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Experience Native American Culture, History and Events in the Great American West

August 10, 2018 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

No visit to The Great American West would be complete without experiencing the culture and history of its Native American tribes. Dating back thousands of years, Indian American Heritage lives on through countless generations of Native American tribes who call the diverse landscapes of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming home. We thought we’d make a special issue highlighting some of the amazing Native American experiences, tours, destinations and events on offer in The Great American West.

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The Powwow (Celebration)
The Algonquin word “pau wau” was the Native American word some of the first Europeans associated with dancing. Although pau wau meant “he dreams” to the Algonquins, the term was eventually accepted by the Europeans to refer to dancing, later being spelled “powwow.”

Powwows were originally held in the springtime to celebrate the beginning of new life, but are now held throughout the year. The celebrations often have religious significance, but are also a time for people to gather, sing, dance, feast, pray, renew old friendships and make new ones. These celebrations are still an important part of life for many Native American.

The Grand Entry opens the parade of dancers and is a time for contestants to score points by displaying their style and regalia. Dancers always enter the arbour and dance sun-wise, or clockwise, around an eagle staff. The types of dance are as varied as the colours in the costumes.

North Dakota

There are approximately 30,000 American Indians living in North Dakota and Native Americans make up about 5 per cent of the current North Dakota population, more than double the national average. North Dakota’s tribes each have distinct origins, histories and languages but are known together as Plains Indians and their core beliefs stem from respecting the earth and understanding humans’ relationship with nature. North Dakota’s seven tribes still have tremendous influence on modern North Dakota and include the affiliated Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara; the Yanktonai, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Hunkpapa and other Dakotah/Lakotah (commonly known as the Sioux) Tribes; and the Pembina Chippewa, Cree and Metis. The name “Dakota” means “friend or ally” in the Lakota language and here you will be extended the hand of friendship and hospitality as you explore the reservations and discover what makes Native American culture so special.

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, New Town
To gain a richer understanding of Native American history, venture to Fort Berthold Indian Reservation which is home to the MHA Nation (three affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation). On the banks of the calm Missouri River you will see the intriguing Earthlodge Village, which is the family lodging unit of the MHA Nation. In 1837 a smallpox epidemic brought these tribes close to extinction, but the surviving Hidatsa and Mandan combined in 1845, with the Arikara also joining in 1862.

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, Bismarck
To explore both North Dakota’s military and Native American history, head to Bismarck’s Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park which was home to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh cavalry. They rode out from this fort to their expedition against the Sioux at the Little Big Horn. Various military buildings have been reconstructed, including Lt. Col. Custer’s last home called ‘Custer House’, the central barracks, stable and granary. The park also contains the On-A-Slant Indian Village which has five reconstructed Mandan Indian earthlodges.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Stanton
This site preserves the historic and archaeological remnants of bands of Hidatsa, Northern Plains Indians. There are visible remains of grassy dome-like earthlodge dwellings, cache pits and tra­vois trails.

Buffalo Trails Tour, Hettinger
A rugged section of Badlands, buttes and fertile grasslands, where cattle and sheep graze and deer and antelope still roam. This is a region bordered by the North and South Dakota towns of Hettinger, Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo and where the Lakota and Dakota people held the last hunts of the impressive, wild buffalo that once roamed the grasslands in great herds.

July 28: White Cloud Festival, Jamestown
August 4-7: Fort Union Trading Post Indian Arts Showcase, Williston
August 31-September 2: Turtle Mountain Chippewa Pembina Labor Day Powwow, Belcourt
September 7-9: United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) International Powwow, Bismarck
More information:

South Dakota

South Dakota is referred to as the Great Sioux Nation as it is the ancestral home of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota tribes. These tribes work in harmony to welcome visitors into their communities to educate and to share. Travel the Native American Scenic Byway and visit the tribal lands of the state’s nine Indian tribes. There are many exciting activities on offer here like viewing and buying authentic Native American art and craft, attending Rapid City’s annual Black Hills Powwow which brings in singers, dancers and drummers from all over the country, and seeing a huge Native American monument still being carved today.

Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer County

Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota has been under construction for the last 70 years and will be the world’s largest mountain carving when finished. This incredible carving will depict Crazy Horse, the powerful Native American leader of the Olgala Lakota, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Crazy Horse was a courageous defender of Native American culture and territory, and now represents the preservation of Native American culture and the freedom of their people.


