Forget the 'Injun Country' stereotypes of classic Western adventures - Native American reservations are open for tourist business and offer a unique insight into some ancient, and very different ways of life. Rupert Isaacson went to a pow-wow, visited a hidden canyon and joined a horse round-up - but drew the line at taking part in the Sun Ceremony
What's your image of the West? Dust and stampeding cattle, pine trees and snowcapped peaks, cowboys and Indians: the John Ford images run through the mind's eye but at the centre of them is the silhouette of a lean red man astride a wiry pony, staring down from the heights into the canyon where a river, or a wagon-train, or a cattle-drive, or John Wayne, or General Custer and his blue coats (and long knives) wind ant- like along the valley floor. This Hollywood image of the Indian is central to the Western myth we all grew up on, eyes glued to the television, gunshots ringing across the living-room; men with feathers in their hair fighting it out against Hollywood's best-looking romantic leads.

But the Native American myth is based on a reality that you can still find if you travel to the West. Having survived the John Waynes and the Custers, America's indigenous tribes are now opening their reservations to tourists.

Pow-wows

These are probably the best introduction to indigenous culture. Pow-wows are formal dances - some ritual, some competitive - held by tribes all over the USA throughout the year. Most last about three days and are sometimes combined with a rodeo. Although just about every reservation holds one or two pow-wows every year, the most representative are probably those held by the Lakota (Sioux) in the Dakota states, which attract members of up to 20 different tribes. The biggest Lakota pow-wows are South Dakota's Rosebud Fair and the Pine Ridge Pow-wow, both held in August. These adjacent reservations have some of the best-known historical sites and battlefields (see below), so you can take these in at the same time.

You arrive at a large, cleared field with tiered seating around a perimeter ringed with trailers, tents and teepees. On the first day, once the full complement of dancers has gathered, the traditional drummers and singers begin to call on the gods and ancestors. The dancers - often more than a hundred of them - all enter the field to dance together, for what's called the Grand Entry. The costumes are spectacular: bone waistcoats, feathered bustles and war bonnets, chokers, wind-bands, eagle's-wing fans and (for the males) small round shields fringed with pelts. All the male, female and child dancers wear buckskin shirts and leggings covered in bead-work, and most have ritual paint on their faces and bodies. This first, collective dance can go on a long time. It's mesmerising to watch - the stamping, ritualised steps induce a euphoria among the dancers that soon communicates itself to anyone watching.

Once the first dance is over, everyone retires to wait for their specific ritual or competitive dance. Like any outdoor festival there are booths selling crafts, traditional foods, such as corn breads, squash, corn and game stews (and burgers and fries, too). If you stay for the full three or more days you will see a variety of dances: jingle dancing - in which the dancers' costumes are covered with percussive devices such as deer's hoves and cowrie-shells that clack together - fancy dancing, in which the participants go all-out for the most elaborate costumes possible and dance with steps that seem to hover for a full second above the ground (an optical illusion created by turns performed in mid-air); and traditional dancing - much simpler in form, more solemn and devotional in purpose.

As for sleeping the night, you can either camp along with everyone else or stay in the reservations' overpriced and rather depressing tourist accommodation (see below). Best is to camp - then you can join in some of the camp-fire groups late at night and listen to the story-tellers and singers. You may also try hand games - an ancient form of gambling in which players try to guess which hand is hiding a piece of deer bone.

Reservation life

Down among the towering rock formations of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley, Arizona, the Navajo Nation have the largest reservation in the US. Rural life revolves around sheep-herding, maize-growing and hunting. If you can ride a horse, it is possible to help in the sheep round-ups, moving the flocks from the low to the high pastures in the summer with nights spent in a traditional hogan, or round-hut, with a visit from a local story-teller. Non-riders can hire local guides for hiking out to various sites, including painted caves and petroglyphs, as well as visiting Navajo families on traditional farms.

Equally exciting are the horse round-ups in the Owen's Valley, with the Yokuts on the Bishop Reservation in Central California. These western foothills of the Sierra Nevada range are wonderfully beautiful - with steep, grassy hills dotted with evergreen and deciduous oak forest, going on for miles in every direction. Rounding up horses is great fun - galloping to and fro on the hillsides trying to push the stragglers into the herd and watching while the more experienced wranglers drive the youngsters into the corrals, where they are lassooed and branded. By night you camp out with the horses. You do not have to be a great rider to do this - beginners can be given quiet horses - but you have to be able to stay in the saddle. Similar pack-trips and round-ups are also offered by the Northern Arapahoes on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation - an area of high wilderness in the Rockies where mountain lion, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope still flourish - and on the Apaches' White River Reservation in Arizona.

If you aren't interested in horses, contact the Havasupai tribe, who live along a remote set of waterfalls in Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon. Down here you probably won't see any other tourists from the moment the guides meet you at the top of the canyon to guide you down the hot, rugged 10km to the tiny village and its campground. You should have a good backpack and plenty of water. Once on the canyon floor, a green, jewel-like world opens up - a relief after the red rock and relentless sun of the steep trail. Among the small fields, cottonwood trees (similar to poplars), lie scattered houses and a new-looking Tourist Enterprise Building. All visitors have to check in here and buy permits for camping and hiking before having a drink and hiking the last 3.5km to the camp-site. Once there you can spend the days hiking out to the hidden waterfalls, some of which rise 60 metres.

