How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?
574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.
And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.
That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada 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.
With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites 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).
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 of these people 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. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.
Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah
One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.
The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.
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 breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.
Diné Nation, Arizona
Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.
The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.
Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.
Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.
Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona
Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.
There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today
Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.
Ancestral Ruins, Arizona
Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.
Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.
Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.
Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona
Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.
Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.
This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.
Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado
Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.
The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.
Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.
Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.
Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico
Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.
Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.
Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.
An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.
In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.
Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.