Want to really get away?
The vast Native American lands of the Northern Rockies are waiting for you
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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