The Southwest has always had an allure for travelers.
The region’s arid landscapes, featuring countless natural wonders, are a draw in and of themselves. It’s also an area that captures the imagination, transporting visitors back to the Wild West in the days where cowboys and outlaws roamed the unsettled territories. However, the Southwest offers travelers something few regions in the world offer: a chance to appreciate and explore Native American culture.
Although travelers must take care to abide by the appropriate etiquette and customs while visiting, many indigenous groups welcome travelers and the chance to share their culture. Whether this is via a modern museum full of artifacts or a tour of the lands on which their ancestors settled, there are many ways for groups to explore indigenous cultures and the landscape upon which their histories unfolded.
The Navajo Nation is the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, covering 27,000 square miles in four different states and comprising nearly 400,000 tribe members. The Navajo people, known amongst themselves as the Diné, speak the Diné language, which was made famous during World War II by the Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo are known for silversmithing and for weaving rugs and blankets. Their culture places great emphasis on harmony with nature, which is demonstrated through their traditional dwellings, dome-shaped structures made of mud and logs, called hogans. Hogans are still used today as sites for the Navajo’s many ceremonies.
Because of its vast size, the Navajo Nation offers endless opportunities for groups to experience and learn about Navajo culture. A tour narrated by a Navajo guide through some of the Navajo parks is the perfect way to gain an appreciation for the land that informs Navajo culture and tradition. Groups can visit some of the most beautiful recognizable natural landmarks like Antelope Canyon and the sandstone mesas of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
There are also several museums within the reservation that allow visitors to see artifacts and explore the history of the Navajo people, including the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City and the Navajo Code Talkers Museum.
For some authentic Navajo jewelry and hand-woven textiles, groups can stop at any one of the many trading posts. The Hubbell Trading Post is also a national historic site and a popular place for visitors to catch a rug-weaving demonstration.
On the Navajo Reservation, the Indian Taco is known as the Navajo Taco, and this along with other Mexican- and American-inspired fare can be found at the Hogan Family Restaurant in Tuba City.
Located on 1.5 million acres in Arizona that are surrounded by the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Reservation sits on three mesas that contain a total of 12 villages. The Hopi migrated to their sacred land, known to them as Hopitutskwa, in northern Arizona in the 12th century and have resided there since. Their culture emphasizes living in peace and harmony with the land. The Hopi occupy highly elevated and very dry, which led Hopi farmers to develop a technique called dry farming, a practice which is still in use today. The Hopi have retained their language and many of their cultural practices and stepping on Hopi land can feel like stepping back in time.
Lamar Keevama, the general manager of the Hopi Cultural Center, said the best part of visiting is interacting with the Hopi people because “each one has their own story to tell.”
The Hopi Cultural Center, located near the Second Mesa, is an inn and restaurant that offers travelers a place to stay and a bite to eat while they visit the reservation. Hopi artists and merchants can be found outside the center, and visitors can purchase Hopi kachina dolls, pottery and artwork.
The only way to explore the reservation is with a Hopi guide, who can bring groups to some of the villages, cultural sites and landmarks. The village of Old Oraibi, known as one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America, is a popular destination on tours, as well as Prophecy Rock, a cultural site with petroglyphs, or rock carvings, of Hopi religious teachings. At Dawa Park, visitors can check out the scenic canyon to find historic petroglyphs and pottery shards.
In certain villages, groups may catch a glimpse of one of the ceremonial Hopi dances; however, the Hopi have strict rules for visitors to follow to ensure their culture remains respected and unexploited, such as rules against photography, sketching and recording.
Acoma Pueblo and Sky City Cultural Center
Resting atop a 367-foot sandstone mesa, Sky City is aptly named. The community, made up of traditional dwellings of Adobe brick and plaster, is part of a Native American pueblo, the Acoma Pueblo, and is another one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America. There are close to 6,000 members enrolled in the tribe, most of whom live on the 500,000-acre reservation surrounding the mesa. The Acoma Pueblo is known for its preservation of the Acoma culture and their native language, Keres, as well as the traditional, picturesque architecture and pottery.
