Unlike other ethnic groups, language drives Native American culture. Tribal language is often at the center of culture and traditions. From words for plants and animals to seasons, traditional language is key to a tribe’s story. Oral history carries on the legacies of ancestors.
From using tribal language during powwows to posting traditional words along with their English counterparts, visitors to Indigenous nations offer opportunities for visitors to learn a new language as they take in the sights and sounds of tribal land.
1. Frog Bay Tribal National Park
The first tribal national park in the United States, Frog Bay covers 300 acres of beautiful scenery adjacent to Lake Superior. Frog Bay Tribal National Park, owned and operated by the Red Cliff Band Chippewa, features an endangered boreal forest. The natural hiking trails take visitors through tall trees, vibrant green vegetation, and in the end, offer immaculate views of Lake Superior. The Red Cliff Chippewa protects a 4,000-foot section of beach skiing the shoreline of Lake Superior. As people hike through the park, they’ll learn Chippewa words, such as Omakakii (frog) and Dagwaagin (autumn).
Located a few miles north of Bayfield, Frog Bay Tribal National Park is situated near Madeline Island, considered a sacred area to the Chippewa. Frog Bay is located near the scenic Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
2. Akta Lakota Museum And Cultural Center
Considered one of the best Native American historical museums in the United States, the Akta Lakota Museum (Lakota for “to honor the people”) showcases the story of the Oceti Sakowin (pronounced “Osheti Sack-o-way”) or the seven individual nations of the Great Sioux Nation. Covering history that spans from life on the northern Plains before European interaction to reservation life and beyond, the museum is located on the campus of St. Joseph Mission in Chamberlain. Mixing words such as Tatanka (bison) with their English counterparts, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center provides an accurate look into the stories of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people.
While in Chamberlain, visit the rest area off Interstate 90 to soak in the beauty of Dignity, a 50-foot tall statue representing the strength of Indigenous women on the Northern Plains. With a star quilt stretching 25 feet long, Dignity: Of Earth and Sky overlooks the Missouri River, which has long served as a transportation route for all people.
3. Grand Portage State Park
Located on Ojibwe tribal land, Grand Portage State Park (Gichi Onigaming in the Ojibwe language) hugs the U.S.-Canadian border in northeast Minnesota. Not far from the shoreline of Lake Superior, Grand Portage includes High Falls of the Pigeon River, the tallest waterfall in Minnesota at 120 feet, as well as impressive wooded trails. Beginning at the visitors center, visitors learn Ojibwe words such as Makwa (bear) and Giigoonh (fish). A colorfully painted turtle on the floor of the visitor center represents creation and migration. The center hosts a variety of Native American-led events throughout the year.
Historically, Grand Portage served as a trading center between the Lake Superior Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg or Chippewa) and European and Canadian fur traders. Grand Portage was created for people to avoid the waterfalls on the Pigeon River. While at Grand Portage State Park, look for wildlife and plan a little bird watching.
4. Black Hills Powwow
The third-largest powwow in the United States, Rapid City hosts the Black Hills Powwow each October. Drawing more than 1,000 dancers and even more fans, the wacipi (wa-chee-pee in Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota) is considered a gathering of the Oyate (O-ya-ta or family). The emcee intermingles Lakota words along with English phrases throughout the 3-day celebration. Rather than refer to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota as Sioux (a term given to them by their enemies), use Oceti Sakowin (People of the Seven Council Fires).
As you enjoy the dances, from women’s jingle to young men’s fancy, the emcee provides a historical look at each one and their role in the Indigenous nations’ history, culture, and tradition.
While in Rapid City, honor the Lakota Chief Crazy Horse with a visit to the monument named in his honor. An ongoing construction project, each year brings the Crazy Horse Monument closer to completion, with Crazy Horse and his horse’s appearance coming more into focus.
5. Anchorage Museum
Located downtown, the Anchorage Museum is home to one of the best Indigenous exhibits in the United States. Celebrating each of the Alaska Native communities, the First Peoples of Alaska exhibit encompasses the majority of its floor. With more than 600 artifacts and cultural objects from the Smithsonian collection, the display was created with cooperation from Alaska Native advisers.
Each exhibit features the traditional word, as well as its English counterpart. From Angnakgum salesguu (hunting hat) to Nigaugak (snow goggles), the Anchorage Museum takes care to ensure it shows the respect required to each Native community, as well as the accuracy of the items shared. You’ll learn that each Alaska Native community uses different clothing, hats, tools, and weapons based on their location in the state, as well as expected weather conditions.
It’s important to understand the role of language in a tribe’s story. The generational trauma suffered at the hands of the United States and its allies during the boarding school era continues today. Being forced — sometimes physically — to surrender using the only language they knew, seriously affected children as they were forced to assimilate into a culture they didn’t know about or want. Having their hair cut and being required to wear “normal” clothing caused issues that have been handed down through generations.
Recent congressional action embraced Indigenous culture and traditions.
The first piece of legislation — the Native American Language Resource Center Act — establishes native language resource centers around the United States, able to create grants and offer other forms of support to groups that encourage Indigenous languages.
The second law — the Durbin Feeling Native American Languages Act — reviews assistance offered by federal agencies to ensure coordinated efforts to support the revitalizing of tribal languages.
While federal support is welcome, more and more Native American nations have taken control of their resources, including tourism, to include traditional language as part of the change.