History is filled with stories of Indigenous tribes in what we now call the United States. While we are continually gaining more context around those stories, the conversations about Native Americans are typically in the past tense. But Sherry L. Rupert (Paiute/Washoe), CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), says that despite misconceptions, Native culture isn’t a historic culture or a thing of the past.
“Native Nations and communities are active, vibrant, rich places to visit with their own language, their own artisans, and their own songs, dance, and food,” says Rupert.
According to Reclaiming Native Truth, a nonprofit project dedicated to empowering Native Americans and dispelling harmful misconceptions, 78 percent of Americans reported wanting to learn more about Native peoples, their histories, cultures, and contemporary stories. And there’s a lot more to learn. Today, there are 546 federally recognized tribes and countless more that are not. Here’s how to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with Indigenous cultures domestically.
Begin where you are
The resource map Native Land is a good starting point to see what Indigenous lands you live on. There are cultural centers and websites, such as NativeAmerica.travel, the AIANTA’s travel experience website, which features Native-owned and tribally owned businesses and experiences.
“Once you learn about Indigenous histories and think about Indigenous futures in places, it really starts to change the way that you see them,” says Jolie Varela (Nüümü Hupi/Yokuts), founder of Indigenous Women Hike, an initiative to reconnect the land and its original people. “And once they [travelers] learn that history, I think it opens a whole door for them. And then it just leads to being more mindful.”
Research the history of your destination
Thanks to online media, it’s easier than ever to find information about anything. Googling goes a long way, but with all the research we do when traveling outside of the United States, we often forget to think about cultural differences when traveling within the states. There are important differences and historical context from region to region, and that is especially true in terms of Indigenous tribes.
“People don’t often do their research when they go to places, so they don’t know who the first people of those lands are,” says Varela. “Research ‘I’m going to be on Nüümü and Shoshone lands, these are the places that I can go to learn more about the land, and I can stop and get my gas here, and I can go and have lunch here. Or I can hire a Native guide, to take me around the land and to learn.’”
Reading up on the Indigenous communities that live on the land will set you up for a more educated travel experience, and it can open up activities you may not have known were available. A few books that Varela recommends to gain a base understanding of the Indigenous experience are As Long As Grass Grows by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence, and Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson. They also suggest following social media accounts, such as @NavajoDarling, @Native_Power_Rangers, and @IndigenousWomenHike.
Support Native-owned tours
There are many opportunities to learn about Indigenous cultures in any city as long as you know where to look. If you’re interested in a guided tour during your travels, look for a Native guide. Rupert compares the experience to a poetry reading, as you listen to a book read by an author versus someone else.
“Whether you visit a national park, an urban setting, a beach, or anywhere in between, that land once belonged to an Indigenous community,” Rupert says. “Learning more about Native Nations and communities from someone with family ties that date back generations provides you with a new travel lens while giving you a deeper understanding of the American experience.”
Travelers can use databases such as NativeAmerica.Travel to find Indigenous-run tourism activities and experiences. You can also see if there are any Indigenous cultural centers at your destination. These centers have resources and experts who can share information specific to your vacation destination.
Honor the land
Varela highlights the language we use when talking about the land. “The middle of nowhere, as people like to use that phrase, is still the center of one Nation’s universe—our creation stories, where we’re from.”
The way we talk about the land we’re on is important, and so is the way we treat it. Varela says honoring the land involves not desecrating petroglyphs and sacred spaces; it also means being aware of animal and plant relatives, or even simply picking up trash or not crushing the brush on a trail. Don’t stand on arches, as repeated weight weakens the structure and eventually destroys the arches. The level of respect is that of a guest visiting someone else’s home, and Varela says when you respect the land you are respecting the people too.
Having an awareness of the interconnectedness between humans and the rest of nature, Varela encourages a more reciprocal relationship. “When you come and you receive the good medicine from the land, think about what you’re going to give back.”
Pay a land tax
What’s one way to honor the original guardians of places we visit?
“Giving back to the community via monetary funds,” says Varela, who adds that money is a concrete way to support grassroots organizations and local communities.
“You should be uplifting and giving monetary donations to the First People who have always cared for that land so that you can come and visit it and see what it is today,” says Varela. “Without us, it would be a whole different story.”
She recommends looking up organizations, emailing the local tribal council, or even finding Indigenous activists to pay: “It’s not just about giving to nonprofits; you can also give to Indigenous front liners and activists and uplift them. And by helping those people who are already doing the work in their communities, you’re helping that whole community.”
>> Next: Why You Should Visit Indian Country
Note: Indian Country is an official term used by the American Indian Native Tourism Association, and includes reservations and Native-run destinations.