Weary of being portrayed as icons of our lost frontier, American Indians have a message: come visit.
A windy slope overlooking wheat fields in the wild plateaus of eastern Oregon may seem an odd place for a welcome center. But Roberta Conner, who directs the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, four miles east of Pendleton, says its location along the Oregon Trail makes sense.
"We've been welcoming strangers here for 199 years," she says. The Tamástslikt is one of a growing number of museums dedicated to telling the story of the American West from the perspective of the Native peoples who were prospering here in 1805 when a ragged band of explorers showed up. "My ancestors met the Lewis and Clark expedition," Conner says. "But when I was growing up here 30 years ago, there were no exhibits about the people of the plateau." The 7-year-old museum, owned and oper-ated by the three plateau nations in eastern Oregon that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (the Walla Walla, the Cayuse, and the Umatilla), aims to fill that gap. (Tamástslikt, pronounced tuh-MUSS-likt, is a Walla Walla word meaning "interpret.")
It is worth noting that the tribes' Wildhorse Casino provided seed money for the institute. Since the passage of the U.S. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, nearly half of the 562 federally recognized American Indian tribes have embraced commercial gambling as a tool for economic growth. But, Conner says, for many people now working in tribal tourism, "Casinos are a means to an end, not the end itself."
Casino profits have helped other tribes to open their doors to tourists with luxury hotels and spas, golf courses, and resorts, as well as museums or cultural centers. In the case of the Umatilla confederacy, the gaming windfall allowed the tribes to spend $18 million constructing a first-rate interpretive museum.
Using multimedia exhibits, the Tamástslikt reveals a tapestry of tribal experiences. These are not dry artifacts under glass. Displays—about cayuse ponies, creation legends, Indian boarding schools, treaties, and much more—are bathed in the recorded sounds of local animals and rivers. Horses whinny and ravens caw. Audio and video anecdotes and oral histories from members of the three tribes tell modern tales, too. Captions appear in tribal languages and in English.
Between galleries, floor-to-ceiling windows draw in vistas of wheat fields, sagebrush, and the Blue Mountains. "We believe that the past is alive in our oral histories, and we want to keep it and our languages alive," explains Conner. She completed an MBA program in 1984 at the University of Oregon, then worked in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento before returning home in 1997 to direct the Tamástslikt. "But," she adds, "we want visitors to know we've moved forward in time. We're not stuck on the reservation; this is a remnant of our homeland and our story in our words."
Travelers who aren't that keen on museums can still find compelling attractions on reservations around the West. Some tribes even offer you pampering. The peaceful Kah-Nee-Ta High Desert Resort & Casino on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon is a dozen miles from the nearest highway (and from its cultural outpost, the award-winning Museum at Warm Springs; see page 41). The resort's lodge crowns a ridge overlooking canyons, rivers, and mountains. Visitors ride horses or take the waters of natural hot springs. At the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino in Lakeside, Calif., a 30-minute drive inland from San Diego, golf is the highlight. The Barona Band of Mission Indians opened the resort three years ago with a golf course framed by desert mountains that has earned rave reviews from Golf Magazine, Golfweek, and other publications.
In one of the splashiest offerings in recent years, the Pima and Maricopa tribes of the Gila River Indian Com-munity opened Wild Horse Pass Resort in 2002 in the Sonoran Desert on the outskirts of Phoenix. Linking the hotel to its casino is a 2.5-mile-long replicated stretch of the Gila River, with flowing water, native plants, and attendant wildlife. A herd of wild mustangs roams the 372,000-acre property, which includes the Indian-owned hotel managed by Sheraton, a 36-hole golf course, an equestrian center, and a spa that offers treatments based on Pima and Maricopa beliefs.
Nongaming reservations have also begun to see heritage tourism as a route to economic independence. Lorentino Lalio, who served as New Mexico's director of Indian tourism and now works in business development for the Zuni Pueblo near Gallup, N.M., says that the boons of tourism go beyond the financial. Interpretive centers such as the Tamástslikt, he says, help preserve and revive individual tribal cultures for the next generation through classes in language, arts, and traditional skills. These centers also help build bridges to the non-Native world by allowing indigenous communities to tell their stories without feeling invaded and to share parts of their culture without sacrificing their sacred traditions.
Some pueblos still lock visitors out during religious festivals or holidays, but the Zuni instead hold an orientation for tourists that offers guidance about what is and isn't permitted. Echoing the sentiment of the tribes whose cultural riches are described on the following pages, Lalio says, "We want you to come visit us. Just respect our culture when you come."
MUSEUMS THAT TELL A STORY
Family heirlooms, photographs, and other irreplaceable artifacts from the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Paiute nations were disappearing into private collections when, in the 1960s, farsighted tribal elders urged their respective governments in central Oregon to start buying back the valuables. Some $7.6 million later, the 11-year-old MUSEUM AT WARM SPRINGS (541-553-3331, www.warmsprings.biz/museum) in Warm Springs, Ore., houses more than 4,200 culturally significant objects in what is now one of the most extensive Indian-owned collections in the United States.
