From time immemorial, hundreds of tribes with robust and unique cultures lived on the lands that are now within national parks. Too often, those histories have been ignored, but the National Park Service (NPS) has been taking steps to bridge that gap.
We asked the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association and the NPS to highlight their top parks based on educational value as well as their meaningful collaboration with Indigenous people.
“It’s important that we do our part to respect and protect the places we visit, ourselves, and one another,” says Maria Cavins with the NPS. “When visiting a site or park with religious or spiritual significance, we advise people to please approach a site or those worshiping there with respect and reverence. Always remember to take only memories and leave only footprints.”
Here are four parks and monuments honoring Indigenous cultures around the U.S.
1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
At least 27 tribes have cultural association with the world’s first national park, some dating back more than 11,000 years. For a long time, Yellowstone was portrayed as a pristine wilderness that had always been free of human inhabitants, but in reality the U.S. Army forced tribes out at its inception.
To acknowledge past offenses and elevate Indigenous voices, the Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center opened in 2022, and the pilot program continues in 2023. The center gives visitors the opportunity to engage directly with Indigenous people. Highlights include Native American presentations on topics from traditional beadwork and dance to contemporary art, natural plant use, storytelling, and poetry. The scholars and artists represent a range of tribes, including Oglala Lakota, Blackfeet, Rosebud Sioux, and many more. The center is located in the historic Haynes Photo Shops in the Old Faithful area.
For a deeper dive, the Plains Indian Museum in the gateway town of Cody, Wyoming, houses one of the country’s largest collections of Native American art and artifacts, including a buffalo hide Nez Perce tipi and a reproduction of a log house that belonged to Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota. The museum also shares personal narratives, interpretive exhibits, and present-day cultural information.
Beyond what visitors can see, the park is working with the InterTribal Buffalo Council to relocate bison to member tribes across the country.
2. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Welcome to the homeland of the Diné (Navajo). The dramatic sandstone cliffs of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de Shay) lie within the Navajo Nation, and around 40 families live, farm, and raise livestock within the canyons. Native Americans have lived here for nearly 5,000 years, which makes it the longest uninterrupted home on the Colorado Plateau. Beyond Diné, it has also been home to Ancestral Puebloans, who farmed in the rich soils of the valley floor until the 1300s, and later the Hopi, who planted peach orchards here. Today NPS works in close partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage and share the park’s resources.
Entrance to the park is free, and the visitor center showcases the area’s culture and history, including a traditional Diné hogan and sometimes a Navajo silversmith demonstration. There are scenic overlooks along the north and south rims, some of which also have views of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, including the 70-room Mummy Cave. The drive takes about 2 hours per rim. There’s also the popular 2.5-mile White House trail, but check at the visitor center before getting your hopes up as it’s currently closed.
Because people live here, access to the canyon is otherwise limited. Please be respectful by not going off trail or beyond designated signs, and don’t disturb or collect fauna or flora.
3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
The Southern Appalachian mountains, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were Cherokee lands until 1938, when almost 14,000 Cherokees were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. During the 6-month journey, now known as the Trail of Tears, thousands died from the horrific conditions.
A small group had permission to stay behind, and they formed the beginning of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Today the Tribe’s 11,000 members live mostly on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or Qualla Boundary, along the south side of the park. The reservation welcomes visitors, and the national park gateway town of Cherokee, North Carolina, is flush with both learning experiences and tourist amenities.
A good place to start is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which continues to receive a windfall of accolades. Highlights include an extensive artifact collection and interpretive exhibits, artist series, and other educational programs. It’s also known for its work to preserve Cherokee heritage, including helping to revitalize the stamped pottery tradition and publishing the Journal of Cherokee Studies.
4. San Juan Island National Historic Park, Washington
Since its inception, San Juan Island National Historic Park‘s focus has been on the remnants of U.S. and British camps. But in 2022, the park opened the new American Camp Visitor Center to acknowledge the First Peoples who were displaced by those foreign powers.
Co-created with the NPS and numerous Coast Salish Tribes, the center shares the story of Indigenous life on the island, which was an important trade and cultural center. Highlights include canoe paddles carved by Native artists, a living language exhibit, and a stunning mural.
“Our visitor center gives park visitors an opportunity to understand what pre-contact life was like and to learn about the ongoing stories of the tribes whose land our park occupies,” says park ranger Cyrus Forman. He says the center also hopes to dispel the myth that Coast Salish people somehow vanished or are no longer with us. “The tribes of the Coast Salish world are extremely active and vibrant communities in the Pacific Northwest and their cultures are thriving.”
Beyond the visitor center, nature beckons. This southern tip of San Juan Island is surrounded by the Salish Sea, with passing orcas, driftwood-strewn beaches, tidal pools, and native prairies. Explore the wild coastline on foot or kayak, and forage for oysters, mussels, clams, and edible seaweed.