10 Indigenous Travel Experiences Everyone Should Have
These amazing Indigenous destinations and Native-led activities top our bucket lists.
Nearly hunted to extinction by colonizers, buffalo herds are being reintroduced and are thriving on Native-owned lands.
These majestic mammals and their plight are a reminder that there is no true celebration of America’s Indigenous people without acknowledging their history and resilience in the face of the genocidal brutality by which they were forcibly removed from much of the continent.
You can learn about this forced relocation on the Trail of Tears of 60,000 members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (and sadly, thousands of the few wealthy landowners’ African slaves) via the National Historic Trail and the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Drive the scenic Nez Perce National Historic Trail to follow the dramatic journey of the Nez Perce Tribe from Oregon to Montana as they attempted to flee the U.S. military in 1877. In southeastern Idaho, mourn massacred Shoshone tribal members (including women and children) at Massacre Rocks State Park and the Bear River Massacre Site.
More information can be found on these and other culturally significant locations at the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association and via Association of Tribal Archives Libraries and Museums.
Below we have curated 10 must-have Indigenous travel experiences for everyone.
Few boats are as unique as dugout canoes hand-carved from ancient redwoods by Yurok tribal members. “These are the rarest vessels in the world,” Yurok guide Sammy Gensaw told the Los Angeles Times last year. “There are only about 10 in existence, and these two are the only ones open to the public.” One of those was made in 1967 by master carver Dewey George; the other was completed after special permission was granted to harvest a fallen giant, and took nearly two years of work by carver David Severns and Gensaw’s brother, Jon Luke.
“The canoes are built from old Redwood trees, which since they are endangered are not easy to secure,” Monica Polling of American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association tells Out Traveler. “The canoes are built using the traditional methods practiced by the Yurok people for millennia and this is the only place in the world that offers canoe rides of this type.”
Yurok culture revolves around the ecosystem of this ancient redwood forest and the Klamath River that runs through it. According to Afar, 45 percent of the world’s massive old-growth coastal redwoods are in the Yurok’s aboriginal territory in northern California. The tribe’s more than 5,000 enrolled members mostly live on its narrow reservation, which runs along the lower 44 miles of the Klamath and stretches a single mile from each side of the river. Redwood National and State Parks border the reservation to the west. The tribe recently opened the Yurok Country Visitor Center and began offering canoe tours through the heart of the reservation. Their site reports, “Unchanged for thousands of years, the Yurok dugout canoe, Oohl’-we’-yoch, honors the tallest trees on Earth by giving them new life as our most prized creations.”
“You’ll be getting into a canoe that we’ve used since time immemorial,” Linda Cooley, a Yurok tribal citizen and its deputy director of Economic Development told Afar. “You’ll hear the history of the Yurok Tribe and the Yurok people, and you’ll hear about the canoe itself. Our canoes have hearts and lungs and kidneys, and we believe it’s a living spirit. It’s the first time we’re opening up our culture like this to tourists.”
Of the approximately 10 dugout redwood canoes in existence, the canoe pictured here is one of the only two available to the public
2. See The Buffalo
Once 30-60 million American bison, commonly known as buffalo, thundered across the Great Plains of North America. The continent’s largest animals can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, measure six feet high at the shoulder, and run as fast as a horse. The connection between plains tribes and the buffalo goes deep, with many Indigenous people considering them members of the family. “We’re Lakota people and that means we’re buffalo people,” Wizipan Little Elk, the CEO of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), the economic arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, told press earlier this year. “They’ve always taken care of us, and we need to take care of them.”
The U.S. government slaughtered tens of millions of buffalo in the 1800s, exploiting that mutually beneficial connection between the tribes and buffalo in its brutal genocidal campaign against Native American tribes like the Lakota, Shoshone, Blackfeet, and Assiniboine. Hunted to near extinction, buffalo are being reintroduced to reservations, reestablishing an essential cultural connection — and incidentally giving travelers more opportunities to see wild herds outside of Yellowstone National Park (located in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana).
On a 4,300-acre range on the Fort Hall Reservation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes manage a herd of 270 that was started in 1963 when the southeast Idaho tribes purchased 25 buffalo. Other restoration efforts are much newer. In 2016, the Eastern Shoshone tribe welcomed buffalo back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the first time in over 130 years. The Sicangu Lakota Oyate established the Wolakota Buffalo Range on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, intent on hosting more than 1,200 bison on 27,680 acres of native grassland. This will be the largest North American herd managed by Indigenous people. In Montana, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes have more than 300 bison as part of a restoration effort on Fort Peck Reservation, while the state’s Blackfeet Nation (one of the largest Native tribes in the country) has even loftier goals. Their Iinnii Initiative — their name for buffalo — has received 89 bison from Elk Island in Canada, the first step to restore bison not just to their reservation, but also to Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks, as well as the Blood Tribe Reservation in Canada — making it the first international bison herd in over a century.
