The Rich Heritage of Native New England
New England is one of the most abundant regions in the country when it comes to observing and preserving American history. Cities like Boston, Providence, Portsmouth, Lexington, and dozens of others feature countless homes, schools and churches that date back hundreds of years, in some cases 400 years.
Visitors can immerse themselves in history, reliving life in these states (and colonies) during the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and even during the first days of European settlement in 1620. Every year, millions of tourists come to New England to experience this living history, especially New England’s claim as the birthplace of the American Revolution.
But what about history that goes back thousands of years? History that is equally rich in culture and tradition, even moreso. History that still shapes America in many ways today.
Native Americans lived and thrived on these lands for millennia before Europeans arrived in Plymouth. Tribes such as the Wampanoag, Mohegan, Pequot, Narragansett, Penobscot, and several others lived off the land, established trade networks, and developed their own languages, customs and beliefs.
Today, landmarks and museums preserve and honor this history throughout New England. While not nearly as well known or publicized as the Revolutionary War attractions, these Native American sites are growing in popularity, as more and more tourists discover and experience Native American culture that flourished for thousands of years.
Here are some of the very best Native American historic sites in New England today.
A glimpse into the 17th century https://plimoth.org/
Plimoth Patuxet, located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is widely regarded as one of the best places to experience Native American history and culture. Notable not only for being the landing spot for the first European settlers on Plymouth Rock, and the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621, but for the incredibly rich and influential cultures those first settlers encountered, and who still have an impact on American society today.
The first thing visitors to Plimoth Patuxet want to see is usually the Living History Museum. This fascinating museum authentically recreates the 17th-century English and Native American settlement of Plymouth Colony. Visitors have the opportunity to step back in time and witness firsthand the interactions between the English colonists, representing the Pilgrims, and the Native Americans, specifically the Wampanoag people. The immersive experience allows tourists to engage with historical interpreters, ask questions, and gain a deeper understanding of the historic cultural exchange that took place centuries ago.
Plimoth Patuxet is committed to providing an accurate portrayal of Native American history from the Wampanoag perspective. Through guided tours, exhibits, and demonstrations, visitors learn about the traditions, customs, and daily life of the Wampanoag people. The museum actively collaborates with Wampanoag tribal members and incorporates their insights to ensure an authentic representation of their culture.
Tourists to Plimoth Patuxet also discover and learn all aspects of Wampanoag history and culture throughout the grounds. They can meet Native American interpreters who share their knowledge and skills. They can witness demonstrations of traditional activities like cooking, planting, fishing, and crafting, just as Native people did hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. Powwows, festivals, storytelling sessions, and other community events are an immensely entertaining way to experience the vibrant heritage of the Wampanoag people firsthand. There is also a range of educational programs and workshops for visitors of all ages, making Plimoth Patuxet a popular destination for school field trips.
For history buffs, there is a wealth of artifacts, archaeological finds, and historical documents related to Native American history – all in pristine condition. Local guides are happy to educate guests on the background and significance of these ancient tools and artwork, and explain the story of the Wampanoag people and European colonists through historical artifacts.
Above all else, Plimoth Patuxet actively seeks collaboration with surrounding Indigenous communities and scholars to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity. By fostering ongoing dialogue, the museum remains committed to providing an inclusive and respectful representation of the Wampanoag tribe, and visitors can rest assured they are experiencing an authentic display and education of Native American history and culture.
An incredible journey through nature and history https://www.mohawktrail.com/
The Mohawk Trail, also known as Route 2, is a scenic road that spans approximately 63 miles, starting from the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys in New York to the Deerfield and Connecticut River Valleys in Western Massachusetts. In addition to its natural beauty, the trail also is home to numerous landmarks and attractions steeped in Native American history. Dedicated in 1914, it is also America’s first scenic tourist route, and is considered even today to be one of the most beautiful drives in all of North America.
The trail was originally a Native American trade route, used by tribes across what is now New England and New York states to transport goods. Tribes would also fish and hunt along the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers during the annual spring salmon runs. The 7,700 acre Mohawk Trail State Forest surrounds the trail, offering visitors today virtually limitless opportunities for camping, fishing and hiking.
For tourists seeking to fully experience the landmark’s full natural beauty, as well as geological, American and Native American history, these are some of the most notable attractions along the Mohawk Trail.
Hail to the Sunrise
Located in Mohawk Park in Charlemont, Massachusetts, this incredible bronze statue was completed in 1932. It depicts a life-size Native American man extending his arms to the sky, facing East as he faces the rising sun. He is said to be greeting the Great Spirit.