More than 300 intricately beaded bags rotate through the exhibits, along with deer-tail dresses made of buckskin trimmed with glass beadwork and fur, decorated saddles made of elk horn and rawhide, and colorful Wasco sally bags woven from dyed cornhusk and hemp and worn around the waist by women gathering roots. Attached to most items is the owner's name and story. Before you leave, walk the nature trail outside the front door as it meanders through towering cottonwoods and alongside the swirling Shitike Creek. You can almost hear the salmon jumping.
Many other fine regional museums not affiliated with Native groups—including the HIGH DESERT MUSEUM (541-382-4754, www.high desertmuseum.org) in Bend, Ore., and the HEARD MUSEUM (602-252-8848, www.heard .org) in Phoenix—now consult tribes as a matter of course when creating displays. As a result, the stories their exhibits tell are more richly textured than ever before.
Among the new museums that are consulting with Native peoples is the Smithsonian Institution's much-anticipated NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN (202-633-1000, www.nmai.si.edu). It's set to open September 21 with events and festivities on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum showcases the cultural achievements of indigenous peoples in all three Americas—North, Central, and South.
A catastrophic mud slide in the 17th or 18th century on the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, home to the Makah tribe, entombed part of the whaling village of Ozette, much the way Italy's Mount Vesuvius buried 1st-century Pompeii. Today more than 55,000 artifacts of daily and ceremonial life from a moment frozen in time are part of the collection of the MAKAH CULTURAL AND RESEARCH CENTER (360-645-2711, www.makah.com) in Neah Bay, Wash. Among the items found are whaling gear, tool pouches, and a cedar carving of an orca's dorsal fin studded with some 700 otter teeth.
Two interactive centers in Alaska emphasize the present as well as the past. The ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER (800-315-6608, www.alaskanative.net), opened in 1999 in Anchorage, highlights the state's 11 distinct indigenous cultures through performances, workshops, and art. At re-created village sites you can take a Yupik language lesson, sit in on a Tlingit beading class, play Inupiat games, and learn how the Athabascans use the moose, all in one day.
At SAXMAN NATIVE VILLAGE (www.capefoxtours.com) near Ketchikan, Alaska, members of the Tlingit Nation invite visitors to hear about life in a 19th-century winter clan house, join a traditional dance, or watch master woodworkers train apprentices in a carving shed down the road.
In this age of big-budget spectacles, many smaller attractions still offer some of the best travel experiences. Here are three such Native spots in the Grand Canyon State.
HOPI CULTURAL CENTER Second Mesa, Ariz. Tour the museum and the centuries-old villages. Share a meal and stay overnight in reasonably priced lodgings to gain a better understanding of a people who have occupied the same land continuously for at least 1,000 years. Fine pottery, weavings, and kachina dolls are among the arts and crafts the Hopi are noted for. (928) 734-2401, www.hopiculturalcenter.com.
NAVAJO CODE TALKERS EXHIBIT Kayenta, Ariz. Private First Class King Mike battled in Okinawa with the Sixth Marine Division during World War II. He was a member of the elite cadre of Navajo soldiers who used a code based on their language to foil Japanese who eavesdropped on U.S. military communications in the Pacific.
Today his son, Richard, is building a Navajo heritage park in Kayenta that will eventually house, amid other artifacts, King Mike's collection of code talker memorabilia. In the meantime, you can find a brief history of the Navajo code talkers, along with an eye-catching selection of old photographs, documents, helmets, and flags, displayed in a gallery at the Burger King owned by Richard Mike, 25 miles south of Monument Valley. (928) 697-3534.
NAVAJO VILLAGE HERITAGE CENTER Page, Ariz. You would be hard-pressed to find a better introduction to Navajo, or Diné (pronounced din-NEH), culture than this rather low-key re-creation of a traditional Navajo homesite near Lake Powell. Navajo historian-activist Wally Brown, an accomplished silversmith, worked with his colleagues to create a center in 1997 that would educate community members as well as visitors about the Diné language and Navajo traditions regarding hogans, sweat lodges, weaving, cooking, storytelling, and dancing. Share a meal of Navajo tacos and listen to Brown tell stories as you sit around the campfire. (928) 660-0304, navajo-village.com.
Guided hikes through oases or past ancient pueblos; overnights in tepees or hogans; and rafting, birding, and hunting trips are just a few of the recreational opportunities available on Indian lands.
ANTELOPE HOUSE TOURS Chinle, Ariz. Awake to twittering birds within the sandstone cathedral that is Canyon de Chelly. Navajo silversmith Adam Teller and his family lead camping trips, horseback rides, and 4x4 tours. (928) 674-5231, www.canyondechelly.net.
