12 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit Right Now
Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites.
When giving school tours at a state historical park I used to work at, the first question I’d ask the children is to guess how many Native American tribes they thought there were in all 50 states. They’d always start out with somewhere around 10, and after a few more guesses, I’d offer a hint: “It’s somewhere between 573 and 575.”
Their eyes would wind toward the sky while their little minds did the math, until finally someone would yell out, “574!” Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today, with the number increasing as years goes on.
That being said, the lands all around us—even on which we currently stand—are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites, which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley. Others still are among many of America's greatest parks and monuments, a few of which are listed here by their original Indigenous names.
A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).
Aloft on a Rock (or Tree Rock) / Devils Tower
12 Nomadic Tribes, Wyoming
Of the tribes affiliated with this Wyoming landmark, the Kiowa tell a story about a boy who was inexplicably transformed into a bear while playing with his seven sisters. The sisters, terrified, ran to the safety of a great tree. As they did so, they were lifted into the air and became what is now known as the Big Dipper constellation. The bear, meanwhile, could not reach them, so he clawed and scraped at the tree bark, leaving the large striations we see in the rock today. There’s plenty of other stories and poetry of the Kiowa in Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain.
Seneca Tribe, New York
Ganondagan is the name of the site where a 17th-century town of Seneca peoples—a tribe that influenced the entire US government— once sat. The Seneca is one of six tribes who formed the Great Law of Peace back in 1142, and this collection of tribes—called the Haudenosaunee, formally known as the Iroquois Confederacy—have the oldest living democracy in the world. Their democratic principles and peace between many separate nations (reminding certain constitution-writers of separate states) helped shape the US Constitution. The US Senate finally officially stated as much in 1988.
Today, Ganondagan hosts events like indigenous food tastings or corn grinding, games, and tours. On the 570-acre property, you’ll also find the newly-built Seneca Art & Culture Center and hiking trails, which include a medicine walk and tree tour. There’s also a large structure called the Seneca Bark Longhouse, which reflects a typical Seneca family home from the late 1600s—fully furnished and all. The Longhouse pays homage to all Haudenosaunee, representing the metaphorical longhouse the six tribes agreed to peacefully live under, starting here at the tip top of what was to be called New York.
Tasunke Witco / Crazy Horse Memorial
Lakota Tribe, South Dakota
Lakota warrior Tasunke Witco, better known as Crazy Horse, lived during a time of great transition for the Lakota and the US Government. As a young warrior, he fought for his family and land in numerous battles, including the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876 against the notorious General Custer (a battle that would later be referred to as Custer’s last). Tasunke Witco was noted for not only his bravery, but for his humility and helping elders and those in need.
This monument was commissioned in 1930 by the then Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear. Together with sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, they undertook creating the world’s largest sculpture to be crafted in the heart of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Its progress continues today and is completely funded by admission to the memorial and by donations. Additionally, the memorial includes the Indian University of North America, a repository for Native American artifacts, arts, and crafts supported by the Indian Museum of North American and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
Dignity: Of Earth & Sky
Tribes of South Dakota
The newest monument in South Dakota is the regal statue of a Native woman overlooking the Missouri River. Her countenance bears the name she holds: Dignity. This statue—which stands at 50 feet high and depicts a Native woman dressed in 1850s-style garments—represents the rich Native American culture of South Dakota. The star quilt she brandishes symbolizes honor and generosity. The star itself represents the Morning Star: the brightest and last star to disappear with the rising sun. It stands as a portal in which spirits came to earth, connecting the living and those who have passed on.
Star quilts were traditionally given to honor individuals for successful hunts, vision quests, and their journeys on to the next world. Today, they are considered one of the most valued gifts of the Lakota (Sioux) people and are draped over the shoulders of the recipient, as in days of old, on days of graduations, weddings, deaths, or ceremonial rites. Dignity is right off Interstate 90 and is a great add-in to any road trip through the Dakotas.
Tsé Bíghanílíní & Hasdeztwazi / Antelope Canyon
Diné Nation, Arizona
One of the most wondrous and highly sought-after places to be photographed is the upper and lower canyons of present day Arizona, known to the Diné nation as The Place Where Water Runs Through the Rocks and Spiral Rock Arches, respectively. At specific times of day, the light floods in like a spotlight and illuminates the beautiful stone carved by water through the narrow canyon walls. You can feel the reverence they call for as you step your way through from one end to the other. These canyons are considered sacred places to the Diné and once served as refuge during the Kit Carson round up, or Scorched Earth Campaign, in 1864. Nearby, Lake Powell is a refreshing option for cooling off once you’ve finished snapping photos.
Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado
After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa, but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms. There, they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. You’ll also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.
Various tribes, Iowa
As beautiful as it is historic, small but mighty Effigy Mounds sits along the banks of the Mississippi River in northwestern Iowa. Just three square miles, this national monument is named for the archeological sites found throughout its grounds: It's home to more than 200 prehistoric sacred mounds created by various Native American tribes over thousands of years, many of which were built in the shapes of bears, birds, panthers, snakes, and water spirits. (The largest, the Great Bear Mound, stands at over 130 feet tall.)
The mounds may have been used for a number of purposes, from marking ceremonial sites to indicating bountiful spots to hunt, gather, and fish. To maximize your experience, come in the fall when the entire park comes to life in the gold and red shades of fall foliage.
Havasupai Tribe, Arizona
Looking like Shangri-La of the Grand Canyon, these stunning waters are home to the Havasu Baaja (also known as the Havasupai), or People of the Blue Green Waters. A story is told that, when their ancestors first came to Havasu Canyon, they believed the walls would close upon them if they entered. So they lodged a log to hold the walls in place. Today, there are two red-stone pillars that continue guarding the tribe and keeping them safe from the enclosing canyon walls.
Though thousands of visitors come each year, reaching these pristine falls is not for the faint of heart: The hike from the village of Supai to the waterfall is only four miles roundtrip, but first you have to get to the village—and there are no roads to Supai. You can either take a horse, a helicopter, or walk from the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot where the road ends on the south side of the Grand Canyon—making the entire trek 20 miles roundtrip (unless you take the helicopter option, of course). Hiking and camping permits are mandatory, so this trip must be planned months in advance.
Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley
Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah
Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breathtaking Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii hasn’t changed much since the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deity worked together to turn the monsters to stone—and it’s those monsters who are monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.
Various tribes, Georgia
People have continuously lived on the Macon Plateau for millennia—17,000 years, to be exact. It’s suspected that the first inhabitants arrived to hunt Ice Age mammals. The enormous earthworks Ocmulgee National Historical Park is known for today—which include burial mounds, a (reconstructed) ceremonial earthlodge, and earthwork trenches—were built by the Mississippian people, and were considered sacred by the Ochese Creek Nation who came after them. After hiking through the site, head to the visitor center, which displays about 2,000 of the 3 million-plus artifacts excavated from the site during the largest archaeological dig in American history.
Boa Ogoi / Bear River Massacre
Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, Idaho/Utah
Arguably the worst massacre (and one of the least spoken about) in the United States is the Bear River Massacre that happened on January 29, 1863, when US soldiers slaughtered upwards of 350 Shoshone at the winter camp where they had gathered to conduct the Warm Dance, performed to expel the winter cold and usher in spring’s warmth. Over a hundred years later, the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation hosts an annual memorial service for their fallen ancestors at the site on January 29.
Just up the hill, to the north, is a short trail with markers telling the story of the morning of the massacre, including how a spiritual leader was warned about the massacre in a dream just beforehand. There’s a solemn yet beautiful feeling when overlooking this land and history. After paying respects to the tribe, enjoy the beauties of their land: Bear Lake and rivers near Logan, Utah, are just a hop, skip, and a jump away.
Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico
Descendants of this ancient Ancestral Puebloan civilization relate stories about their ancestors, the great engineers and builders of this former center of trade between the southern and northern indigenous tribes. As part of that trade route, the Anasazi are known to have constructed a network of roads more than 400 miles in length and up to 30 feet wide. Here, they thrived for a time between 850 and 1250 A.D., before moving on to the next parts of their journey.
Their collection of pueblo homes is now protected as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The site is home to more than 800 rooms, with some buildings as high as five stories tall. Visitors can attend events like evening campfire talks and night sky programs, and there are guided tours and miles of hiking and biking trails.
There’s no better person to teach you about the land than a descendant of its original inhabitants. And in destinations across the country, you can find tours led by members of Indigenous groups who have lived in the area for thousands of years. Go whale watching and hot spring-hopping in the Pacific Northwest with the Quileute tribe; take a sunset stroll through the spires of Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley; spot brown bear cubs playing by the water alongside the Alutiiq people in Alaska; or, if you’re feeling truly ambitious, embark on a multi-day backpacking trip on the outskirts of Glacier National Park led by guides from the Blackfeet Nation.