Long before Arizona became a U.S. state, diverse groups of indigenous people made their homes here, living in villages all throughout the region. The Ancestral Puebloans, Hohokam, Patayan, and Mogollon people left their legacy on the land, and their descendants still live in the same areas, keeping their culture and customs alive.
Today, Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized sovereign Native Nations, who all add their rich traditions to the cultural diversity of the state. No matter where they go, visitors of Arizona have opportunities to get a first-hand understanding of the Native American culture of the region in hands-on museums, cultural centers, and on the tribal land of these nations.
1. The Heard Museum In Phoenix
The best place in the state to get an overall view and in-depth knowledge of all the Indigenous People and cultures in Arizona is the Heard Museum in Phoenix. One of the oldest museums in the city, it showcases the cultures of the Native Americans of the state, while adding both historical and geographical perspectives.
The best way to gain a thorough understanding of the native tribes of Arizona is the HOME exhibit on the first floor. A map of the state offers a clear view of the areas each of the tribes live in, while the exhibit takes visitors through all these lands, showcasing artifacts representing the concept of home for each indigenous nation, from ancient times to today.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibits showcasing the work of indigenous artists, and native cultural events. If possible, try to catch some of these events for a better understanding of the native cultures. Besides traditional dances, over the years, I’ve watched tribe members enact or tell ancient legends and other stories accompanied by music.
2. The Museum Of Northern Arizona In Flagstaff
Another museum in the state that hosts Native cultural events is the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Over the years, I’ve seen many Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni traditional dances, shows, and demonstrations there. I tried traditional food items from the different nations, including Hopi Piki bread and Navajo fry bread, watched native artists make traditional jewelry, baskets, and other crafts. While showcasing their work, native artists talk about the process and the object’s significance. We’ve learned a lot about several Katsina dolls in this setting from artists who carved them, about their original purpose, and the stories surrounding them.
Besides hosting these events, the museum itself has an extensive collection of tribal artifacts, showcased in the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau exhibition. This exhibit reflects the histories, values, and cultures of 10 tribes living in Arizona, with material from the Zuni, Acoma, Southern Ute, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai, Dilzhe’e Apache, and Diné (Navajo) communities. Exhibited objects include traditional basketry, pottery, weaving, clothing, jewelry of fine silverwork, toys, and tools.
3. The Tribal Lands Of The Indigenous People Of Arizona
While the above museums offer a great introduction to the native cultures of Arizona, visiting the tribal lands gives travelers an opportunity to understand these nations better. Most tribes have museums or cultural and heritage centers where visitors can learn more about their history, traditions, and way of life.
4. The Museums Of The Navajo Nation
The largest Native tribe in the state — and in the country — the Navajo Nation comprises much of Northern Arizona and includes some of the most distinctive landmarks of the U.S. Southwest, like Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly. Visiting any of the Tribal Parks offers opportunities to learn about the Diné (Navajo) people. But several museums on the Navajo Nation offer a more in-depth understanding of their history and culture.
Window Rock, named after a distinctive rock formation, is the capital of the nation and home of the Navajo Nation Museum And Visitor Center. Focusing on the unique culture of the Diné nation, the center features several collections and traditional museum exhibits, as well as a research library and programs that help preserve the Diné language. An interpretive video, photographs, a variety of artwork, jewelry, and textiles describe the history, legends, and lives of the Diné.
Created with the help of leading Navajo scholars, and the nation’s artistic community, the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City showcases the journey the Diné people take through life. Housed in a dome-shaped structure meant to recall the traditional hogan, the museum is divided into four parts, corresponding to the four directions. Visitors enter on the east side and walk clockwise to the south, west, and north, introducing the land, language, history, culture, traditions, family system, and ceremonial life of the Diné. Admission includes entry to the small Navajo Code Talkers Memorial Museum next door, housed in the Tuba City Trading Post.
You don’t have to drive all the way to Window Rock or Tuba City to experience Navajo culture, though. The Navajo Village Heritage Center in Page offers another opportunity to engage with this unique culture through authentic Navajo food, dance performances, and storytelling while learning about the Diné history and traditions.