A bison appears ghost-like in the pre-dawn light at Custer State Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered as part of a genocidal campaign against American Indians. Nearly extinct by the late 1800’s, today only a few thousand buffalo live on Native lands.
3. Road Trip Through South Dakota
According to a report earlier this year by Arrivalist, a leading mobile geolocation company, South Dakota leads the nation in road trips. The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Omaha, and are one of the state’s biggest draws. To the Lakota, they are Paha Sapa, literally the heart of everything that is. In the rolling forested highlands of the Black Hills, archaeological sites show evidence of more than 10,000 years of Indigenous inhabitance. But many visitors to the region’s most famous destination — Mount Rushmore National Monument — know little of that history. Part of the Native American Tourism Development and Management Plan in South Dakota is fostering four road tripping routes “best-positioned to guide visitors from major tourism hubs to multiple Tribal Nation destinations.” Each of the routes (the Native American Scenic Byway, the Oyate Trail, the Yellowstone Trail, and the I-29 interstate corridor) offer distinct experiences.
The Native American Scenic Byway, which starts at Chief Standing Bear Bridge on the Nebraska border and runs all the way up to North Dakota (following a path cut by the Missouri River) is a must. You can explore the Narrows Recreation Area and Fort Thompson Mounds (burial sites on the Crow Creek Reservation) and visit monuments honoring Standing Rock, Sitting Bull, and Sacagawea. The Oyate Trail runs along the state’s southern edge, passing through the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Yankton Reservations. For cultural immersion visit the Oglala Lakota Living History Village in Cactus Flats, go horseback riding on Pine Ridge Reservation, or hike through Badlands National Park, where the Paleo Indians hunted 11,000 years ago at the end of the ice age. The White River Visitor Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation is managed in part by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The Yellowstone Trail follows Highway 12 across northern South Dakota, passing through Lake Traverse and Standing Rock Reservations. Explore the unique architecture of Agency Village or visit the Timber Lake & Area Museum or the Standing Rock Institute of Natural History. The Interstate 29 route travels through Eastern South Dakota, and through Flandreau and Lake Traverse Reservations. You can detour to the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, a culturally and spiritually significant active site, where Native Americans still quarry red pipestone.
First light at Badlands National Park, South Dakota
4. Visit the Four Corners
The Four Corners region where the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona meet, is rich with vibrant Native communities as well as American Indian archaeological and cultural sites, such as the aboriginal homes of the Ancestral Puebloans, Navajo, Hopi, and Ute tribes. The complex civilization of the Ancestral Puebloans flourished a thousand years ago throughout the Southwest, inhabiting sites like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly (right). These protected historical sites remain culturally important for the descendants of those tribes. Four Corners Monument Visitor Center is a year-round destination celebrating Native culture.
About 13,000 Hopi live on the reservation in Arizona. Hopi craftsmakers are known for their pottery, paintings, Katsina (kachina) dolls, weavings, yucca baskets, and jewelry. The village of Oraibi on the Third Mesa dates to 1100 and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States. Stop at the Hopi Cultural Center, a museum, hotel, and restaurant. Tours of the mesas must be accompanied by a Hopi tour guide (the hotel has lists of local guides). Visit Chaco Canyon’s cliff dwellings and see the Great Kiva (a Hopi word for a large, circular room, usually underground).
The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States, stretching across 16 million acres, or about 25,000 square miles. Take a Navajo guided horseback tour through Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, where ancient petroglyphs are etched into the stone, and view the White House Ruins. Established in 1931, the monument is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. The 17-mile Valley Drive through Monument Valley offers one of the most photographed spots in the U.S. thanks to the frequent appearance of the towering sandstone buttes in Western movies.
To enter Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands, you must have a Ute guide. Ute guided full and half-day tours showcase ancient pictographs and petroglyphs, and the geological formations of the Southwest. Begin at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park Visitor Center, which is 20 miles south of Cortez, Colorado. If you’re able-bodied, take the Casa Colorado and Casa Blanca Cliff Dwelling Tour, which includes a drive through Mesa Verde National Park and across to the Ute Mountain Reservation, then involves a vigorous 2 mile, 5-hour hike to cliff dwellings.
Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, Ancestral Puebloan White House Ruins are just one of the incredible sites in the Four Corners region
5. Go North
The name “Canada” is based on the Huron-Iroquois word kanata, which means “village.” In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier misinterpreted directions given to him to mean a region near modern-day Quebec City. Ultimately, Canada became the name for all the North American continent above the U.S. border. About two million Canadians (5 percent of the population) identify as Indigenous: First Nations, Inuit, or Métis. While half of those people live in cities, the other million are scattered across 630 First Nations and 50 Inuit communities. As in the U.S., each nation has a distinct culture, heritage, and (often) language, but there are similarities, including reverence for elders, oral traditions, and a connection to land and nature. There are a wide range of Indigenous tourism activities in Canada (check them out via destinationindigenous.ca). June 21 is the country’s National Indigenous Peoples Day.