The only time of year when the canyon fills up with people is Labor Day weekend (the first weekend in September), when the Havasupai hold their Peach Festival pow-wow and rodeo. Hundreds of Native Americans from other tribes, as well as broncs, bulls and calves for the rodeo, come down the canyon-side. At any time of year you will probably want to buy basketry from the Havasupai women, who weave reeds into intricate geometric patterns. On the way back up the canyon, you have the option of hiring a horse (it's a steep, hellish-hot hike) or having a helicopter come down and fetch you for lots of money.

Rituals and religion

New Mexico's Hopi and Pueblo people are America's most traditional tribes in terms of holding on to their own religion. Living in small settlements of adobe huts on top of the high mesas (or table-lands) these tribes hold ritual dances throughout the year to appease the fierce gods and spirits of this desert land and to ask for rain. At Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the Feast of San Geronimo combines kachina (or spirit) dancing - where the dancers are shamans dressed up in masks with feathers, antlers and painted masks - with Roman Catholicism. The pueblo itself is a classic with adobe huts built up a hillside connected by ladders. After the dances there are foot races. If you can't make San Geronimo, the deer dances at San Juan Pueblo and the kachina dances of the Hopi villages are similarly spectacular. For all these you should wear sober clothing and ask before you take photographs - be especially careful of the latter.

Up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the various Lakota tribes still practise the Sun Dance where the young men have stakes driven through their pectoral muscles and then lean back against rawhide ropes attached to a central pole (known as the Offerings Lodge), and walk around, chanting until the muscle rips and they fall back. In other Sun Dances, young men drag buffalo skulls across the ground using thongs laced through the muscles of their back. The Offerings Lodge is almost always closed to outsiders but a few tribes have versions that involve no piercing and some of these may be witnessed, as can the Offerings Lodge once the ceremony is done.

Other secretive rituals are those held by the medicine men and priests of the Native American Church, during which peyote, a highly hallucinogenic cactus, is used during chanting ceremonies of several days held in teepees. Again, chances are slim of being allowed in as an outsider, but if the local people feel your interest is sufficiently sincere they might allow access to some parts of the ceremony.

Historical sites

One can be more of a tourist visiting these, and again it is possible to hire local guides. Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservation have the big battle sites: Little Big Horn, Montana, on the Crow Reservation (take highway 90 then highway 202 from Pine Ridge) where Custer and his 7th Cavalry grossly underestimated the fighting power of Crazy Horse's warriors; Wounded Knee, the last "Indian battle" - a massacre of Chief Bigfoot's Miniconjou Sioux by federal troops alarmed at their practice of the Ghost Dance, an invocation to the gods to drive the white men into the sea. So heavy was the cross-fire at Wounded Knee that 24 US soldiers were killed by their own comrades - along with scores of Miniconjou women and children. You can arrange for a Lakota guide at these and other battle sites by ringing Pine Ridge.

Down in the New Mexico desert, the Sky City of Acoma was the Pueblo tribe's largest settlement. The Spanish conquered it in the late 1600s, selling many of the women and children into slavery and forcing the men to erect a huge mission church, which still stands, dominating the houses of the pueblo which itself stands almost 400 feet above the valley atop a tall mesa. You cannot go up to Acoma alone, but must arrange a Zuni Pueblo guide. Also in New Mexico, the Aztec ruins are worth going out of your way for. Although they remsemble the Aztec sun pyramids of Mexico, these ruins were in fact built by a people called the Anasazi, percursors of today's Zuni, Pueblo and Hopi tribes. A civilization that seems to have matched the Aztecs at least in architectural style, the Anasazi culture collapsed long before the arrival of the Spanish - archaeologists think around 1350. Of the several theories explaining this collapse, none has yet proved definitive.

Another superb Anasazi site, a stone village built into a great Rock overhang at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado can also be visited, though not with tribal guides.

To visit these places (and see the kachina dances), stay at the Hopis' own Cultural Centre lodge, which has comfy rooms and traditional food.

FACT FILE

To make reservations for pow-wows and to find out where to stay, contact the reservations offices: Pine Ridge, (605) 867 5591 and Rosebud (605) 7474 2381.

Two Navajo outfitters organise Navajo Nation trips: Coyote Pass Hospitality, (520) 724 3383 or 674 9655 and Roland's Navajo Tours, (520) 697 3524. Reckon on about $150 per person per day all-in.

Owen's Valley horse round-ups contact Bishop Pack Trains, (619) 873 4785 and reckon on about $500 for three days all-in.

Wind River and White River Reservation pack trips call (307) 332 6120 and (520) 338 4346 respectively.

Havasupai tribe: Reckon on spending around $120 per person per day for staying with the Havasupai. To book tel: (520) 448 2141.

To find out about dates for Taos and San Juan call (505) 871 6000 to try and get in touch with a family in advance.

For more information on Native American Church peyote ceremonies and the Sun Dance ring Pine Ridge Tribal Council, (605) 867 5591.

City of Acoma guides: tel (505) 470 4967.

To hire a guide for the Anasazi Aztec ruins tel (505) 334 6174; Mesa Verde Call (303) 529 4465.

Hopi Cultural Centre lodge (602) 734 2445.

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