Visiting Native Land: The Importance of Considering Whose Land We're on When We're Traveling

This Native American Heritage Month, Travel + Leisure is celebrating Indigenous culture, sharing stories about the art, traditions, and cuisine of Native people. We’re reflecting on the significance of Native lands in the past, present, and future, and learning how to be mindful visitors in these places, at home and on vacation.
Credit: Sarah Maiden

No matter where you travel in the United States (and more widely, North America), you're visiting the ancestral territories of Indigenous people. November is Native American Heritage Month — a time to honor the history and culture of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians by celebrating their contributions, learning their true history, raising awareness about current issues impacting Indigenous people, and supporting their communities. 

At its most meaningful, travel can be an educational tool that deepens our understanding and respect for places, cultures, and people different from our own. This November, whether you travel across the United States or stick to your hometown, visit big cities or one of the country's national parks, make an effort to learn about your destination's first inhabitants. 

The narrative surrounding our country's wide-open spaces too often overlooks the true human history of these lands; there's much more to the story of these places and their people. So, with expert guidance, we've gathered some informative tips for visiting Native land — this month and every month. 

Color image of Glacier National Park with Tipis in foreground with an old photo overlayed to show how the Blackfeet tribe lived on the land
Blackfeet Nation's tipis (then and now) shown on the land that is also known as Glacier National Park in Montana. | Credit: Getty Images; Bettmann Archive

Learn about the land.

Indigenous land acknowledgements have become increasingly popular in recent years, and they can be a good place to start, especially when traveling to a new place. A land acknowledgement is a statement that recognizes the Indigenous people that first inhabited the place you are visiting and their ongoing relationship with that land, honoring their stewardship and recognizing the continual impact of colonialism on the area. Before you can do a land acknowledgement, you'll need to learn more about the land you're on. 

Native Land Digital, an Indigenous-led Canadian nonprofit, is one place to start. The website has a constantly-evolving, searchable map that makes it easy to find which Indigenous nations and communities have ties to the land. Travel + Leisure spoke to Christine McRae, executive director at Native Land Digital, about how travelers can use the website as a resource for further education. When traveling, McRae mentions looking at the Indigenous knowledge of that place, finding out what it is called (by the Indigenous people — in their language), and learning about the points of significance (including where historical events took place). She says, "We have this responsibility to push deeper to learn about the full stories of the place" because we're often presented with a colonial history that barely scratches the surface of the sometimes thousands of years of human history. "As Indigenous people, we're part of that living culture, that living history, and we've always been here." McRae adds, "We have a responsibility to educate ourselves on whose land we're on, and who the people are that we can make a connection with."  

And it's not just about the history. "That history of colonization and displacement has everything to do with where we are in society today," Jolie Varela, founder of Indigenous Women Hike, says. It's important to educate ourselves on the past and look into present issues impacting these Native communities to better understand how we can support them. And then, Varela adds, be intentional with your statements — don't perform a land acknowledgment without the intention of finding ways to actively support that community. 

Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings lit by Lantern light with the Milky Way above.
Night view of the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. | Credit: Brad McGinley/Getty Images

Be a respectful visitor.

Basic etiquette and rules that you follow during your travels around the United States and world apply here, too. When visiting public parklands — whether national, state, or local — stay on the marked trails, always dispose of any trash properly, don't vandalize, keep your distance from wildlife, and be mindful of other guests. If you are visiting tribal lands, like a reservation, be conscious of the fact that you are in a residential community with its own customs and regulations — what is okay at one reservation might not be allowed at another, and some experiences are not open to the public. Generally, you should ask before photographing someone or a cultural activity, and you shouldn't pick up or take any objects you find on these lands. Varela says acting with the same respect and regard that you would expect from visitors in your home is a good place to start.

Skywalk by the Hualapai Tribe. Cantilever bridge in Arizona. Grand Canyon West Rim
Skywalk is owned by the Hualapai Tribe on the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. | Credit: Terence Lee/Flickr Vision via Getty Images

Visit the local cultural center.

Plan to visit Native cultural centers and museums to discover more about your destination's history, culture, and community. Experiences and exhibits vary from place to place, but they offer the opportunity to learn about the tribe through artifacts, replications of historical homes, stories told by tribal members, traditional dress and crafts, educational talks, performances, and even hands-on workshops. Bill Wright, superintendent of Chickasaw National Recreation Area, says that every national park is unique, but it's important that they educate the public about the park's history and encourage visitors to seek out destinations like the Chickasaw Visitor Center and Cultural Center to learn more. 

Three Sisters Festival Chicaksaw Cultural Center Sulphur, OK
Citizens of the Chickasaw Nation gather for Three Sisters Festival at the The Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma | Credit: Jacquelyn Sparks/Courtesy of The Chickasaw Nation Department of Tourism

Support Indigenous-owned businesses.

Supporting Indigenous-owned businesses is a great way to invest in these communities. Research restaurants, shops, hotels, and tour companies owned by Native individuals and nations wherever you are going. By patronizing these businesses, you'll gain a deeper insight into the history and culture of the place you are visiting and its people. Indigenous-owned restaurants offer a taste of local food culture; shops may sell authentic arts and crafts; and Native tour guides could provide valuable information about the land you're exploring. McRae summed this up, saying that it's about "making an effort to seek out those tourist attractions, accommodations, and experiences that are run by Indigenous people so you get the full — or a much more full — understanding of the place that you're going to or the place that you're in." 

Exterior view of Salish Lodge and Spa in Washington, it sits on a cliff next to a waterfall with mountains in the distance
Salish Lodge & Spa is owned by Snoqualmie Indian Tribe. | Credit: Courtesy of Salish Lodge and Spa

Continue to educate yourself, even after your trip.

Your education journey doesn't have to end when you return home — you can learn about the land that you call home, seek out a local cultural center to discover more about the first people that lived (and may continue to) there, and support Indigenous-owned businesses.  

Follow Indigenous creators from around the country and world — they are constantly sharing valuable information and resources on their Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok accounts and websites. Follow Indigenous news sites or accounts raising awareness about issues impacting Native people — these matters aren't discussed enough as it is, so if you want to educate yourself about what is happening, you'll want to tune in to Indigenous-led organizations and activists (and share this information with others in your life). And as you learn more, you can find other ways to support, whether that's giving money to organizations that aid Native communities or directly to the nations through their websites. 

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Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure and a member of the Nansemond Indian Nation. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.

Program Credits

Editorial Lead: Alisha Prakash and Elizabeth Rhodes
Contributors: Johanna Read, Carrie Ann Back, Elizabeth Rhodes
Visuals Editor: Mariah Tyler
Creative Director: Jenna Brillhart
Art Director: Sarah Maiden
Producer: Karen Chen