Crazy Horse Memorial runs two main family friendly tours. The first is a 25-minute round trip via bus to the bottom of Mount Rushmore to see the amazing Crazy Horse Memorial up close, and the second is a van trip to the top of the Mountain to see the intricate carving from another viewpoint.

Badlands National Park
For incredible scenery head to Badlands National Park which has dramatic layered rock formations and canyons. Erosion of the Badlands has revealed sedimentary layers of different colours including red, orange, purple and yellow. The park is full of diverse wildlife including bison, whitetail deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, eagles and turtles. Stop at the local visitor center to see where battles were fought in the final days of the Indian Wars with interactive exhibits and fossilized animal casts. On the edge of Badlands National Park is the town of Wall where Wounded Knee Museum is located. This museum is a memorial to those killed at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 and has intriguing exhibits and a photo of a massacred Native American where visitors leave tokens like flowers and crosses.
Go on tour with Affordable Adventures for a seven-hour narrated tour through Badlands National Park and its surrounding Badlands. Alternatively, tour with Golden Circle Tours who take you on a seven-to-nine hour narrated van tour around Badlands National park and the Black Hills of South Dakota including Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park, and Crazy Horse Memorial.

Crazy Horse Memorial ‘Legends in Light’, the Black Hills
View this unique multimedia laser show at Crazy Horse Memorial that honours Native Americans. It will run nightly from May 25-September 30 this year.
Black Hills Powwow, Rapid City
Be wowed by an amazing array of elaborate, colourful regalia and beadwork and enjoy the beauty of the Great Plains indigenous song and dance.
Native American Scenic Byway
Travel through the lands of the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes and enjoy stunning views of the Missouri River, diverse landscapes, and tribal history and culture.

August 2-5: Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi Rodeo Fair, Pine Ridge
August 23-26: Rosebud Fair, Wacipi (powwow) and Rodeo, Rosebud
August 30 – September 2: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Pow Wow, Fair and Rodeo, North Eagle Butte
September 13-15: St Josephs Indian School Powwow, Chamberlain
More information:


Beyond Montana’s stunning landscape and national parks is its rich Native American heritage and history. Montana is the ancestral land of the Blackfeet Indians and is home to seven Indian reservations and 11 tribes which make up make up 6.3 per cent of its population and hold regular powwows throughout the summer with drumming, dancing and traditional regalia. Explore the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning where the annual North American Indian Days summer festival is held, go to the annual Crow Fair and Rodeo week held each August in Crow Agency to celebrate the traditions of the Apsáalooke Nation, or take in the fresh air and stunning scenery on a Flathead rafting guided tour combined with tipi stay.

Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Browning
Blackfeet Indian Reservation is home to the Blackfeet Nation which is one of the 10 largest tribes in the United States with over 17,000 members. Tribal headquarters are in Browning, where you can visit the Museum of the Plains Indian and the Blackfeet Heritage Center to view arts and crafts from Native American artists. The Blackfeet Reservation has many interesting sites and activities including museums, historic sites, camping, and fishing as well as glacier-carved peaks, peaceful blue-water lakes and wildlife watching.

Flathead Reservation
Flathead Lake is the largest lake between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean, and offers camping, hiking, rafting and fishing. South of this calm lake is the community of Ronan where the Flathead Indian Reservation is located. This reservation is home to the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles Tribes, and these tribes have constructed a unique cultural centre called The People’s Center to tell their story. The Center includes a museum, gallery on Native American heritage, beading classes, and a gift shop with locally-made crafts.

Glacier National Park tour
For an unforgettable experience at Glacier National Park, go on a tour with Native American-run Sun Tours which travels over the famous scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road. The tour focuses on how the park’s stunning scenery including its massive peaks and beautiful lakes are relevant to the Blackfeet Nation. The guides will talk about spiritual and philosophical perspectives, as well as how certain plants are used in medicine. On this tour you could even see Grizzly and Black bears, Big Horn Sheep, and Rocky Mountain Goats.
Blackfeet Tipi Village, Browning
Tucked in the sublime foothills of the Rocky Mountains bordering Glacier National Park is an opportunity to immerse yourself in authentic Native American culture with traditional Blackfeet Indian cuisine, communal fires, a Native American Art Gallery and chance to meet with local Blackfeet artists. Its ceremonial lodging provides dry warmth while letting in the outdoor acoustics, creating a majestic experience.
Guided Flathead Rafting Tour with Tipi Stay, Polson
Be guided down Flathead River by an elder or local tribal member and learn firsthand the history, culture and heritage of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend D’Oreilles people and experience while spotting out of this world scenery and wildlife. Then sleep beneath the stars in an authentic tipi while taking in the fresh Montana air and hearing the peaceful flow of the river.

