Native America: The complete guide

From Oklahoma to Arizona, David Orkin discovers the remarkable legacy of the original inhabitants of the New World
Click to follow
The Independent Travel


When Europeans first crossed the Atlantic there were more than 10 million people populating the land north of present-day Mexico. (The first authenticated landing was in Newfoundland around 1000, commemorated at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site; 00 1 709 623 2608;; closed until 11 June 2006.) The first Native Americans arrived during the last Ice Age, 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, via a land-bridge across the Bering Sound, from northeastern Siberia into Alaska. They then dispersed throughout the continent. These people belonged to different nations, each with its own tribal customs, political organisation, language and spiritual beliefs. They developed vast trade and economic systems.

A good place to get a feel of the antiquity of native man is Ocmulgee in Georgia, where the Ocmulgee National Monument (00 1 478 752 8257; preserves a continuous record of human life in the present-day south-east US. It contains evidence from Ice Age hunters to the Muscogee (Creek) people of historic times -- 12,000 years of human habitation. Another good venue, in the Midwest, is Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (00 1 740 774 1125; in Ohio, inhabited from 200BC to 500AD.


Actually, they occupied much of the continent. Those living in the east were the first to suffer from European expansionism. Hollywood has left the impression that the great battles with "Red Indians" were in the West during the late 1800s. In reality, by that time the Native Americans were on their last legs, their subjugation complete, their numbers decimated. There was a deliberate policy to wipe out buffalo, virtually the mainstay of life for millions of Native Americans. Killing, enslavement and land theft had begun soon after the arrival of the Europeans. It reached its height when it became federal policy under President (Andrew) Jackson. From 1814, Jackson had commanded against the Creek people, among others. In 1830, almost immediately after taking office, he pushed the "Indian Removal Act" through both houses of Congress.

For example, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee lived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, believed to be the sacred ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation. After battling Carolina settlers in the 1760s, they withdrew to the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1838 and 1839, as part of Jackson's removal policy - an early version of ethnic cleansing - the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River. Close to 16,000 men, women and children were taken from their land, herded into makeshift forts with minimal facilities and food, then forced to march 1,000 miles to a dusty dumping ground called "Indian Territory" (which later became part of present-day Oklahoma).

This forced migration became known as the "Trail of Tears", because of its devastating effects. More than 4,000 died on the forced march, from hunger, disease and exhaustion. Crossing nine US states, The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (00 1 505 988 6888; commemorates the paths that 17 Cherokee detachments followed. Over time, many of the descendants of the survivors returned to their homeland. In the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, you can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (00 1 828 497 3481; Nearby, the Oconaluftee Indian Village (00 1 828 497 2315;; closed until 12 May 2006) is a replica of a mid-18th-century Cherokee community. Incidentally, much of The Last of the Mohicans was filmed at Hickory Nut Gorge, North Carolina.


Some do. The Trail of Tears ended at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Here you'll find the Cherokee Heritage Center (00 1 888 999 6007;; closed during January). It incorporates the Cherokee National Museum and Tsa La Gi Ancient Village. Nearby, Muskogee, Oklahoma is home to the intriguing Five Civilized Tribes Museum (00 1 918 683 1701; The "Five Civilized Tribes" - the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole - were so-called because they emulated Southern white society, including ownership of slaves.

While in Oklahoma, if you are looking for Native American souvenirs, it should be less than 24 hours to Tulsa, where Lyon's Indian Store (00 1 918 582 6372; should have what you want.


A century ago, Native Americans were down to a few hundred thousand people, and extinction didn't seem to be that far-fetched. Some observers even predicted that America would close the book on its ''vanishing race'' by 1935. But Native Americans have seen something of a resurgence. Though less well-publicised than Black civil rights, the so-called Red Power movement asserted itself in the Sixties and Native American populations soared. In the US, the estimated population of American Indians and Alaska natives is 4.4 million, or close to 1.5 per cent of the population. They represent half the languages and cultures in the nation.

In Canada, the terms "Aboriginal", "Native" and "Indigenous" are used as general terms to collectively describe three distinct cultural groups known as the Inuit, the Metis and First Nations. Each has its own history, culture and political goals. Within the group known as "First Nations" or "Indians", there are 633 First Nations bands, representing 52 nations or cultural groups and more than 50 languages. In the US, by far the largest tribal grouping is the Cherokee, followed by the Navajo. Other tribes in the top 10 include Choctaw, Sioux, Apache, Iroquois and Pueblo. Of the US native population, 43 per cent live in the west, 31 per cent in the * * south, 17 per cent in the Midwest and nine per cent in the north-east. Another result of the political struggle of a few decades ago is the one thing that has brought economic well-being to them: casinos.