INDIAN CANYONS Palm Springs, Calif. The world's largest wild stands of desert fan-palm trees shelter birds, wildlife, and grateful humans in the lush canyon oases of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Walk to misty waterfalls and scenic lookouts or take a ranger-led tour in Tahquitz Canyon. (800) 790-3398, www.indian-canyons.com. Don't miss the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum. (760) 323-0151, www.aguacaliente.org.
UTE MOUNTAIN TRIBAL PARK Towaoc, Colo. Less crowded than the nearby Mesa Verde National Park, this mountainous reservation boasts spectacular cliff dwellings, pictographs, and haunting geological formations. Guided 4x4 and walking tours are available. (800) 847-5485, www.utemountainute.com.
TRAILHANDLER TOURS Monument Valley, Ariz. Harold Simpson's Navajo tour company offers overnight stays in a hogan as well as cultural talks, guided day hikes, wilderness camping, or Jeep tours through the red rock of Monument Valley. (435) 727-3362, www.trailhandlertours.com.
WHITE MOUNTAIN APACHE RESERVATION Whiteriver, Ariz. Some of the biggest trophy elk in the United States make their home in the forests of the 1.6-million-acre White Mountain Apache Reservation (also called the Fort Apache Reservation), which they share with black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and Mexican wolves. Stop by the Apache Cultural Center or take a backcountry safari. Fish for trout in secluded lakes and streams or take a rafting or canyoneering trip through the rugged Salt River Canyon. Guided hunts for big game are offered in season. (877) 338-9628.
WHAT TO DO—AND NOT DO
America's many indigenous peoples are variously represented by more than 550 nations, reservations, pueblos, rancherias, and villages, according to Native Tourism (www.nativeamericanchamber.com), a national program of the Western American Indian Chamber.
You can find tips on etiquette for visiting Indian lands at the program's Web site. These include such courtesies as asking permission before taking photographs or recording events. Also note that many dances and ceremonies taking place on a reservation are religious in nature and are not to be photographed. If you're invited to attend a ceremony, dress modestly, observe quietly, don't applaud, and refrain from touching ceremonial clothing, or regalia. Unless invited, don't enter sweat lodges, kivas, cemeteries, or homes. The Web site lists many more tips, as well as a directory of Native American–owned lodgings, tour companies, museums, and other businesses.
Other helpful resources include:
- News from Native California, a quarterly magazine on California Indians, (510) 549-3564, www.heydaybooks.com/news.
- Native Peoples of the Northwest, by Jan Halliday and Gail Chehak with the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Sasquatch Books.
- Native Peoples, a bimonthly magazine covering the arts and culture of Native Americans, (888) 262-8483, ext. 100.
- Indian Country Tourism, a group that coordinates tours throughout the West, (303) 661-9819.
POWWOWS AND GATHERINGS
The model for today's powwow, which often includes competitive dancing and drumming, was developed by the Plains tribes. California Indians use the terms gathering or big time for their get-togethers, which are spiritual in nature—dances are done to honor elders. Here's a small sampling of these lively social events, open to the public, around the West.
NUMGA INDIAN DAYS Sparks, Nev., September 3 to 5. Events include golf and hand-game tournaments. (775) 329-2936.
STOCKTON COMMUNITY POWWOW Stockton, Calif., September 3 to 5. Some 90 tribes from California and around the country attend.
MARIN MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN TRADE FEAST Novato, Calif., September 11 and 12. Learn how hides are tanned and how native plants are used. (415) 897-4064, www.marinindian.com.
INDIAN GRINDING ROCK STATE HISTORIC PARK BIG TIME Pine Grove, Calif., September 25 and 26. This traditional Miwok celebration signals the harvest of the acorn. (209) 296-7488, www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=553.
NEZ PERCE NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK BEAR PAW COMMEMORATION Chinook, Mont., October 2. Rituals include tribes sharing a peace pipe to observe the final battle of the Nez Perce war. (208) 843-2261, www.nps.gov/nepe.
STATE INDIAN MUSEUM ACRON DAY Sacramento, October 16. Diana Almendariz, a Maidu interpreter, demonstrates how to make acorn mush. (916) 324-0971.
GATHERING OF NATIONS POWWOW Albuquerque, N.M., April 29 and 30, 2005. More than 500 tribes represent the United States and Canada at this event. (505) 836-2810, www.gatheringofnations.com.
STANFORD UNIVERSITY POWWOW Palo Alto, Calif., May 6 to 8, 2005. The largest powwow on the West Coast is in its 34th year. (650) 723-4078, powwow.stanford.edu/.
CHICO POWWOW Chico, Calif., June 19 and 20, 2005. Dedicated to the healing of addictions among Native Americans. (530) 898-8516.