“Be looking out for all the beauty that we have and all of the services that we have that will leave you with a wonderful experience,” said Melvin Juanico, operations manager at the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum.
Acoma culture is best experienced through a visit to the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum. Located on the mesa, the center offers stunning views of the New Mexico landscape in addition to its many lessons about Acoma culture.
Though guided walking tours of Sky City haven’t yet been reinstated following the pandemic, groups can take a virtual tour of the historic city in the cultural center’s theater. The museum features two galleries of exhibits and artifacts detailing the history and way of life of the Acoma people.
Groups can purchase authentic Acoma art such as pottery, jewelry and textiles at the Gaits’i gift shop or from Acoma vendors who set up near the center. The center also features the Yaak’a Café, which will reopen late in 2022 and offers visitors traditional Acoma fare as well as American cuisine.
Chickasaw Cultural Center
The Chickasaw people originally hail from the southeastern United States, in present-day Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. However, during President Jackson’s administration, the Chickasaw, along with many other Native American tribes, were forced to relocate to Oklahoma during the Great Removal. The Chickasaw are renowned as skilled hunters and warriors, often participating in the battles between European powers in the Colonial period.
The Chickasaw Cultural Center is a loving tribute to the Chickasaw people’s origins and present-day culture. Everything about the campus is inspired by their ancestral homelands, from the materials used to build the center to the plants around its 184-acre campus.
“It’s a very unique map of different ideas of what our people remembered from the original homelands,” said Fran Parchcorn, executive officer of the Chickasaw Cultural Center.
The center offers groups an abundance of ways to immerse themselves in Chickasaw culture, from fine art galleries to hands-on demonstrations of tribal traditions. Groups can take guided or self-guided tours of the Chikasha Poya Exhibit Center, where interactive exhibits tell the story of the tribe and allow visitors to explore different elements of Chickasaw culture. At the Anoli’ theater, which is scheduled to open in late 2022 following renovations, groups can view films, cultural demonstrations, workshops and lectures about the Chickasaw.
The beautiful and expansive campus also contains the Chikasha Inchokaa’ Traditional Village, a replica of a 1700s Chickasaw village, which offers groups a chance to see historically accurate demonstrations of Chickasaw life. In the village, groups will find Chickasaw dwellings and a replica mound. They can watch or even take part in traditions such as the Stomp Dance, weaving, and stickball, a Chickasaw sport.
Upon its reopening in late 2022, the newly renovated Aaimpa’ Café will feature a menu inspired by Chickasaw cuisine.
On 99,000 acres in northern New Mexico, groups can find Taos Pueblo, a community where the Taos Pueblo Indians have been living for nearly 1,000 years. The pueblo consists of stacked adobe dwellings, which are passed down from generation to generation and are notable for glittering in the sunlight due to the mica in the mud that covers them.
There are 150 people living in the original structures, and due to their traditional beliefs, there is no electricity or running water within the village walls. However, many of the tribe’s 1,900 members live in more modern homes on the land surrounding the pueblo. Also located in the pueblo is the San Geronimo Chapel, which was built in 1850 to replace the original chapel after it was destroyed. The Taos people practice Catholicism alongside their traditional Taos religion and speak Tiwa, their native language, alongside English and Spanish.
The pueblo provides plenty of opportunities for groups to interact with tribal members, although they should be aware of and respect the community’s guidelines about photography. Groups can take guided tours around the pueblo to view the adobe buildings and culturally significant sites. These tours are narrated and detail the tribe’s history. There are shops within the pueblo where visitors can buy handcrafted arts and souvenirs, such as moccasins, pottery, jewelry and drums. On the days of annual feasts and ceremonies, visitors are welcome to observe, provided they remain respectful and observe proper etiquette.