August 3-5: Rocky Boy Powwow, Rocky Boy
August 3-12: Smoking Waters Mountain Man Rendezvous, West Yellowstone
August 15-20: Crow Fair Powow, Crow Agency
August 31 – September 3: Ashland Labor Day Powwow, Ashland
More information:


Countless generations of Native American tribes call the diverse landscape of Wyoming home. There are over 11,000 Shoshone and Arapaho Indians who live on the Wind River Reservation. The Reservation which spans 2.2 million acres, is the seventh largest reservation in the United States. It has significant tribal history, American Indian history, sacred sites and cultural experiences such as celebratory Indian powwows. Beyond Wind River, Native American culture and heritage can be felt and experienced statewide. Native Americans consider many sites in Wyoming to be sacred including Devils Tower and the unique Medicine Wheel National Historic Site in Bighorn National Forest.

Wind River Reservation
The Wind River Reservation is the seventh largest reservation in the United States and is home to both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. It is not only rich in culture but has panoramic views of Wyoming’s stunning scenery including huge mountains and calm lakes. Visit Wind River Hotel & Casino’s Northern Arapaho Experience Room to view the story of the Northern Arapaho people through paintings, videos, photos and artifacts. Additionally, head to the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary just outside of Lander, the only wild horse sanctuary in the United States that is located on an Indian Reservation. It shares the history of wild mustangs through its visitor center which has interesting displays.
Yellowstone National Park
At Yellowstone National Park you will see Mammoth Hot Springs, stunning canyons, lush forests, and flowing rivers. Stop at the Visitor Center to learn about Fort Yellowstone and the native tribes that inhabited this region. In Cody, the eastern entrance to Yellowstone you will find the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which is an outpost of the Smithsonian and contains five museums under one roof. One of these is considered the top-rated Plains Indian Museum found in the U.S.A.
Devils Tower
The Devils Tower National Monument is a spectacular rock formation that formed from volcanic lava millions of years ago and is now 867 feet high. It is one of the most sacred sites of the Northern Plains Indian tribes, and many Native American people visit the area in June each year to bring their ancestors prayer cloths. Devils Tower is commonly used as the site of ceremonies such as sun dances and sweat lodges.
To best experience Devils Tower, stop in at the Devils Tower Visitor Center to go on a Ranger-led program. Rangers will take you on a two-hour guided walk around the tower’s base and explain its significance. There are even options to climb the tower with Devils Tower Climbing, however climbing is closed in June to show respect to the Native American tribes.

Fort Laramie Bed and Breakfast Tipi Stays
, Fort Laramie
Explore the historic west on a working ranch only a 3 hour drive from downtown Denver and stay in a Tipi – an iconic symbol of the early West. Tipi’s provided the Plains Indians shelter from the often-severe elements of the plains and were durable yet easy to construct and portable. Tipi is well appointed and can accommodate a family of four.
Medicine Wheel National Historic Site, Bighorn National Forest
Go to the Bighorn Mountains to see the magnificent Medicine Wheel State Historic Site. Made of striking white limestone, it is believed to have been constructed by Indian tribes for religious and astrological purposes between 1200 and 1700 AD. It is still used by Native Americans for religious ceremonies and is open to the public from June to September.

July 20-29: Cheyenne Frontier Days
August 24-26: Bear River Rendezvous
August 31 – September 3: Fort Bridger Rendezvous, Fort Bridger
More information:


Idaho has a rich Native American history and is home to various tribes including Kootenai, Kalispel, Coeur d’ Alene, Palous, Nez Perce, Northern Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock. One of Idaho’s most important Native American attractions is the Nez Perce National Historical Park which was established in 1965 to tell the story of the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) people. The Nez Perce Tribe welcomed strangers and Lewis and Clark Expeditions considered them the most hospitable tribe they met.The Cataldo Mission, near Coeur d’Alene, was built between 1848 and 1853 by the Coeur d’Alene Indians under the direction of the Italian Jesuit missionary, Father Ravalli. It is the oldest standing building in Idaho and is constructed of carefully woven straw, river mud and wooden pegs. Head to Kamiah to learn more about the Nez Perce and see stunning scenic views or go for a guided raft trip down Lochsa River in Kooskia. Head to Fort Hall to see a replica of what the town was like in the 18th Century or join in an exciting event like the Shoshone-Bannock Festival Powwow or Fort Hall Championship Rodeo.

