Traveling to Indian Reservations doesn’t register on many people’s “travel bucket lists.” There are a lot of reasons for this, which are far too complicated to get into here, ranging from cultural disconnects to overt racism. That’s a shame, as a trip to an Indian Reservation is an enlightening experience and should be essential to get a handle on who we really are as Americans.
Indian Country (that’s the collective name for all of America and Canada’s reservations) is home to many of the first peoples of this country. There you’ll find wholly unique cultures and some of the most beautiful scenery on the continent — from the Badlands of South Dakota to the vast hop fields of the Yakama Valley to the blue waterfalls of the Havasupai.
Indian reservations are also at the very bottom of America’s socio-economic ladder. There are no poorer, sicker, and at-risk Americans than those living on reservations. It may feel difficult to know how to help those left behind in America, especially when it all seems so far away. But there is a way to help, right now in fact. Go there. Book a tour. Eat at a roadside diner. Hire a guide. Visit art galleries. Buy things. Spend money in general. Tourism dollars are a great way to support our fellow Americans who are at the bottom, struggling to finally rise above their lot in this American life.
Below are 12 amazing destinations around Indian Country where you can spend your summer tourist dollars, gain incredible experiences, and help Native-run businesses. There are, of course, more places than just these 12. America has 326 Indian Reservations and over 500 recognized tribes, with variously incorporated communities. Take these 12 as a starting point. Then, when you get home, find the reservation nearest you and check it out.
Havasupai Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation — Arizona
Havasupai has gotten a huge boost recently from the Instagram generation’s love of the place. It’s shockingly beautiful. The reservation is huddled up next to Grand Canyon National Park and, in fact, the Havasupai unit is an offshoot of that canyon. The red rock walls and blue waters make for a dynamic contrast that’s photo ready for anyone’s bucket list feed.
You can’t just walk into Havasupai. There are constant mud and landslides that make the area very dangerous. The area is also very, very sacred to the Havasupai people. Please, do not traipse around on your own.
You’ll need to make a reservation with the tribe for a pass to hike and camp. Expect to pay between $140 and $200 to camp in the area. Unfortunately, camping and lodging reservations for 2018 are already sold out. However, because of the physical effort involved in getting down to the reservation (it’s a 10-mile hike or a $200 helicopter ride), there are plenty of scratches and you can often score a site at the last second. You can make also booking for 2019 as of June 1st. But you’ll have to act now, as these will also book up fast.
Don’t forget to hit up the Supai Cafe for a Supai Burger — that’s a burger made with a fry bread bun.
Tatanka Rez Tourz, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — South Dakota
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the most economically depressed community in the United States with a life expectancy lower than Iraq’s. These people need your tourist dollars. Pine Ridge is also the size of Connecticut. So getting around and finding the sweet spots requires guidance.
Tatanka Rez Tourz is led by father-daughter team Warren and Tianna Yellowhair. They meet with singles, couples, or groups and take them to the main sites around the reservation — from the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial to the Oglala Lakota College. Along with the tour, you’ll get an in-depth and enlightening experience about the history of the Lakota, their battles with the US government, broken treaties, starvation, and the eventual Wonder Knee Massacre wherein US soldiers shot, killed, and then horrifically mutilated over 300 unarmed men, women, and children for dancing and singing.
Be warned, a tour in this part of the country is harrowing. Rates for the rez tour range from $50 per person to $25 per person in groups of ten or more. Transportation is generally provided.
Discover Navajo, Navajo Nation — Arizona, Utah, & New Mexico
The Navajo Nation — home to the Dine people — is one of the only corners of Indian Country where an indigenous population still controls the vast majority of their ancestral lands. This is due to the failed extermination attempts through forced marches to a concentration camp a state away, the failure of that camp, and the US government basically giving up. After all that, amazingly, the Dine got their home back. And their home is one of the most magical corners of the planet from the great Monument Valley to the canyons of Utah and Arizona to vast Painted Deserts.
Discover Navajo is your one-stop shop for tours all over the Navajo Nation. Their website has direct links to local tour operators for horseback riding, fishing, self-guided tours, and every other kind of tour you can think of. They also offer the Navajo Cultural Tour that lasts for three days and touches the Navajo museums, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Window Rock, and more.
Antelope Canyon Tours, Navajo Nation — Arizona
Getting into the nitty-gritty of the greatness of the Navajo Nation, you have to take a moment for Antelope Canyon. This corner of the nation, near the Utah stateline, is one of the continent’s most mythical places. It’s also an extremely sacred place for the Navajo people and, therefore, gated — to stop people from accessing the place without a local guide.
Antelope Canyon Tours is your best, local bet for getting into Antelope for a full tour. Tours generally last between one and two hours and will set you back between $40 and $110.
Go Native America — Nationwide
Indian Country is vast. There are tribes living in every state, with communities worth exploring. Go Native America embraces the vastness and uniqueness of these communities by offering tours and connecting travelers with local guides to lead them around Native America.
Tours can range from one-day rez tours to multi-day excursions onto reservations and into the backcountries for camping and hiking. Tours operate in South and North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska currently. Trips to Powwows are also available.
Standing Rock National Native American Scenic Byway, Standing Rock Indian Reservation — North Dakota
Standing Rock made news a couple years back for their stand against big oil and an impending pipeline. Of course, there’s more to Standing Rock than just a protest site. The reservation in North Dakota is a beautiful grassland with very important monuments to Native American Heritage — Sitting Bull’s final resting place is in Fort Yates, near the banks of the Missouri.
