While some people prefer to keep Columbus Day about Christopher Columbus, we like the sound of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The alternative holiday was officially recognized for the first time back in 1992 in Berkeley, California in order to give credit to the enduring cultures that inhabited this continent long before 1492. These days, cities in California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Minnesota, as well as the entire state of South Dakota celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Here are some of our favorite places to gain perspective on the culture of the people who were here long before most of us.
In addition to being stunningly beautiful, the Colorado Plateau has been inhabited by American Indian tribal communities for the past 12,000 years. The region straddles the four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, and these days remains rich in Indian culture. While the annual Gathering of Nations powwow and festival in Albuquerque is held in late summer, the Pueblo Cultural Center museum and community space, owned and operated by the 19 Indian pueblos of New Mexico, hosts festivals and events year-round. The Cultural Center holds an Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration with films, panels and activities. A visit to Taos Pueblo, the northernmost of 19 pueblos and a UNESCO heritage site, is another way to connect with and learn about pueblo culture. It is inhabited by the Red Willow tribal community who open up their home to visitors during the week.
Although the Heard Museum, in Phoenix, Arizona doesn’t host a celebration for the holiday, the museum is a can’t-miss experience in American Indian art, history and culture and maintains the personal perspective of tribal communities in the American Southwest. Another fantastic experience in American Indian art and history, and specifically that of the Colorado Plateau, is just a few hours north in Flagstaff, Arizona at the Museum of Northern Arizona.
But museums aren’t the only place to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and luckily the spectacular landscape of the Colorado Plateau just begs to be experienced. The Grand Canyon’s international renown often overshadows the connection that native tribal communities share with the land; but, in fact, a hike through the canyon can be an opportunity to learn more about the Havasupai community that lives at the base of the canyon. While not as big or famous as the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona has real soul. The canyon is a national monument that is entirely on Navajo tribal trust land, and while parts are free and open to the public, an official guide is required for all other parts of the canyon—which really just deepens the experience.
If you’re looking for the highly celebrated art of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver is the place to be. The city is brimming with museums and galleries, and First Nations art is visible throughout city spaces and clearly influences much of the architecture and design. The Museum of Anthropology, Canada’s largest teaching museum, has a vast collection of anthropological artifacts from around the world, but the collection of art and artifacts from tribal cultures of the Pacific Northwest is, of course, particularly fantastic. Also on display is a collection of contemporary First Nations artwork featuring famous Canadian First Nations artists such as Bill Reid, Dough Cranmer and Teddy Balanga. Bill Reid’s fantastic bronze statues and highly detailed gold and silver jewelry are also featured at the eponymous Bill Reid Gallery, along with rotating exhibitions by guest artists. While strolling through the city, keep an eye out for First Nations-inspired facades on buildings, and don’t skip a stroll in Stanley Park where you can find a grove of 10 totem poles at Brockton point, each with its own story and legacy.
Washington D.C and New York
Even the architecture and indigenous landscaping of Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, pays tribute to the sensibilities of Indian culture—from the east-facing entrance, to the curved facade that evokes wind-worn rock and the way the grounds and surrounding nature are considered an extension of the building. The cafe is named in the language of the Piscataway peoples, native to Delaware and the museum itself is home to one of the largest collections of Native American arts and artifacts that hail from as far north as Canada and all the way down through South America. The National Museum of the American Indian also has a branch in New York City that integrates art, film and music into its collection.
The Red Earth Museum in Oklahoma City, a community art space as well as a museum, is home to a fantastic collection of American Indian art that tells the story and culture of Oklahoma’s 38 tribal communities in both traditional and contemporary contexts. And in 2017, keep an eye out for the opening of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum—a project which has been in the works since 1994 and is set to be a highly unique and interactive experience.