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Nine Native Sites to Visit Instead of Celebrating Thanksgiving With Turkey

Turn Thanksgiving into an interesting cultural experience.

November is traditionally the month of cranberries, mashed potatoes and green beans in America, but there’s a growing movement to take a closer look at Thanksgiving, with some Native American activists arguing that it should be a Day of Mourning to mark the effects of colonialism, rather than a celebration followed by Black Friday excess. Some Americans are doing just that, taking advantage of the time for reflection.

But why not take it a step further and use that traditional time off to visit a Native American site and celebrate the heritage of the people who have been inhabiting North America for millennia, and enjoy the living culture of numerous vibrant Native American tribes? Use this list to map out an all-November tour or a compilation of sites to visit over the coming years, and turn Thanksgiving into an interesting cultural experience while giving your waistband and your credit card a break.

Before visiting any site, make sure it’s going to be open – some are closed for part of the year or on given days, and sometimes tribes close them for private ceremonies. Conversely, you might want to time a trip for a public event to get a chance to see a powwow or other community event in action if members of a tribe are inviting the public. While at the site, be respectful: You already know to leave no trace when you visit precious historical sites, but be mindful to traditional customs as well, and mimic others – if people are taking their shoes off or covering their heads, for example, please do likewise. Remember, you’re a guest on someone else’s land.

1) Crazy Horse Monument

The Native answer to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument is in a slowly evolving state of construction, as carvers work to slowly bring out the likeness of a famous figure in American history. When it’s finished – which won’t be soon, it’s been underway for over 65 years already! – the massive carving will depict the famous Oglala Lakota chief, mounted, of course, on a stallion. The site, located in the Black Hills, commemorates an important figure in the fight against colonialism and includes a museum for those interested in learning more about the real-world people who fought alongside the famous Native American. Visitors can also see a scale model illustrating what the memorial is supposed to look like. For those who’ve also been longing to visit Mount Rushmore, you’re in luck – the two sites are very close to each other, and seeing both can give you an interesting perspective on U.S. history.

When you visit, be aware that some Native American critics, including those related to Crazy Horse, have mixed feelings about the site, from the amount of money used to concerns about whether Crazy Horse himself would have wanted to see nature carved into a memorial – he famously refused to be photographed and his family buried him where he could not be found.

2) Taos Pueblo

This living community in New Mexico is hundreds of years old. Visitors are welcomed by Red Willow People who call it home, and they are happy to show people around and provide them with information about Native crafts and traditions. Sites like this one are important, because many Americans view Native culture as something dead and past, when in fact numerous tribes are still very active in the United States, working very hard to preserve their history and heritage. Seeing them firsthand is a reminder of their history, and also provides a chance to contribute directly to their work – beautiful examples of handmade traditional crafts are available in Taos. Be aware that as a living community, Taos Pueblo isn’t just a historical site, and the residents deserve privacy – no photos or entering homes without permission, for example.

Many traditional crafts have special significance to Native communities – every beaded pattern, for example, has meaning, and some garments and adornments are used in religious ceremonies. This guide to shopping ethically can help you learn more about which things are off limits and how to support artisans directly. Generally, only members of a tribe are allowed to wear war bonnets (mistakenly known as “headdresses”) and religious regalia. Try connecting directly with an artist to learn more about her work – both modern and traditional – so you’ll have a story to associate with a treasured item.

3) Gathering of Nations

It doesn’t take place in November, but it’s worth an honorable mention. This annual spring event brings together hundreds of Indian tribes for traditional dance, eating, crafts, conversation, and much more. Located in Albuquerque, it’s definitely not to be missed if you’re traveling in New Mexico. Each year features a variety of events including the coronation ceremony for Miss Indian World – competitors all draw from their own cultural heritage and the winner becomes an ambassador for the Native community in the following year.

4) Mesa Verde National Park

While the Anasazi of Utah are famous for their cliff dwellings, this site in Colorado is amazing as well. These structures were built nearly one thousand years ago by Pueblo Indians, and visitors get to wander around and through them. If cliff dwellings aren’t your cup of tea, there are over 5,000 historical sites of interest in the national park that enjoy protection from the federal government, so there’s definitely something for everyone in this beautiful landscape located in the Four Corners area.

The UNESCO site is particularly notable thanks to the size and complexity of the architecture. Native American architects used the landscape to their advantage with cliff dwellings to create very sturdy and efficient homes – trapping heat in the winter, and staying cool in the summer – and some of these structures tower across multiple stories. One of the most famous is the Cliff Palace, which has recently undergone some careful restoration to keep it in good condition for future generations.