Because many Native nations won sovereignty over their land, enabling them to do things not permitted elsewhere within the state. In most parts of the US and Canada, opportunities for gambling are heavily restricted, so many tribes opened casinos on their land. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed by congress in 1988, and the National Indian Gaming Association has about 180 member tribes operating casinos in more than 20 US states. Indian gaming is now worth more than US$7.5bn (£4.2bn) annually.

The success of the casinos has allowed tribes to branch out into other ventures. Some are assuming new roles as luxury hoteliers and partnering with hotel chains to offer guests an introduction to Indian culture. The Pima and Maricopa (traditionally, the former are basket-weavers, the latter, potters) built the $175m (£100m) Sheraton Wild Horse Pass (00 1 602 225 0100; outside Phoenix, Arizona. More than a third of the 500-member staff was hired from the Indian community. In New Mexico, the Hyatt Regency Tamaya (00 1 505 867 1234; is owned by Pueblo Indians and The Inn of the Mountain Gods (00 1 800 545 9011; by Mescalero Apache.


Go north of the border. Regina in Saskatchewan may be home to the Mounties, but in the same province you will find the Wanuskewin Heritage Park (00 1 306 931 6767;, devoted to the Northern Plains peoples. Here you can set up a tepee, dine on buffalo stew, fried or baked bannock (bread), muskeg tea and Saskatoon berry tart, and learn about those who gathered at this site for more than 6,000 years. Canada has Native American sites scattered right across the country. In Nova Scotia, for thousands of years the Mi'kmaq and their ancestors canoed along the connected waterways of Kejimkujik National Park (00 1 902 682 2772;

Further west, near St Thomas, Ontario, you can visit the Southwold Earthworks National Historic Site (00 1 519 322 2365;, the remains of a village inhabited around 1500AD by the Attiwondaronk Nation. Near Peterborough are the Serpent Mounds Provincial Park (00 1 705 295 6879;, a burial site now owned by the Hiawatha, and Petroglyphs Provincial Park (00 1 705 877 2552;; closed until 5 May 2006), which boasts Canada's largest concentration of rock carvings. Heading further west, animal lovers should look away now. At Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (00 1 403 553 2731; in south-west Alberta, trails, the remains of a camp and a huge pile of buffalo bones are evidence of a custom practised by aboriginal peoples for nearly 6,000 years. They chased their prey over a precipice; the carcasses were later carved up below. Off Canada's west coast, Haida culture and rainforest are preserved in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (00 1 250 559 8818; on the Queen Charlotte Islands.


Yes, not far from Mount Rushmore. As a riposte to the faces of four US presidents, a truly immense sculpture of the Lakota hero Crazy Horse is being blasted into the side of a mountain in South Dakota's Black Hills (00 1 605 673 4681; there's also a museum at the site. By now you are in Wild West territory. North Dakota has the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (00 1 701 745 3300;, where an earth lodge and Indian village have been reconstructed. Further west, the 38 sites of Nez Perce National Historical Park (00 1 208 843 2261; are scattered across Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. These commemorate the stories of the Nimiipuu and their interaction with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, gold miners and farmers in the area. Elsewhere in Montana, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (00 1 406 638 3204; is the site of the 1876 battle between Sioux, Cheyenne and the US Seventh Cavalry, led by Lt Col George Custer. On the west coast on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Makah Cultural Center (00 1 360 645 2201; tells you all you need to know about the eponymous tribe.


The region of the US southwest known as the Four Corners - where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. There's a fantastic concentration not just of ruins, but stunning scenery and towns where Native Americans continue to live as they have for centuries. The best Anasazi ruins include those at the National Monuments of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly (00 1 928 674 5500; and Casa Grande (00 1 520 723 3172; Also, with views of Ship Rock, visit Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park (00 1 970 529 4465; Nearby, don't miss Ute Mountain Tribal Park (00 1 970 749 1452; In New Mexico, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (00 1 505 536 9461; protects Mogollon homes. On the Arizona/Utah border, you can take a 4WD tour or ride a horse with a Navajo guide at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (00 1 435 727 5874;

The lands of the Navajo Nation ( are the largest of any tribe and its reservation spans into north-west New Mexico, south-eastern Utah and northern Arizona. At the Grand Canyon's western rim, the Hualapai will be opening the Skywalk in January. Visitors will be able to walk around a glass bridge suspended more than 4,000 feet above the Colorado River. This is in addition to a new Indian Village, at which walking tours of dwellings of the Hualapai, Havasupai, Navajo, Plains and Hopi Indians are offered (00 1 702 878 9378; Further south, visit living history in New Mexico's pueblos: Taos and Acomah are probably the most spectacular. Then get it all in perspective at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (00 1 505 843 7270; in Albuquerque.


There is no obvious central hub. If you're looking for direct flights, the best points of entry are probably Las Vegas or Phoenix. Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; flies to the former from Gatwick, BMI (0870 60 70 555; from Manchester; British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies to Phoenix from Heathrow. If you are prepared to change planes you could fly to (say) Flagstaff, Arizona or Albuquerque. Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; flies to the latter from Gatwick via Houston, or from Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh via Newark.


Skedaddle Trails (0191 265 1110; is a good bet if you want to learn about the original inhabitants of the US south-west. A 10-day tour from Albuquerquestarts from £1,045, plus flights. AmeriCan (01892 511894; offers a two-week self-drive "Totem Tour" starting in Vancouver and finishing in Calgary.


To the Native Americans the Earth was regarded as a living creature, a Mother, who naturally supplied her children, all creatures great and small, with everything needed from the bounty of her own substance.

Agawa Rock is a cliff on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, Canada, that was long used by Ojibwa shamans for their artwork. (00 1 705 856 2284;

Artefacts dating back 10,000 years have been found near Bear Butte in South Dakota. More recently, the Cheyenne and Lakota people have maintained a spiritual tie to this mountain. Notable leaders including Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull have all visited Bear Butte (00 1 605 347 5240;

The fantastic near-vertical monolith of Devil's Tower, Wyoming rises over 1,200 feet: known to them as Bears Lodge, it is sacred to Plains Indians including Blackfeet, Crow and Lakota. Devil's Tower National Park (00 1 307 467 5283;

Big Horn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming is a circular arrangement of stones measuring 80 feet across with 28 rows of stones that radiate from a central cairn to an encircling stone rim. Placed around the periphery of the wheel are five smaller, stone circles. The Medicine Wheel's function and builders remain a mystery.

At Pipestone, Minnesota, you can see the preferred source for stone pipes used for ceremonial smoking and favoured by many tribes such as the Pawnee and Sioux. Pipestone National Monument (00 1 507 825 5464;

Crater Lake, Oregon, is sacred to most tribes of northern California and Oregon, such as the Klamath. It lies within Crater Lake National Park (00 1 541 594 3100;

Today, the Wintu, the Achumawi, the Shasta and other Indians consider Mount Shasta in California, or places thereon, to be sacred. Several ceremonies are conducted on or near the mountain each year.

Enchanted Rock, near Fredericksburg, Texas, is a massive pinkish granite dome rising over 400 feet above the surrounding oak savannah and held in awe by the Tonkawa. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (00 1 325 247 3903;


Native American culture is now celebrated in some excellent museums. New York City has a National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at the George Gustav Heye Center (00 1 212 514 3700; And a year ago the superb NMAI on the National Mall (00 1 202 633 1000;, several times larger, opened in Washington DC. Housed in a five-storey, curving, sand-coloured, limestone-and-glass structure, the new museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is the US's largest museum dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of Native Americans.

The Plains Indian Museum (00 1 307 587 4771;, just outside Yellowstone National Park in Cody, Wyoming, has artefacts and displays representing the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, Sioux, Shoshone and other tribes. Exquisite artwork - including beautiful beadwork with intricate designs - can be seen in many of the traditional clothing items on display.

Pierre, South Dakota has an interesting Cultural Heritage Center (00 1 605 773 3458;, largely underground and built to resemble an Arikara house.

In Canada, a large section of Ottawa's Canadian Museum of Civilization (00 1 819 776 7000; is devoted to First Nations people.

You can learn about the language, history and culture of the Shuswap at the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park ( in Kamloops, British Columbia.