In Vancouver, a favorite destination for LGBTQ+ travelers, you’ll find Indigenous art galleries and First Nation museums. But for a deeper experience, employ Indigenous guides like those from Talaysay Tours, who lead walks that explore Indigenous traditions and medicinal plants, or share stories about the Stanley Park Totem Poles. Paddle through the waters around the city in a replica of a traditional ocean-going canoe with Takaya Tours, and learn about the customs of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Overnight at Skwachàys Aboriginal Lodge and Gallery, Canada’s first Indigenous arts hotel. The Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery, which features Indigenous artwork, is on the ground floor and each of the 18 guest suites were designed by local Indigenous artists and Vancouver interior designers to share First Nations stories. While in town, savor Indigenous foods like bison, candied salmon, and bannock (similar to fry bread) at the Indigenous-owned and operated Salmon n’ Bannock or sample Indigenous fusion tacos and venison burgers from Mr. Bannock food truck.
Totem poles in Vancouver British Columbia’s Stanley Park
6. Go to The Market
Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest American Indian arts market in the world, brings together more than 1,200 Indigenous artists who display and sell their arts and crafts. Put on by the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (swaia.org), the Saturday, August 20, 2022, event will be the 100th annual gathering. There are also other markets in other states including July’s American Festival and Basketmakers Market in Bar Harbor, Maine. You can buy directly from artists and learn about the cultures of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot people (renowned Two-Spirt basket maker Geo Soctomah Neptune is Passamaquoddy).
Artist Kathleen Wall, of the Jemez Pueblo of New Mexico, speaks with a customer during the 98th annual Santa Fe Indian Market. It hosts 1,200 Native American artists and draws crowds of up to 150,000 annually
7. Attend a Powwow
Respectfully celebrate Native American Indigenous culture through music, dance, American Indian crafts, and Native food at one of the many powwows held around the country. Whether you attend a specifically LGBTQ+ version (like the Annual Two-Spirit Powwow in San Francisco held by baaits.org) or attend an all-inclusive one, these are amazing cultural performances open to the public. Each South Dakota tribal nation holds annual wacipis (powwows) during the summer. The Annual Thunderbird American Indian Powwow at Queens County Farm is New York City’s largest and oldest (celebrating 43 years this July), with more than 40 tribes in attendance. The Gathering of Nations is the largest powwow in North America, held each April in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and includes the Miss Indian World competition, a trader’s market, and a horse parade.
Dauwila Harrison (left), of the Din, Pomo, and Paiute tribes, and Teresa Littlebird, of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, pose during the Two-Spirit Powwow in San Francisco, hosted by the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits
8. Visit Sites in or Near Popular LGBTQ+ destinations
One of the great things about being in North America is that Native Americans exist everywhere across this country, and you don’t have to go far afield to find ways to explore this nation’s Indigenous origins. Visiting Provincetown or Cape Cod? Let Native Plymouth Tours’ guides take you on a walking tour to learn more about who was here before the pilgrims landed on that rock. Like Palm Springs? The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians will soon open a new multi-million-dollar cultural center in downtown. Enjoying the beaches of Fort Lauderdale? Learn more about the Seminole Tribe at the new Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum or tour the Florida Everglades by airboat with the Native-owned Billie Swamp Safari (on hiatus during the pandemic) on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, where you can also sleep in a Seminole chickee house and listen to Seminole stories around a campfire. In upstate New York you can book a two-day Akwesasne Cultural Tour by Saint Regis Mohawk, which takes travelers across the Canadian border to learn about the area’s unique geography, history, and Mohawk culture; you’ll also meet local artisans and get to sample Native foods (the tribe also offers several immersive online tours). There are over a hundred Native American museums, but the most comprehensive collections are found at Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, which has two branches, one in Washington, D.C., the other in New York City. The latter houses 800,000 items from more than 1,200 Indigenous cultures and is currently featuring a “Native New York” exhibit.
David Young of Boulder, Colorado spreads out offerings upon an altar to be used during a Native American healing ceremony. Young is part of a support group for LGBTQ+ American Indians called the Two-Spirit Society
9. Get Lei’d in Hawaii
Over 150,000 Kānaka Maoli — Native Hawaiians — still live on the islands today. Celebrate their culture by joining the annual King Kamehameha Celebration on June 11 in Oahu, which honors the monarch who united the Hawaiian Islands. Visit the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on U.S. soil, or view the Bishop Museum’s exhibits on Hawaiian culture and history in one place. Take a lei-making class at one of the islands’ botanical gardens and learn to create the beloved Polynesian flower garlands.
Native Hawaiian man holding a torch on a beach
10. Go Dog Sledding in Alasak
A living cultural center in Anchorage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center supports and celebrates all of Alaska’s Native cultures, including Iñupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Unangax̂, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, and Cup’ik. It offers numerous opportunities for tourists including living village sites, immersive educational programs, permanent collections, and sometimes even dog sled rides.