The statue sits on a boulder, surrounded by shallow water, upon which there is an inscription carved into a tablet shaped like an arrowhead. It reads: “Hail to the Sunrise – In Memory of the Mohawk Indian.”
A quaint village located between the towns of Buckland and Shelburne on the Deerfield River, Shelburne Falls was once a treasured hunting and fishing grounds for several ancient Native tribes. Today, the town has turned its rich history into a terrific tourist attraction, with several museums, art galleries and shops.
The town also features more than 50 glacial potholes, a geological wonder created after the last glaciers in the region melted, causing the rushing water into the Deerfield River to carry with it vast amounts of rock and sediments, which swirled around, drilling holes into the granite. The potholes range from less than a foot in diameter to almost 40 feet. Most are located below the dam on the river.
Bridge of Flowers
The Bridge of Flowers, located within Shelburne Falls, is a pedestrian bridge that spans the Deerfield River and is adorned with a wide variety of colorful flowers. There is a viewing platform from which visitors can get a great look at the glacial potholes, located under a beautiful waterfall. It is open from April 1 through October 31.
Situated near the Mohawk Trail, Historic Deerfield is a step back in time to the 18th-century, an extraordinary village from colonial times brought to life. Visitors can take guided tours of historic architecture, and participate in all kinds of activities from that era. They can also visit the Flynt Center of Early New England, a 27,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art museum featuring extraordinary collections of both colonial and Native American heritage, particularly the Pocumtuck tribe.
Aquinnah Cultural Center
Native American history in Martha’s Vineyard https://www.aquinnah.org/
Situated in Aquinnah, Massachusetts in the heart of Martha’s Vineyard, the Aquinnah Cultural Center showcases the rich history, art, and culture of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. It offers interactive exhibits, workshops, and guided tours that provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Wampanoag people.
One of the things that makes the Center so special is their dedication to preserving and protecting their history, and the extraordinary degree to which members of the Wampanoag tribe are included in that effort. The Center maintains a central database containing countless oral histories offered by tribal members, a database only accessible by tribal members.
However, the Aquinnah Cultural Center also takes great pride in their educational and outreach activities that teach visitors about the tribe’s traditions, customs, and way of life. Tourists have the opportunity to learn about the tribe’s history, language, art, and craftsmanship through interactive exhibits, demonstrations, and storytelling. The Center is also home to numerous festivals, powwows, and other community activities in which visitors are welcome to partake in and enjoy.
Tribal members offer insights into their ancestral connection to the surrounding lands, and how it factors into their history – both before the arrival of European settlers and after. The Aquinnah area itself, where the cultural center is located, boasts breathtaking natural beauty that is still largely undisturbed. Visitors can enjoy stunning views of the cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean while partaking in the unique cultural Wampanoag experiences offered by the center.
For those with a great appreciation of the arts, the Aquinnah Cultural Center often hosts workshops and demonstrations where Native artisans showcase their traditional techniques such as pottery making, beadwork, basket weaving, and carving – even allowing visitors to learn firsthand these skills, create unique artwork and crafts on their own.
For those seeking a truly immersive Native American cultural and traditional experience, this is one of the best places in New England to do it.
A must-see Native American exhibit on Mt. Desert Island https://www.abbemuseum.org/
The Abbe Museum has two locations, one located in Bar Harbor, Maine, and the other at Acadia National Park – a 47,000-acre Atlantic coast recreation area primarily on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, just southwest of Bar Harbor.
One of the premier Native American heritage centers in New England, the Abbe Museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting the history and culture of Maine’s Native American communities. Notably, the Abenaki, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Nations. However, the museum primarily is dedicated to the Wabanaki tribes – known as the People of the Dawn.
People of the First Light, the core exhibit, is an astounding, interactive collection that shares more than 12,000 years of history of the Wabanaki people. The exhibit tells the remarkable, yet difficult, story of the Wabanaki through artifacts, historical records, photographs, artwork and interactive media. Visitors can truly immerse themselves in this rich history from an indigenous perspective.
The design of the exhibit was shaped by the work of Wabanaki artists who have been a part of the design process since the very first days of the museum’s concept. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a two-story sculptural ash tree that connects all the various sections of the exhibit.
