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Exploring Native American Culture in National Parks

From the gnarled desert canyons of the Southwest, to the windy sweep of the Great Plains, the USA’s cinematic western landscapes are interwoven with Native American tribal lore and traditions. Learn more first-hand at these national parks and historic sites, which protect ancient cliff dwellings, ghost dance sites, Old West trading posts and much more, where you can explore the past (and present) of Native American culture.

Mesa Verde National Park

Start in the Four Corners region, where the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. More Native Americans live here today than anywhere else in the USA. It’s also the historical homeland of Ancestral Puebloan people, who built elaborate cliff dwellings on the Colorado Plateau between 600 and 1300 CE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park preserves over 5000 archaeological sites and scores of indigenous pueblos (villages) built into vertical cliff faces high atop the mesas, or ‘islands in the sky’. Ranger-guided tours visit Cliff Palace, the park’s largest and most impressively preserved cliff dwelling, and Balcony House, which you’ll reach by climbing wooden ladders and twisting through narrow tunnels to glimpse 800-year-old kivas (underground ceremonial rooms).

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Many Native American tribes were forced to relocate to the Four Corners region during the USA’s 19th-century western expansion. But indigenous people had already been living here for almost a thousand years prior to the arrival of the US military and pioneer homesteaders. Across the Southwest, a vast network of roads built by Ancestral Puebloans all led to Chaco, the prehistoric city at the center of the complex Chaco Culture, which flourished between 800 and 1100 CE. You can drive the park’s loop road in a day, stopping to walk through eerily deserted adobe houses and plazas and past ancient petroglyphs etched into rocky cliffs. Located in a remote area of New Mexico, Chaco is one of the Southwest’s most isolated parks, its dark skies so far from any city lights that it’s perfect for star-gazing, either from the park’s astronomical observatory or your own campsite.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Generations of Native Americans have sought out hidden life-giving pockets of the Four Corners region. Canyon de Chelly is one such place, with natural springs that sustained ancient pueblos, fruit orchards and fields of corn, beans and squash. Later Hopi people settled the canyon…
Read more: Lonely Planet

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