5. The Hopi Cultural Center On Second Mesa On The Hopi Nation
The Hopi people are known as the oldest of the native people of North America who have lived continuously on the same land, in the same villages. In fact, the village of Oraibi, dating from 1100, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the U.S. Although you can drive on the main road through all the Hopi villages, including Old Oraibi, you can only visit them or drive off the main road with a guide. As old as the structures are, people still live in them, and they value their privacy.
The Hopi live in 12 villages on three mesas in northern Arizona, and the best way to learn about their culture and history is by starting a visit to their land at the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa. Here, a small museum offers an introduction to their history and culture, where you can also learn about the villages and book a tour to visit them. A restaurant on the premises offers traditional Hopi fare, while the gift shop features artwork and crafts from several local Hopi artists, including Katsina dolls and pottery. To make the most of your visit, you can stay overnight at the hotel on the premises.
6. Grand Canyon West On The Land Of The Hualapai Nation
Famous for its Skywalk, a glass bridge over the Grand Canyon, and a popular tourist destination, Grand Canyon West also offers an insight into the life of the Hualapai Nation. Besides the exhibits at the visitor center, Eagle Point offers an immersive look into the lives of the Hualapai and other Native people of the area. Walk through traditional homes of different tribes of the region on a paved path, and watch traditional songs or dances in the outdoor amphitheater. Depending on your timing, this could be a simple drumming/singing by one member of the tribe, or spectacular Hualapai dances performed by a group. A small gift shop offers traditional handmade objects made by the Hualapai, Hopi, and Mojave tribes.
7. The White Mountain Apache Cultural Center And Museum
If you drive through eastern Arizona, stop at the Fort Apache Historical Park to learn about the White Mountain Apache people. Within the park, the Cultural Center and Museum offers the perfect place to experience Apache history and culture. Called Nohwike’ Bágowa (House of Our Footprints), the building reflects a traditional Apache holy home, gowa. Inside a traditional gowa, the exhibit Ndee Bike’ (Footprints of the Apache) showcases a multimedia presentation of the Apache Creation Story. Traditional objects, artwork, historic and contemporary photographs, and interactive computer and audio stations offer a glimpse into the history and lives of the Apache people. Besides these exhibits, the Cultural Center hosts traditional demonstrations and special events. You’ll also find Apache baskets, beadwork, and other arts and crafts items, books, and music in the museum’s gift shop.
Besides the Cultural Center, you can visit Fort Apache, and learn about its history and its impact on the Apache people, and Kinishba Ruins, once occupied by the ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni tribes.
8. National Parks And Monuments In Arizona
Besides cultural centers and museums on and off tribal lands specifically dedicated to the Native Nations of Arizona, visitors to the state have opportunities to learn about their rich culture in every corner of the state.
Most national parks and monuments in Arizona feature exhibits relating to contemporary native tribes, and regularly host native events, like traditional dances, music, and storytelling.
Grand Canyon National Park has cultural and historical connections to 11 modern tribes, reflected in the architecture and artwork of the Desert View Watchtower and the Hopi House, and several exhibits at the visitor center.
Besides showcasing ancient structures, Wupatki National Monument, Walnut Canyon, Montezuma Castle/Tuzigoot, and Casa Grande Ruins, also reflect stories and the cultures of the modern-day Arizona tribes.
No matter where you go in Arizona, you have opportunities to interact with native tribes and learn about their cultures. To make the most of these learning experiences and interactions, especially on tribal lands, respect their rules and customs. Some tribes restrict taking photos and videos, so always ask beforehand. If you are lucky enough to attend dances and ceremonies open to the public, be aware that they have certain expectations. Try to learn about them beforehand, or follow the lead of tribal attendees.
Note: Before visiting the sites, especially those on the native lands, please check the websites for opening times and the latest closures.
While you’re in the Grand Canyon State, explore some of these other unique sites: