.  There is even the opportunity to enjoy traditional fare such as grape dumplings, Indian fry bread and pashofa (a corn soup).

Tourists can journey through the Removal Corridor to get a true sense of the painful journey that brought the Chickasaws to Oklahoma through the Trail of Tears.  The Center also include the Aaholiitobli’ (“a place to honor”) Honor Garden of native plants that honor the Chickasaw leaders, elders, and warriors; the Kochcha’ Aabiniili’ (“a place for sitting outside”) Amphitheater; and the Aba’ Aanowa’ (“a place for walking above”) Sky Pavilion, which offers a 40-foot birds’ eye view of the Chikasha Inchokka’ Traditional Village and the surrounding Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

Choctaw Nation Museum

Tuskahoma, an unincorporated community in northern Pushmataha County, Oklahoma, was the former seat of the Choctaw Nation government prior to Oklahoma statehood.  Today, the small town (population 73) is home to the newly-restored Choctaw Nation Museum, which was the original 1884 capitol building for the Choctaw Nation.

The museum has an extraordinary collection of Choctaw art, exhibits, and artifacts, as it tells the nearly 14,000-year journey of the Choctaw people.  Learn about what they endured during the Trail of Tears, the service of Choctaw Code Talkers and all about their culture and traditions today.

During Labor Day weekend, the Choctaw Nation Museum holds the Labor Day Festival and Inter-Tribal Pow-Wow, which is open to the public.

There’s much, much more

Other Native American cultural sites to consider visiting include the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee; the Ataloa Lodge Museum in Muskogee; the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko; and the Museum of the Great Plains and the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, both in Lawton.

In all, there are more than 90 Native American attractions in Oklahoma. You could literally stay in Oklahoma for months and still not experience all the Native history, ceremonies and traditions the state of Oklahoma has to offer.

You simply have to visit for yourself.