A few weeks ago, my friend Felix (a proud Chicagoan) came to Oklahoma for the first time, and we decided to visit nearly every museum Oklahoma City—the largest place I’ve ever lived in—had to offer. One of our last stops was the First Americans Museum (FAM). We decided to save it for the end of our trip, because we both knew it would be a more somber experience for me (an Indigenous person and native Oklahoman) than say, the American Pigeon Museum & Library.
Opened in 2021 and dedicated to telling the collective histories of Oklahoma’s 39 distinct First American Nations, FAM was thoughtfully curated, but it was indeed an emotionally difficult visit. (It was a little physically hard, too—I tripped on my way in, skinned both my knees, and twisted my wrist. I thought to myself how it would have been more appropriate to embarrass myself at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, not here.)
As we walked through the exhibits, which focused on things like Indigenous humor, what stereotypes of “Indians” looked like historically, and Natives in the Olympics, I could feel the tears coming.
But the exhibit that struck me most was Winiko: Life of an Object, where artifacts “on loan” from the Smithsonian were displayed. In truth, they were taken from tribal peoples in Oklahoma more than a century ago. Collected from their rightful homes, to me, these objects had still managed to retain their spirits, like living things.
In the displays, I saw dresses made with ribbons, embroidered stag motifs, and beaded jewelry. And I also saw recognizable facets of my culture and the cultures of those I have met, worked with, and loved. I saw my hometown on a map of Oklahoma, of Indian Territory (a historical term that refers to the land reserved for the forced resettlement of Native Americans), and the Cherokee Nation Reservation. I thought about my father, my Native parent, a few years gone, who is somehow less removed from me in death than he was in life. When I was a child, I thought of my identity as a bisected thing, something cleaved in two. The Cherokee portion was something I thought I would never fully understand or come to know. Instead of dwelling on that memory of childhood, though, I focused my attention on things I thought he might have enjoyed the most: the star maps, the creation stories, the stickball sticks.
Later, Felix and I sat down to lunch and shared our favorite parts of the day with one another. I told him, truthfully, that it is still hard for me to talk and write about Native experiences. Native and Indigenous people may have a shared identity, but we are also not a monolith. We are different tribes, different peoples, though we have suffered so much of the same silence, the same involuntary, violent removals from our ancestral lands, and the same disregard. Still, I want to believe that people are good. That if you tell them how to be better, to be more respectful, that they will try.
I don’t think I am the only one who struggles with talking about Indigenous issues, and even though I am so close to them, I still suffer from a lack of information. I’ve put together the following tips, so that travelers can experience Native cultures respectfully and support Indigenous communities while doing so.
1) Be aware of whose land you’re on
Did you know that 27 Indigenous tribes have historical connections to the land encompassing and surrounding Yellowstone National Park?
Forcefully removed from the land, or worse, murdered, Native people once called what are now U.S. national parks their homelands or territories—and it’s important to know whose land you’re on. As Ojibwe writer David Treur put it, “Viewed from the perspective of history, Yellowstone is a crime scene.” (If you’re unsure how to find out who originally inhabited an area, websites and apps like Native Land Digital can point you in the right direction, whether you’re on the road or at home.)
All of that seemingly well-meaning conservation came at a serious cost: Theodore Roosevelt is often seen as one of America’s most beloved presidents and a champion of the outdoors. During his time in office, he rubber-stamped 150 national forests, 18 national monuments, five national parks, four national game preserves, and 51 bird “reservations” (I use scare quotes here in Treur’s vein), all on or out of Indigenous lands. In an 1886 speech, Roosevelt said “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” He saw Native peoples as a pesky, inconvenient barrier to the settlement of the West.
But despite the park system’s dark history, big changes are happening in conjunction with the Land Back movement, which seeks to return lands to their original stewards. The National Park Service has made large improvements to the information they present about occupied lands, no longer painting parks as vast, undiscovered wilderness, untouched by human hands. Some parks are even beginning to forge co-mangement agreements with local tribes. For example, Acadia National Park is working on a multi-year project with the Wabanaki Nations of Maine that allows the community to once again harvest sweetgrass, a cool season grass that’s traditionally used for smudging and basket weaving, after a nearly 100-year ban. And in Mount Rainier National Park, the Nisqually Tribe is researching three species of plants that the tribe has long harvested; their findings will be jointly presented with the park.
Before visiting a national park (and other places like them), one should gather information about the land directly from tribes as often as possible—tribal websites are a great resource for this. Think about how the native plants were ethically harvested and used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Remember that the land was once carefully stewarded for centuries through methods like controlled burns. Being mindful of the past can add a layer of depth to visitors’ experiences in the present—and a more truthful one.
2) Seek out Native history and culture while traveling
Fear of overstepping our bounds or offending others can often keep us from meaningfully engaging with other cultures or people. And, of course, this does and can happen. But I believe if you are responsible and are committed to listening more than you speak, then you can’t go wrong. When traveling, always make an effort to seek out tribal museums or organizations with tribal ties.
For example, my ancestral homelands encompass the Great Smoky Mountains (my tribe, and many others, were made to relocate to Oklahoma, walking what is now known as the Trail of Tears), which run along the Tennessee–North Carolina border. Many visitors come to the area to experience the quaintness of Gatlinburg or embark on a long hike. But they could also take a tour of Oconaluftee Indian Village, which has a mission of educating visitors about how the surrounding mountains are the home of a still-living people who continue advocating to keep their sacred sites sacred. Visitors are being given the wonderful privilege of experiencing that home. One of my favorite daily events is the variety of traditional dances that all are welcome to join—even if you have no rhythm, like me, you won’t feel awkward participating.
While visiting a cultural center or historical village, ask questions—this gives guides and historically disadvantaged members of the community a chance to tell their stories and to engage in the art of oral tradition. It also shows that you, the visitor, are fully engaged and receptive to hearing what is being taught and said.
There are questions that shouldn’t be asked, of course, things like How much Indian are you? or Can you tell me if I’m Native? But those are easily avoided and not half as much fun to hear the answer to.
3) Always ask permission first—act later
A key quality of being a good traveler anywhere is to heed appropriate rules of conduct. This is especially important in areas that may have once been, or may still be, sites of ceremony, violence, birth, death, or other major events. Usually, behavioral expectations will be made clear, whether by signs, infographics, or by a guide—read and listen with intent.
Seasoned adventurers may feel they already know a thing or two. But remember: Each Native community is a unique culture with its own rules, customs, and governance. If there’s ever a time when something is unclear, simply ask. Liberties taken elsewhere could be deeply disrespectful in the context of an Indigenous community. For example, in Hopi culture, photography during ceremonies is seen as incredibly disruptive. In my own culture, I was taught not to read aloud or speak certain words, lest I call something awake. A good rule of thumb is: Unless you are invited, don’t try to participate, just watch.
But all in all, travelers should carry a sense of gratitude with them. They should bask in the strength and endurance of Indigenous communities, which have survived, thrived, and grown, despite it all. It is especially important to visit these places in light of the pandemic, which caused Native tourism to sharply decline. Alongside the quarantine lockdowns many of us participated in, tribal communities such as the Navajo were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to a lack of resources, infrastructure, and assistance.
Now as we enter the world again, more knowledgeable and empathetic, we remember that travel can be not only a way to connect with these communities but to uplift them as well.