There are approximately 326 Indian reservations in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, each deemed a sovereign nation with the inherent power of self-government. While there are more than 550 federally recognized tribes, not every tribe has their own reservation as many co-govern or live across multiple lands.
While Native Americans are traditionally private and reclusive, today many embrace tourists, despite the hardships Native Americans have faced in the last two centuries, and graciously allow guests a rare glimpse into the life of America’s indigenous people.
Every tribe has its own unique history and customs, making any visit to a reservation an unforgettable cultural experience. To further understand the Native American way of life, visit any of these reservations.
The Navajo Nation (pictured at top) is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, spanning 16 million acres throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. With over 250,000 residents, it is larger in size and population than some members of the United Nations.
Guests can observe powwows, tribal dances and select ceremonies, though these are held for healing and religious, not entertainment, purposes, so guests may be asked to refrain from taking photographs or quietly leave during certain parts of a ceremony. The annual Navajo Nation Fair is held in Window Rock, Arizona—Navajo Nation’s capital. Taking place every September, this weeklong celebration features horticultural exhibits, art displays and markets, a parade, and a cultural showcase.
Yearlong attractions include ancient Anasazi ruins and perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks from the Jurassic Era. The Navajo are renowned for their hospitality, operating three lodging properties in the heart of Indian country—the Quality Inn Navajo Nation, Quality Inn Navajo Nation Capital, and Quality Inn Lake Powell. All three are staffed almost exclusively with Navajo people and ready to accommodate you as you “explore Navajo.”
The Cherokee tribe was one of the most displaced by the Trail of Tears. Originally located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, modern Cherokee Nation consists of 14 counties in Oklahoma. With much resilience and resolve, the Cherokee people have continued to thrive. Responsible for the first newspaper in Indian territory, they have always been renowned as a progressive people, boasting a long history of trade and alliance with Great Britain and Europe long before any settlers arrived.
Today, guests can visit popular sites at their leisure by purchasing the Cherokee Compass for just $15, gaining admission to the Cherokee Heritage Center, Cherokee National Prison Museum, Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum and John Ross Museum. The Heritage Center itself is worth the price of the ticket; college students from the Cherokee, Yuchi and other tribes lead visitors on guided tours of a completely reconstructed Cherokee village, where modern Cherokee people dress traditionally and perform old-time crafts like canoe building and basket weaving.
The highly anticipated Cherokee Art Market takes place every October in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to which only the most elite artists are invited to compete for a $75,000 grand prize. Guests can observe artwork demonstrations and admire stunning displays of Indian jewelry, pottery, textiles, paintings, and sculptures at this event.
Note that the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is different from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in the Qualla Boundary of North Carolina. If you’re visiting the latter, don’t leave without stopping at the world famous Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, located right across the street from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
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Also referred to as The League of Nations or Haudenosaunee, the Confederacy is made up of six different tribes: the Seneca, Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida and Tuscarora tribes. They came together centuries ago, and their organizational model is believed to have influenced the U.S. constitution. Scattered throughout upstate NY, Wisconsin, Quebec and Ontario, guests can visit attractions hosted by each respective tribe.
The Seneca Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca, NY features over 300,000 pieces of ancient and modern art, including wooden face masks, corn husk dolls and horn rattles. Salamanca is also home to the Seneca Nation Library, tribally-owned and devoted to the history and culture of the Seneca Nation, and the Annual Indian Foods Dinner in the Enchanted Mountains. Like any good food fest, reservations are required.
Every Labor Day weekend, the Annual Iroquois Indian Festival takes place. The beautiful costumes that the dancers and singers wear might be the highlight of the festivities. As always, be sure to ask before taking any photos. The Festival is hosted by the Iroquois Indian Museum, open April through November and well worth a visit.
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On President Obama’s first visit to Indian Country, he came here. Spanning more than two million acres, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (pictured above) is the fifth largest in the United States. While it has suffered financial difficulties, the reservation is rich with historical significance and natural beauty. Chief Sitting Bull, the Sioux leader known for defeating General Custer at Little Bighorn but beloved for much more, is buried at Fort Yates. Also at Fort Yates is the reservation’s namesake Standing Rock Monument, a natural formation resembling a woman and child.
There are plenty of fishing, hunting and camping options by the Missouri River. Visitors can literally follow in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps on the Legacy Trail, three one-mile botanical hiking and biking trails looped around the buff of the Missouri River.
The Wind River Reservation in southwestern Wyoming is home to both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes, covering nearly two million acres of land.
Nature lovers can take a trip up the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway. A 40-minute drive not including stops, the aptly named byway goes from Shoshoni to Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot spring. There are plenty of camping options at Gannett Peak, the state’s highest point, with elevations upward of 13,000 feet.
Activities including weekly rodeos, gold panning and recreated trading posts allow visitors to experience life as it was in the 1800s. Be sure to stop by Sacajawea’s gravesite at Sacajawea Cemetery in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. Fort Washakie also hosts Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, the reservation’s largest annual event, held in June and featuring a collective powwow, rodeo and re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty of 1868.
The Miccosukee Indian people were originally part of Creek Nation but migrated to Florida before it became part of the United States. Most were pushed west as a result of wars, but 100 or so refused to surrender and took shelter in the Everglades. Today, over 600 members of the Miccosukee tribe are direct descendants of those who stayed behind, and have established a prominent presence just 25 miles west of Miami, Florida.
There are three exciting opportunities for visitors. First, guests can learn how to touch and mount a Florida alligator. Those who are bold enough will find that a live alligator wrestling selfie is hard to top—but equally hard to take. Second, guests can take an airboat ride through the Everglades with Miccosukee fishermen, hunters and froggers as guides. A highlight of the trip is a visit to a small island, where you can visit an old-fashioned Miccosukee camp.
Finally, the Miccosukee Museum features a village with “chickees,” traditional open-sided houses of the Miccosukee people, as well as patchwork sewing and cooking demonstrations. There are several annual festivals, the most highly anticipated of which is Indian Arts Festival, featuring storytelling, fire performances and handmade arts and crafts. All proceeds go to the Miccosukee Educational Fund to provide educational programs for Miccosukee youth.
The Alabama tribe gave the American State its name, but along with the Coushatta tribe, were driven west to Texas. Today, the reservation welcomes visitors year-round and is one of the most popular places to tour in the state. There is a reconstructed Indian village; the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Museum; and traditional dances every weekend, including the girl’s basket, boy’s and men’s hoop, and Green Corn Thanksgiving dance. The dance groups are so popular they can be booked for special events or schools in the Texas community. There’s also an outdoor performance called “Beyond the Sundown” presented mid-June through August at a 1600-seat outdoor amphitheater, recounting the history of the tribe and 1836 fight for Texas’ independence from Mexico.
The highlight of your visit will most likely be meeting and interacting with the Alabama and Coushatta people. Offer them respect and dignity and they’ll reward you in turn with stories about their way of life, explanations of their artifacts—including balls sticks and gourd rattles—and help you get the most out of their recreational facilities.
Jen Ruiz is a Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer and blogger.