5) National Museum of the American Indian

Located in Washington, D.C., this museum provides a wealth of opportunities to learn about Native culture and history. Plan to set aside at least a day to wander through its hallways so you can take time to explore with leisure. Like other museums, it hosts regularly rotating collections so check the upcoming exhibit schedule to see if there’s anything you are particularly interested in. NMAI also holds classes, workshops, lectures and other events – like discussion of racist mascots – also listed for the benefit of potential visitors. Admission to the facility is free, and it’s fully accessible to disabled people and visitors with strollers.

Washington itself is famous for its museums – NMAI is affiliated with the Smithsonian – and it’s well worth planning a week in America’s capital to check out the sights. There’s also a satellite branch of the organization in New York, for those who prefer the Big Apple. You might want to skip both in November unless you enjoy chilly weather, but put them on the list for spring!

We know that museums featuring Native artifacts and culture can be controversial, as there’s a long history of looting such artifacts from Native communities and refusing to return them. The museum has a repatriation policy, which you can read here, and works with the Native community to evaluate claims on human remains, religious items and certain other culturally significant artifacts. When possible, it returns these items to tribal members, and it does not engage in destructive or intrusive testing on disputed items.

6) Sitka National Historical Park

Located in Alaska, this beautiful park preserves and celebrates totem poles, an iconic part of Northwest Indian heritage. As with many other cultural traditions, the totem pole has been appropriated by the white community and isn’t well understood. Each totem has a meaning, down to the individual figures carved into it and the colors used to decorate it. The restful park encourages visitors to wander along the totem trail and learn more about the real meaning of the totem pole.

It’s not just about natural beauty, though. The park also preserves the site of a battle between Russian colonists and the Kiks.ádi Tlinget people who had traditionally inhabited the site. Many consider the battle to be an important event as it marked the last significant stand against colonization in Alaska, and the site includes a totem pole marking the lives lost during the conflict. Unfortunately, commemorations of unhappy events are a common feature of Native monuments, a reminder of the cultural destruction endured by many tribes as a result of European invasion.

7) Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Another example of historic and living history blending together, this monument in Arizona includes ruins and cultural sites, but it also includes a vibrant Navajo farming community – one that’s been living in the region for 5,000 years. The stunning red cliffs and caves make for fascinating exploration, and you can interact with the local community to learn more about how they’re working and living today. Given the sensitivity of a site where people are living and going about their daily lives, the Navajo community works closely with the parks service to preserve the site and set boundaries.

Visitors can wander around on their own, but it’s also possible to take tours. There are some strict limits on tours, including the requirement that touring companies use Navajo guides. Such tours give visitors a chance to look at rock paintings and special sites in the canyon, and they’re well worth taking.

8) Ocmulgee National Monument

Native Americans from various communities have been living in this region, located near Macon, Ga., for 17,000 years. Visitors to this park can see ancient burial mounds as well as other structures, and the Native American community holds an annual September celebration of arts and culture. Those interested in the Civil War can also see some sites related to the conflict, as well as historic monuments related to the slave trade. Park events happen year round, including an illuminated tour during cherry blossom season, held in concert with Macon’s celebration of blooms.

This is one of many sites in the South and Northeast that includes an interesting and important mixture of Native American heritage and colonial influences, allowing visitors to learn more about the interaction between Natives and colonists. The simultaneous presence of a sacred site, Civil War artifacts and legacies of the slave trade is a fascinating illustration of America’s complicated history.

9) Haleakala National Park

Visitors to the island of Maui have an opportunity to visit this beautiful dormant volcano and historic site. The site plays an important role in indigenous Hawaiian myths – Maui, a demigod, allegedly trapped the sun in the mountain to make the days longer, explaining the volcano’s name, which means “House of the Sun.” Sunrise and sunset from the rim of the crater are particularly spectacular, but it’s well worth visiting at any time. (And please – don’t remove stones and other natural material, not just because of myths about bad luck, but because they are better enjoyed in situ by other visitors.)

This site comes with another bitter historical legacy: Many of the native plants there are extinct or almost wiped out because it’s been heavily settled by invasive species. Hawaii, like many islands, has a very delicate natural ecology (one reason they’re so tough about fruits, vegetables and agricultural pests), and colonists brought plants unwittingly and sometimes intentionally. In addition to suppressing Hawaiian culture, colonists in the region also devastated the environment of the islands.

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