The story of the West is the tale of more than one people, and no visit to The Great American West would be complete without experiencing the culture and heritage of America’s native tribes.Journey through the heart of the Great Sioux Nation on South Dakota’s Native American Scenic Byway. Explore the ancient traditions of the Blackfeet tribe at Montana’s annual North American Indian Days. Attend an authentic Native American powwow in North Dakota’s capital of Bismarck.
Or immerse yourself in the customs of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes at Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation.
To witness the power of a powwow or wacipi (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota for “dance” and pronounced wa-CHEE-pee) is to be part of a powerful tradition that existed long before white settlers set foot on this soil. It’s a social event where dancers don regalia that includes colorful finery, elaborate featherwork, and intricate beadwork as they perform dances that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Different tribes host powwows throughout the year, but the Black Hills Powwow—held annually in Rapid City—may be the biggest, drawing thousands of dancers and visitors every year. No matter which powwow you attend, you’ll feel the energy as dancers move gracefully to the rhythm provided by traditional drummers and singers. Should the spirits move you, the opportunity to join in the dancing will sometimes appear in the form of an intertribal dance. You can also delve deeper into the culture with foods like Indian tacos, fry bread, and a fruit sauce/ jam called wojapi (pronounced wo-zha-pee). Learn more on South Dakota powwows and proper visitor etiquette
Once home to more than a dozen Indian tribes, Wyoming today counts among its residents more than 11,000 Shoshone and Arapaho Indians who live on the Wind River Reservation. Located southeast of Jackson, the 2.2 million-acre reservation is the site of festive Indian powwows each summer. The Plains Indian Museum also holds an annual powwow in the Robbie Powwow Garden at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. Wyoming is home to numerous sites held sacred by Native Americans, including Devils Tower (also known as Bears Lodge) and the intriguing Medicine Wheel National Historic Site. Located in Bighorn National Forest near Lovell, the ancient stone circle with interior “spokes” has been likened to Stonehenge, and is believed to have been constructed by Indian tribes for religious or astrological purposes between 1200 and 1700 AD. Today, the site is used by Native Americans for religious ceremonies, and is open to the public from June to September.
Montana makes it easy for history buffs to experience a taste of what life in the untamed West was like hundreds and even thousands of years ago. In particular, the state’s Native American heritage is well preserved. The ancestral lands of the Blackfeet Indians, Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and 11 tribes whose powwows and other tribal events are not to be missed. Visit the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning – site of the annual North American Indian Days summer festival – or immerse yourself in the traditions of the Salish and Kootenai tribes on the nearby Flathead Indian Reservation. Witness what’s believed to be the largest modern-day encampment in the world. at the annual week-long Crow Fair and Rodeo, a celebration of the Apsáalooke Nation held each August in Crow Agency.
North Dakota’s individual tribes have distinct and different origins, histories and languages. Plains Indians are united by core beliefs and values that emanate from respect for the earth and an understanding of humankind’s relationship with nature. The tribes which have had a great influence on today’s North Dakota are the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara; the Yanktonai, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Hunkpapa and other Dakotah/Lakotah (commonly known as the Sioux) Tribes; and the Pembina Chippewa, Cree and Metis.