Learning about Native Americans firsthand

“Are you a native?” I asked the Lyft driver who was taking me to pick up a rental car in Albuquerque. I meant native of Albuquerque, but she thought I meant Native American. It was an understandable assumption: New Mexico has a higher percentage of Native Americans, almost 11 percent, than any state except Alaska.

The blue-eyed, light-haired young woman said she is Navajo — or Diné, as some prefer — “but I don’t look like it.” She grew up with her grandmother on the Navajo reservation that straddles New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Now trying to make it as an actor in the broader world, she said she is glad to “have learned what it means to be a Navajo woman.” She talked about the ritual that marked her passage into womanhood and of the practices she continues to observe today.

She was the first of several American Indians from whom I learned firsthand about Native traditions and history on a week’s trip in North Central and Northern New Mexico.

I went for a wedding and stayed on mostly to see Native sites. Prominent among these was Acoma Pueblo, about 65 miles west of Albuquerque. The oldest continually inhabited settlement in the country, “Sky City,” as the pueblo is called, has been the home of Acoma Indians since at least the 12th century. Seeing the ancient homes, church, and cemetery on the 357-foot-high mesa requires signing up at the Sky City Cultural Center for a guided tour. A few dozen people still live on the mesa as their ancestors did, with no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. The Háák’u Museum (háák’u means place of preparedness) at the cultural center is also worth the time. One of its galleries exhibits the exquisite pottery for which the Acomans are known, and the other features oral histories about growing up on the pueblo and the need to preserve the culture.

Right in Albuquerque are the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and Petroglyph National Monument.

A collaborative venture of the 19 Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center tells Pueblo history from their origin legend to traditional teachings to customs to perseverance in the face of Spanish and United States subjugation and present-day issues. Besides taking in the exhibits, I saw one of the Native dances that are performed on weekends. (Pueblo, by the way, refers to both the place and the people.)

Petroglyph National Monument preserves one of North America’s largest concentrations of petroglyphs, cultural images carved into rocks by American Indians hundreds and even thousands of years ago. It is now thought that petroglyphs, which include human figures, animals, masks, spirals, and geometric designs, were more than aesthetic designs. They had spiritual significance, though interpretations of what they portray vary.

While Acoma Pueblo continues as a living community, Bandelier National Monument, reached on a scenic drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, is no longer inhabited. Its ancient cave dwellings are accessible on hiking trails. Also visible are the remnants of a traditional round kiva (ceremonial structure) and of homes on the canyon floor that were inhabited at the same time as other Pueblos lived along the cliffs.

Another instructive activity was chatting with a number of Native artisans selling their pottery, jewelry, and other crafts in the old plazas of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. I learned quickly to be prepared to listen for a while if I asked a question. Native artworks are more than pretty; they have meanings, and the artists were eager to describe the symbolism of every shape, line, color, and figure.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about traveling to New Mexico if friends weren’t getting married in Albuquerque. I returned thinking that Native sites belong on every American’s travel bucket list. If it hasn’t been clear already, here are some reasons why:

To learn our nation’s true story. American history did not start with Christopher Columbus, and what little you learned in school about the people who were already here was likely distorted, especially if you went to school a half-century ago. Sadly, my childhood misperception of fierce savages was replaced by a pitiful image of reservation dwellers besieged by poverty and alcohol. Until the trip to New Mexico, I had little opportunity to test the stereotypes, since my contact with American Indians was virtually nil.

When it comes to Native American history in particular, reading is not as fruitful as seeing firsthand and talking face-to-face. Native history was traditionally oral history, with elders passing down their tribe’s stories to younger generations. The stories you hear from American Indians are those they learned from their parents and grandparents, who learned them from their parents and grandparents, and so on.

On the tour of Acoma Pueblo, I asked our 21-year-old guide whether he had grown up on the mesa. It was a fortuitous point in the tour to ask. “Yes, and we’re standing in front of my ancestral home,” he said, glancing at a single-story, flat-topped adobe structure. Like many, he now chooses to live in a nearby Acoman village with basic amenities but returns to the mesa for ceremonies. Among many things, he spoke about the legends explaining why the Acomans left their “Enchanted Mesa” nearby for the Sky City mesa; about Acoma’s being a matriarchal society, with women owning everything except the ceremonial kivas; and about Acoma pottery making, which is still the main source of support for many.

* To own up to the destructive ideology of white supremacy. This is particularly relevant in Donald Trump’s America, with Make America Great Again’s implicit acceptance of white superiority. Settlers of European descent thought they had a right to Native lands. There seems to be an assumption among the Trump people that this land belongs to them, when in fact their ancestors (and mine, too) stole it from the indigenous people. It’s humbling to acknowledge that and to see firsthand the regrettable result: the reservations where Native Americans struggle for their existence and ways of life.

* To be inspired, especially if you’re trying to live with more sensitivity to nature and the environment. One of the prime messages at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is that the riches of the earth are gifts from “Mother Earth and Father Sky to bless our lives and to teach us respect and balance.” Natives do not hunt for sport; they ask forgiveness of their kill and use every part of the animal for various needs. Everything they make has a purpose — pottery to carry water and cook food, drums to guide ceremonies, and so on.

* To experience cultural difference, one of the main purposes of travel. For non-Natives, the traditional beliefs and customs of American Indians are more foreign than those of our own ancestors. As exciting as it was to visit the European villages from which my ancestors came, I already knew their religious beliefs, traditions, and foods because I grew up with them.

I highly recommend the Native American sites in the Albuquerque–Santa Fe area, but you can identify other destinations as well by googling “best places to experience Native American culture.” Or for something closer to home, look for a tribal nations map and investigate what you can see at a desired destination.



Sometimes it’s foolish to try to save money. I was foolish about my flights to and from Albuquerque.

I normally fly Southwest out of Midway Airport, which is only seven stops away on the Orange Line, but Frontier’s round-trip price to Albuquerque was more than $100 cheaper. Frontier flies out of O’Hare. I bought a round-trip ticket without thinking about the hassles of getting to O’Hare; about the 6 a.m. takeoff of the outgoing flight and the midnight arrival of the incoming flight; and about layovers in Denver of seven hours (outgoing) and four hours (incoming).

I estimate it took about 15 hours more than direct flights out of Midway would have — including layovers, longer trips to O’Hare than Midway, and an hour longer in the air each way because the flights weren’t direct. So, my time was worth less than $7 an hour. Moreover, I had to deal with the problem of getting to and from O’Hare in the middle of the night.

In the future, I’m not even putting ORD into the search box. It’s going to be MDW from now on.



“Trump says the United States will work with those nations that share our values. But, unfortunately, the democratic world knows that he doesn’t share their values. The values he shares are those of right-wing nationalists in Europe, in Russia, in Israel, and of the dictators of the Middle East.”
— Robert Kagan, a Brookings Institution fellow and author of The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World

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