A good friend of mine recently told me he was taking a new job in Boise Idaho. I’m sad to see him go, but it is a great opportunity. Since he’s not a very outdoorsy person, I threw a few suggestions at him regarding some forms of 4-legged wildlife that we don’t have in Texas that could make life all too interesting for someone new to that region. That conversation got me to thinking about some of the cool things in that region and those in between that might be of interest to other wanderers.
At several points in my life, I have had the privilege of knowing members of several Native American tribes, and the even bigger honor, of being invited to their reservation homes outside of the areas usually invaded by tourists, so I thought I would share some of my impressions on the topic of visiting The Nations.
“Indian Time” –
One of the most stereotypical complaints I hear from tourists visiting any of the Nations is the concept of “Indian Time” expressed as a complaint that an event did not start exactly when whatever schedule they are looking at says it will. A Reservation is NOT Disneyland, and the Indians really resent the term.
Unless you are attending a “powwow” where competitive singing and dancing will be done, relax and take the published schedule as a general guideline. Enjoy the scenery, tour Trader’s Row, stay in the area designated for guests, but don’t stand around stressing and tapping your foot. If you know the meaning of the saying “I’m on island time”, then get into that attitude, and you’ll have a great time.
Nations without casinos tend to live very close to the poverty line, and they are known for having speed traps along their roads to enhance their revenue. If you are driving on the Interstate, you are on US territory. Once you leave the Interstate you are on Nation land, and subject to tribal law. This means things that are normally legal in the State may not be legal on the reservation. A perfect example, and warning for people with concealed handgun licenses, is the possession of firearms on one’s person and in one’s vehicle may be treated differently on Nation land.
The best policy is watch for road signs announcing a nearby reservation, avoid speeding, and leave your guns locked out of sight in your vehicle if you get off the Interstate. I’ve never had anything but positive experiences with tribal police. Aside from speeding tickets, the most probable cause for an encounter with the police will be a tourist who has strayed into a section of the reservation closed to the public without an invitation from a specific resident of the reservation. This normally happens during religious festivals.
Holiday celebrations and powwows are normally open to the general public, and offer tourists a fantastic opportunity to experience Native America up close. My favorite memories are of the times I enjoyed the Feast of San Geronimo and Christmas at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico.
San Geronimo is the patron saint of the pueblo, and is tribal equivalent of Thanksgiving followed by dancing and visiting friends. Powwows are a combination of a political meeting and competitive activities like dancing and singing. These events are the most structured in terms of scheduling, but even that is still a bit slack. Powwows make excellent day trip activities for families with younger children since there is a lot of things happening constantly.
The standard food tourists encounter at most events that have a trade fair is the “Navajo Taco”. It doesn’t matter which Nation is hosting the event, some version of this dish is usually available. Far from traditional, this confection is a fry bread “bowl” topped with spiced meat, beans, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. Think “chalupa”, and you’re pretty close.
My favorite Tiwa (The Red Willow people of Taos Pueblo) dishes are Chile soup and a combo of squash, shaved corn, and green chili peppers sautéed in butter. If you get a chance to try buffalo (aka American Bison), it will be one of the best steaks/burgers in your life.
Trade Fairs/Trading Posts –
Many reservations have permanent stores or “trading posts” set up along the highways to sell local “art” to tourists. The goods offered run from quality handmade artifacts to Chinese made garbage. Check the labels to insure you buy the authentic items. Do a bit of research before you go so you know what kind of art would be authentic to the tribe you are visiting. Example: The Lakota people were never known for their micaceous clay pottery because micaceous clay occurs in the southwest.
If jewelry is offered, check to make sure the turquois has a bit of black veining because plastic “stones” will not. Look for the .99 and “sterling” stamps on silver pieces. Sometimes you can get good deals on antique silver in the southwest.
“Trade Fairs” are groups of vendors who travel from event to event, and set up tables like you see at a flea market. I have seen Andean flutes, Central American jewelry, Inuit bone scrimshaw, and total crap like dream catchers offered at trade fairs. They are fun to browse and you can occasionally find bargains on authentic items.
A really cool place to visit is the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Blanket traders spread out under the eaves of the building to sell their jewelry and art. I have made several excellent deals over the years, When I took my family there for the first time, we had a great time shopping there, and on the Taos canyon bridge outside of Taos.
Many Nations have “clowns” as part of their cultures. The clowns of the southwestern pueblos are easily identified by the black and white paint on their faces and bodies. A clown plays the role of the village’s conscience offering moral guidance to the people.
The Koshari (koh-SHAR-ee) do not speak. Much like mimes, they gesture to mock and sometimes shame people who do not behave properly. Nobody has a right to touch them, but the Koshari at Taos Pueblo are well known for throwing for throwing rude, or misbehaving people into the river. They are also allowed to take anything they see, and the person losing the item has no recourse.
I once witnessed the Taos Koshari in action while walking through a trade fair at the pueblo. The dancing would soon start, so I was shopping. All of a sudden I started seeing the vendors putting blankets over their merchandise, and setting out trinkets and pieces of fruit, so I knew the clowns were about to come out of the Kiva (underground prayer room). All of the vendors except one guy selling masks and pan flutes from South America. He must not have known the rules because he didn’t cover anything, and the Koshari picked him over pretty good.
Remember what I said about tribal law? Everyone is subject to it, and this applies to ceremonial situations as well. Their world, their rules. Learn about the cultures you plan to visit, and behave accordingly. I’m told the river at Taos Pueblo is really cold.
The reservation system set up by the US government often pushed several nations into the same area. Oklahoma used to be called the “Indian Nations” for a reason. Every Native American I have met has a distinct pride in their people, so ask who their people are. You might be surprised at the answer.
When you are on a road trip, research the Nations you will be passing through on the way, and Google the events on the reservations. It will be worth paying a visit.
The best documentary I have seen on Native America:
Some of my favorite Native American music:
*Buffet is White, but the vocals and music are performed by Native Americans.