My family and I recently embarked on a road trip through the American Southwest, which is home to dozens of Native American tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, Paiute, Pueblo and more. We traveled from our hometown in Los Angeles to Kingman, Arizona; the Grand Canyon; Durango, Colorado; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; and finally, Las Vegas before returning home.
In total, we covered more than 2,000 miles bisecting arid deserts, magnificent canyons, red clay plateaus, wildflower-dotted fields and so much more. As we hiked, walked, camped and explored, we were in awe of the nature around us—it was almost impossible not to be. But we also made time to honor the Indigenous peoples in every area: those that had ties to the land long before it became a state park, national forest or beloved trail—and many who still have ties today.
Whether you’re in familiar territory or visiting somewhere new, it is important to remember and acknowledge that we are all on Native land—territories and places within the United States and the rest of North America that were inhabited by Indigenous people before colonization. Even though these areas might not currently have large Native populations, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a long history of Indigenous culture, ways or traditions there.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at how we can honor Indigenous communities—those who have gone before us, for current generations and for those to come—by defining what it means to use and recreate on the land mindfully.
What Is Native Land?
Simply put, all land is Native land. Various Indigenous people inhabited the area of North America (and beyond) long before it was “discovered” by Europeans, and Native communities continue to have ancestral, cultural and social ties to the land and all its natural resources. When Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, there were 50 million Indigenous people living on the continent—and 10 million were in what would become the United States.
Currently, there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes within the continental United States and Alaska, each with its unique culture, language and way of life. And over 9 million Native Americans and Native Alaskans live in the United States today.
“Natives are often spoken about in the past tense, but tribal communities and tribal people exist today. Many tribes are currently working on cultural preservation. This includes language, art, dances and spirituality,” says David Montoya, a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.
If you are an avid hiker, you may have noticed that many trailheads will mention Native Americans in broad or anthropological terms as if they no longer exist. Native land is not past tense; it’s very much rooted in the present.
There are approximately 325 Indian reservations in the United States, covering more than 56 million acres. To put it in perspective, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, comprising about 16 million acres, or about 25,000 square miles—approximately the size of West Virginia.
“Native land” means more than the reservation, however: It’s everywhere around us.
Where Is Native Land?
Ever travel to a local landmark or national park? Then you’ve been on Native land.
Here are just a few examples: The Grand Canyon Skywalk in Peach Springs, Arizona, is on Hualapai land, all of which is considered sacred to the tribe. Over 20 tribes have ties to the area and resources now found within Yellowstone National Park. (For generations before the park’s foundation, they used its hydrothermal sites, like geysers and hot springs, ceremonially and medicinally.) And Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, was carved into the Black Hills—a sacred site for the Lakota Sioux, which they called Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, or Six Grandfathers. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Too often individuals approach lands and the outdoors as something they are entitled to consume rather than something we all have a duty to care for,” says Jaime Martin, executive director of governmental affairs and special projects with the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington State. “Through the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement, we encourage people to reject common conquest concepts while they recreate and instead make sure they are practicing mindfulness while enjoying our ancestral lands. Part of practicing mindfulness is learning about whose ancestral lands you are on, and about the priorities, values and work of those people and how you can best support them.”
Know Before You Go
Learning about the Indigenous peoples in and from the places you’re visiting is one of the easiest ways to show respect. Ask yourself: Whose ancestral homeland am I visiting? Which tribes are local to the area? What sites are sacred and hold meaning to them?
“Since Native culture is significantly intertwined with land and surroundings, your respect for the local tribal community and the land around you will absolutely ensure any sites you visit are maintained for future generations,” says Montoya, of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
The best time to do some resource learning is before you set out on any outdoor adventure so that you can recreate respectfully, knowing more about the land and the Native people who have ties to it.
“Showing respect for the people who have deep roots to the land their ancestors cultivated, and showing respect for the land itself, is the first step on any outdoor journey,” says Laura Clark (Muscogee/Cherokee), a media professional based in Los Angeles.
Finding out more about the local tribes in your current area or where you are going to visit is easy. A quick visit to the crowdsourced website Native-Land.ca can help you start educating yourself about whose ancestral lands you’re visiting, but there are many resources available to learn more about both contemporary and historical Native American lands. You can reach out to local tribal affairs offices for information, or explore the educational materials provided by the National Museum of the American Indian.
Another great resource for travelers and nature enthusiasts who want to learn more about Native American peoples in the areas they are visiting is the Tribal Preservation Program, which is headed by the National Parks Service to assist tribes in preserving their historic lands and important cultural heritage.
“Generally, Native culture is deeply rooted in land. If you’re hiking or camping, the most important thing to know is where sacred sites may be and leave them undisturbed. A sacred site is a location of spiritual significance,” says Montoya. “You can never go wrong with respecting nature as well. That means don’t litter, leave the land undisturbed as much as possible and respect the wildlife. Ecology and environmentalism are just other words for respect. Be respectful of your surroundings—leave the land as undisturbed as possible.”
During Your Visit
One of the best parts of exploring new surroundings is discovering local flora and fauna. But what might be an average plant or animal to you may have strong significance for Indigenous people.
“By exploring accessible Native land, visitors have the opportunity to find out which plants and animals live there, specifically those that provide sustenance and healing for tribes. How are the plants you’re seeing on your hike used in these Native communities? What are their stories? How do these plants and other vegetation work together to help the people who live there?” says Clark. “Also, explorers should always take care of the land they’re using—respecting the plants and animals that make their home there—and avoid putting any of those things in danger.”
In the end, we are all connected—people, land, animals, plants—living symbiotically alongside each other. And the sooner we recognize that, the better.
“While living, working and recreating on lands, individuals need to always consider how to practice reciprocity with the plants and animals who also call these places home,” says Martin with the Snoqualmie Tribe. “We are all connected, and these lands need to be approached as something more than something to consume. As Snoqualmie people, we know that what happens to our lands, happens to us. When they hurt, we hurt, and when they are healthy, we are healthy.”