Building Bridges

Learn about past and present by visiting tribal lands


by Daniel O’Neil

Photo R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc.

Visiting tribal lands implies a departure from everyday America. Not only do Native Indian communities remain culturally distinct, they also remain sovereign nations—small nation-states—within the United States. In Oregon and Idaho, most tribes live in rural areas, so a road trip proves the ideal way to travel. No passport is required, just bring an open mind.

“A lot of people want to experience something authentic, and I think that’s Indian Country in the United States,” said Sherry Rupert, a Paiute/Washoe and CEO of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA). “We are the first people of this nation and our domestic neighbors should know more about us. A lot of our Native communities are open to that, and I think more people should take advantage of that opportunity.”

Besides offering a platform for Native peoples to perpetuate their culture, tourism also brings economic benefits to the local communities. Just as importantly, non-Native visitors help build a bridge between societies, one that acknowledges the difficult past while looking toward a stronger future together.

“These people aren’t walled off and adverse to you knowing about them,” said Dr. Deana Dartt, a Coastal Band Chumash and former curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum. Dartt is founding director of Live Oak Consulting, which advises organizations that seek to partner with Native communities. “In fact, we need you to know about them and to see them as viable parts of the economy and the contemporary landscape.”

Mutual Respect

photo R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc.

A trip to Native lands begins with research and planning: Where to visit? What nations have historically lived in that place? It’s important to know which tribes are federally recognized as they will likely have museums or cultural centers where visitors can also find information on upcoming events, as well as interpretive signage at important landmarks.

Most federally recognized tribes, tribal museums and cultural centers have websites that offer history, event schedules and advice for visiting. American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association provides itineraries and other tourist information for tribes across the United States at For those on the go, the “Native Land” app overlays the traditional territories of Native peoples onto contemporary maps. Tribal lands and many cultural tourism sites lie well outside of the defined boundaries of a reservation.

Mainstream museums such as the Portland Art Museum have permanent Native art collections and temporary exhibits, all of which highlight the traditional and contemporary art of nearby Native communities. To experience Pacific Northwest tribes in their fullest energetic expression, attend a powwow. They are held across the Pacific Northwest each summer, are intertribal, open to the public, and are rich with dance, song, tribal art and the opportunity for conversation.

While experiencing a new culture, respectful manners go far. It’s important for non-Native visitors to remember that they are on tribal—not public–land, where different laws and protocols may apply. Alcohol, for example, may be prohibited on some reservations. Photographing certain objects or events may not be allowed, and it’s always best to ask someone before taking their photo. Each nation has its own policies, another reason for research prior to visiting.

Many spaces still serve as tribal gathering or ceremonial grounds, so tread lightly and leave no trace while visiting these areas. What may look like a good campsite could in fact be a gathering spot for traditional medicinal plants important to the community.

Choice of words also matters. How do the people of a Native community wish to be addressed? Sherry Rupert suggests asking them. Many tribes refer to themselves using the traditional name for their people, such as the Nez Perce, who call themselves Nimiipuu (Nee-ME-Poo), which translates to “The People.” The term American Indian, and sometimes even Native American, conjures memories of colonization and is not the current preferred terminology.

A respectful visit begins with curiosity. “A lot of times I hear non-Native people say, ‘I don’t want to ask the wrong question, so I just don’t say anything,’” Rupert said. “But I would say, ask questions, be inquisitive and find out more.”

Making it Authentic

Photo R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc.

When visiting tribal lands, authenticity makes a world of difference. As cultural tourism gains momentum among tribal nations, Native tour guides fill an important role. Stacia Morfin, owner of Nez Perce Tourism, welcomes non-Native guests to her Nimiipuu homeland, sharing traditional stories and knowledge in the landscape where her culture was born more than 10,000 years ago. She explained how visitors and hosts both benefit.

“When we bring out our stories, our language, there’s a connective and healing notion that goes along with that for us and for our guests, whether they even know the true history of these places or not,” Morfin said. “These are things that aren’t taught in schools. Being out on the land, getting your hands in the soil, walking in some of those ancient and sacred places is where that transformation starts to happen for us and for our guests.”

Authenticity also applies to souvenirs. “Know the difference between appropriation and appreciation,” Dartt said. Federal law requires that Native-made goods be made by Native people. Gift shops on tribal lands and at museums or cultural centers ensure tribal artisanship and provide economic benefit to the community. They also create opportunities for visitors to talk with Native shopkeepers about the art and learn about other aspects of modern tribal life.

Contemporary Native art, events such as powwows, the Intertribal Canoe Journey and Native-guided tours all reveal how the continent’s first cultures live very much in the present, not just in the past. The future looks promising, especially as more and more children are visiting tribal lands. “The younger we can get them to experience and be a part of Native history and culture, that’s where the true connections for allyship begin to happen,” Morfin said.

Cultural tourism on Native lands presents opportunity for personal enrichment and cross-cultural reconciliation. But it’s important to consider the immediacy of colonization’s painful legacy, and understand that some Native communities prefer not to engage in cultural tourism. “Prioritize the tribes that have events such as powwows, rodeos or museums and are inviting guests in,” Dartt said. “Don’t expect that you can just drive out onto a reservation and watch how people are living.”

Traveling through eras and connecting with tribal cultures can form part of–or all of–an eye-opening road trip, but education can also continue upon returning home. “Learn the history of the place where you live and where you’re going,” Dartt said. “Think of what it would mean to be a supportive guest in Native lands. In considering those things, visits to those places take on more meaning than just extraction or entertainment. There’s this notion that we are separated somehow, but we’re really not.”

Museums, Cultural Centers & Guides

Photo R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc.

Nez Perce National Historical Park, Oregon and Idaho

Nez Perce National Historic Trail
(An auto tour through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.)

Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Oregon
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

The Museum At Warm Springs, Oregon
Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

Chachalu Tribal Museum and Cultural Center, Oregon
Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland Visitor Center, Oregon

Nez Perce Tourism, Idaho
Guide service. See

Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel Cultural Tourism Program
Coeur d’Alene Tribe (Schitsu’umsh) of Idaho

Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve, Washington

Traditional dancers at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Photo: Johnston

Daniel O’Neil is an Oregon-based writer who spent a decade living abroad in both France and Spain. He has written about the arts, snowboarding, wine, food and more for multiple magazines and nonprofits.