While there aren’t a lot of “classic” tourism options here, The Standing Rock Native American Scenic Byway is a classic road trip stretch. The great plains stretch out on either side of the mighty Missouri River, giving any road-tripping wanderluster a drastically beautiful view of a sea of grass.
The Standing Rock Monument, Sitting Bull Memorial, Standing Rock Lewis & Clark Nature Trail, Lake Oahe, and Holy Hills of the Mandan Indians are all must-stop spots along the byway. The two casinos on the rez offer accommodations from standard hotel rooms to cabins along the banks of the Missouri.
Wind River Scenic Byway, Wind River Indian Reservation — Wyoming
While Standing Rock’s Byway is through a sea of grass, Wind River’s Byway cuts along the river through a great canyon with drastic rock walls hemming you in. Wind River, like Standing Rock, is also among the most-depressed communities in America economically. So spending money here is a huge help to that community.
The byway will only take you 40 minutes to drive through if you’re in a hurry: So take your time. Go rock climbing, book a river rafting tour, grab a bite to eat, maybe drop a line in the river and snag a rainbow trout. Then hit up Warm Valley Native Tours in Fort Washakie for a full-on tour of Wind River Reservation with stops at sites like Sacajawea’s grave.
Access to the byway is free. Email Warm Valley Native Tours for individual rates on rez tours.
Miccosukee Indian Village & Airboat Rides, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians Reservation — Florida
The Miccosukee have a long history in what is now the American South. Originally from the upper valleys of Tennessee and Georgia, they ended up in Florida after European expansion pushed them out of their homelands. Today they have a small reservation amongst Florida’s Everglades and have spent the last two centuries adapting to the alligators and wetlands.
Miccosukee Indian Village is a great place to get a handle on this tribe, their culture, and Florida’s unique backwaters. You can take airboat rides through the swamps, wrestle alligators, and explore the heritage of the Miccosukee people at the Indian Village Museum.
Group airboat rides will set you back $20. Private airboat trips are between $150 and $300. The alligator shows and Indian Village are free. There’s also plenty of accommodations and food options at the local resort casino.
Tillicum Village — Blake Island, Washington
Tillicum Village isn’t on a reservation. It’s also not “native” owned — it’s owned by Seattle-based Argosy Cruises. Still, the site employs local Natives and celebrates Salish culture in a way that’s accessible and enlightening. In the end, hitting up this place helps preserve native culture while employing actual, local Natives.
Tillicum Village sits on Blake Island State Park about 40 minutes by boat from downtown Seattle. The Village is home to a huge longhouse, a forest of totems, huge pits for cooking salmon, and a stage where the legend of the Raven is performed in all its glory (that’s the bird who stole the sun to bring light to the earth). The salmon is spot on, the story is a crucial part of local history, and the island is a great place to spend the day outside the bustle of Seattle.
Expect a four to five hour trip and to spend around $91 for the boat ride, food, and experience.
Crow Native Days, Crow Agency — Montana
There are a lot of great events in Indian Country from the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in New Mexico to the Red Earth Festival out in Oklahoma. But one of the most fun and unique is Crow Native Days up in Montana.
Crow Agency is home to the Battle of Little Big Horn site amongst a sea of grasslands, roaming buffalo, prancing antelope, and little roadside shacks selling Indian Tacos. It’s also home to a culture devoted to horses. And Crow Native Days is centered around one of the greatest rodeos in America.
The event blends the pageantry of a great pow wow with the excitement of an Indian Rodeo. Horse racing, horse riding tricks and acrobatics, and fancy dancing happen side-by-side with plenty of fry bread and buffalo stew stands in between to nourish you. It’s a four-day spiritual party that’s unlike anything else in the world.
Crow Native Days generally fall around June 20th every year. Entrance prices to the events vary, but generally, cost less than a tenner.
The Cherokee Heritage Center, Cherokee Nation — Oklahoma
The Cherokee people have a very long and sad history. They were once the most integrated tribe in the United States with large plantations, newspapers, theaters, and everything else that comes with a “modern” society. Then the United States decided they wanted it all and forcibly removed them, along with several other Southern tribes to “Indian Country” in what’s now Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears ensued as the indigenous population of the American South lost everything.
To get a real handle on what happened, a trip to The Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma is crucial. The center has a village set up as it would have been in 1710, a Trail of Tears museum, an art gallery, and several events throughout the year devoted to all things Cherokee. There’s also an education wing that focuses on cultural outreach and a genealogy department for tribal members to trace their heritage. It’s a full experience and you’ll walk away wiser for having absorbed it.
Admission is only $8.50 per adult and Saturdays are free for everyone.
National Museum of the American Indian — Washington, DC
Lastly, a trip to Washington, DC, and the National Museum of the American Indian is an absolute must for all Americans. The museum house exhibits touch on the 500+ cultures that were decimated by manifest destiny over the last 400 years.
This year is an especially important time to hit the museum as they’ve started parsing the broken treaties and actions of the US government that led to extermination. The museum also launched the “Americans” exhibit that dives deeply into how the “image” of the stereotypical American Indian has been highjacked, perverted, and at times celebrated for commercial products and national pride over the centuries to present day. The whole museum is a masterclass in Native American life with a killer indigenous food court to boot.
The museum is free for everyone.