Nez Perce National Historical Park
Idaho’s Nez Perce National Historical Park near Spalding is the only park that celebrates people rather than place through its 38 sites. While you’re there be sure to stop at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center at Spalding. The Center has an interesting museum with a visual presentation and an amazing collection of artifacts including clothes, tools, weapons, and ceremonial objects from the Nez Perce people.
For an exciting adventure here, go on the Nez Perce Trail Foundation’s Summer Educational Trail Tour. It runs from August 3-11 and goes through four different states, with stops at important locations such as Nez Perce National Historical Park. Alternatively, go on Pilgrim Tours’ Nez Perce National Historic Trail nine-day package which features two days in Nez Perce National Park.

Kooskia is a city in Idaho that is within the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. The Kooskia National Fish Hatchery has an outdoor trail representing the 1877 war and the track of the Nez Perce people. Kooskia is the perfect place for a fun outdoor adventure where you can go on a boat ride down Clearwater River or a guided raft trip down Lochsa River. Venture just south of Kooskia on Idaho State Highway 13 and follow the Clearwater River to see the Clearwater Battlefield where the Nez Perce and United States Army fought in 1877.
Fort Hall
Built in 1834, Fort Hall was a trading post on the Snake River in Southeast Idaho that has been home to the Shoshone and Bannock Native Americans for thousands of years. Even though the fort was demolished in 1863, you can feel like you’ve gone back to the 19th Century by exploring the Fort Hall Replica. The replica has restored buildings and saloons, as well as historical artifacts like letters, recipes, and maps.

August 9-12: Shoshone-Bannock Festival Powwow, Fort Hall
August 11-12: Fort hall Championship Rodeo, Fort Hall
August 16: Bear Lake County Fair Rodeo, Montpelier
More information:

Native American Etiquette 
In the Great American West our focus on the great states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming has always been centred on their natural beauty, their thriving tourism industries and the part each played in shaping American’s west into the diverse and vibrant enclave it is today. One central aspect of each state’s history and modern culture is the fascinating role Native Americans played – and continue to play – in America’s West. As a visitor to the Great American West, you have the opportunity to learn and experience firsthand how Native American tribes continue to provide valuable economic and cultural contributions to the American Rockies region. As you begin to explore, however, it is very important to keep in mind that customs and Native American laws should at all times be heeded in order to make this experience as productive and meaningful as possible for all parties. Below are several points that should be considered as you venture into Native American territory:

  • If you are witnessing a tribal ceremony, discretion is always the best route – at least initially. Always assume the role of “fly on the wall” spectator during a ritual, making certain to never get in the way of those conducting or participating in the ceremony. There are instances, or course, when outside participation is welcomed by the emcee, at which point you should feel free to volunteer and join in!
  • Please refrain from touching or handling any of the feather or buckskin outfits of dancers or those in regalia, unless expressly invited to. These items often have ceremonial and personal meaning to the owner, and many of these outfits may be identified as family heirlooms.
  • While photographs and video recording is a great way to capture the authentic beauty of Native American customs and regalia, it is never a good idea to do so without first having express permission. Furthermore, certain rituals that require intense concentration from the participants (such as dance and drum ceremonies) can be disrupted by flash photography. Always use your best judgment and be certain to have permission before shooting or filming.
  • Respect and obey all tribal laws. Tribes are sovereign nations on American soil and have jurisdictional rights.
  • It is unlawful to harvest, gather or remove plants, medicines or trees from tribal grounds without express permission from a tribal representative.
  • It is highly illegal to pick up or loot artefacts from sacred sites, burial, traditional and cultural properties. It is equally forbidden to trespass on any of these sites without proper escort.
  • It can be construed as a sign of disrespect to openly discuss burials, burial sites, and those who have passed on.
  • As a sign of deference (and a sign of common sense!) do not ever bring drugs or alcohol on any reservation or tribal territory. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden at all ceremonies, powwows and tribal events.
  • Remember: When in doubt, ask first!

Part of the exceptional culture and history in the featured states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota & Wyoming are firmly rooted in Native American tradition. As you explore everything these states have to offer, simply keep in mind these few guidelines.

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