Through careful curation, and collaboration with Wabanaki communities, scholars, and artists, the Abbe Museum is able to preserve and honor Indigenous people in their own histories, stories, and futures, correcting harmful representations of the past. The museum’s educational initiatives – widely utilized by local school districts – contribute to dispelling stereotypes and promoting cultural understanding.
Also, the museum, along with members of the Wabanaki Nations, hosts events that celebrate Wabanaki culture throughout the year. If you haven’t experienced one of the festivals, art shows or performances yet, you should plan to do so. You certainly won’t regret it.
Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum
Learn to connect with nature and the environment https://www.indianmuseum.org/
The Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum (MKIM) is situated on 12.5-acres of Abenaki homeland, in Warner, New Hampshire. One of the more naturally beautiful Native American museums in New England, the grounds include the Medicine Woods Trail, the Betsy Janeway Arboretum and an activity area with spectacular views of the Mink Hills. The museum’s primary purpose is to preserve and present the Native American heritage of the Northeastern Woodlands region.
The Medicine Woods Trail once was actually a local dump that museum founders Bud and Nancy Thompson completely renovated into a natural preserve and arboretum, which today showcases plants used by ancient Native Peoples for food, medicine, tools and dyes.
While the museum boasts an impressive collection of pristinely-preserved artifacts, crafts, pottery and other cultural items dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years, MKIM is mostly renowned for their living history demonstrations.
Live performances by indigenous dancers and storytellers, workshops on Native arts and crafts, as well as educational programs all are a central part of the MKIM experience – which seeks to bring Native history, traditions and culture to life. There are even interpretive trails all along the 100 acre property,
As the presence of the incredible arboretum would suggest, MKIM places a lot of emphasis on respect for the natural environment and its sacred connection to Native culture. Visitors explore the natural surroundings of the property, including the wide variety of plants and flowers, and how they were used by indigenous people for medicine, food and clothing. Above all else, visitors learn about the spiritual connection to nature, and are taught the ancient wisdom that all humanity is part of the sacred circle, so each one of us has a duty to act responsibly to protect the Earth for future generations.
The world famous Mohegan Sun is more than a casino https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/explore/museum
It’s no surprise that many tourists visit Southeastern Connecticut throughout the year to experience one of the largest casinos in the world – the Mohegan Sun casino, operated by the Mohegan Tribe.
Mohegan Sun sits on 240 acres of the Mohegan reservation, along the banks of the Thames River in Uncasville, Connecticut. It has over 360,000 square feet of gambling space – featuring countless table games and slot machines – over 100,000 sq ft of meeting and function room space, over 130,000 sq ft of retail shopping and fine dining, as well as the 12,000-seat capacity Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Connecticut Sun. The casino also boasts a 55-foot indoor waterfall, the world’s largest (and incredible) indoor planetarium dome and the incomparable Wombi Rock, a glowing crystal mountain made of imported stone that serves as the focal point of Casino of the Sky.
It’s little surprise that the Mohegan Sun is one of the most popular casino enterprises anywhere in the world.
But what you may not know is that the Mohegan reservation is also home to the oldest Native American owned and operated museum in the United States – The Tantaquidgeon Museum, founded by members of the Tantaquidgeon family in 1931. Harold Tantaquidgeon (1904 – 1989) was chief of the Mohegan Tribe from 1950 to 1970.
The Tantaquidgeon Museum is an extraordinary heritage center that tells the story of the Mohegan people from ancient times to present day. Traditional Mohegan medicine objects can be found, including turtle shell rattles, as well as ancient artifacts such as dolls, beads and other artwork. There are also artifacts and tributaries to other Native tribes as well throughout the United States. For example, there is a Southwest Room of the small building featuring art, clothing and rugs from the Hopi and Navajo tribes.
The centerpiece of the museum is a complete replica of an ancient Mohegan village, featuring a wigwam, garden, fire pit and longhouse. There is a crushed-clamshell walking trail that features herb gardens, a dugout canoe, and small piles of stones used by Tribal members to mark sacred places such as burials. The Mohegan village replica won a preservation award from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013.
However, the best feature of the Tantaquidgeon Museum is the knowledgeable and friendly guides, who are happy to help visitors learn, understand and appreciate Mohegan history and traditions.
Remember that you are a visitor on Native lands
Remember, when visiting these Native American places, it’s essential to approach Native American cultures with respect, follow any guidelines or protocols provided, and be open to learning and understanding the perspectives of the indigenous communities. You are of course welcome, but be mindful you are visiting homelands that are considered sacred to the indigenous people who live there.
Enjoy your journey to Native New England!