How To Honor The Native American Population While Traveling America

My travels have taken me all around the world and in all of the places I have been, there is one predictable thing that happens.

I am asked, “What kind of name is that?”

It seems simple enough, but the question sends a sigh through my body as I begin to answer Native, Indigenous, Native American, or as a last resort Indian. I try to be tribe specific but most people go blank or think I’m talking about a country, and in someways, I am. Once I have found the term for my identity that they understand, the responses are one of the following:

Brooklyn, New York | Canarsie / Lenape / Delaware / Montauk
  1. “What’s that?”

  2. Followed by, “But where are your parents originally from?”

    This is most common among people who have recently moved to the States or when I’m traveling internationally. It is a sincere unawareness of America’s Indigenous population. I usually follow up by saying, “They are from here” or “Before White people showed up.” And then I get the light-bulb clicking, “Ohhhh.”

  3. “That’s soo cool! Do you know what kind? I didn’t know you guys were still around!”

    Yes, that was the point of colonialism. Thank you for confirming it’s done a decent job.

  4. “Wow! Really? You don’t look like it… I’ve never met an Indian before.”

    We don’t have a phenotype. There are nearly 1,000 different tribes. And they also said they’d never met one before, so it makes sense that they would know what I’m supposed to look like.

  5. “I have some Indian blood in me. My grandmother, mother was…”

    These people usually tell me they have been wanting to look into their ancestry to see what monetary benefits they could get from their associated tribe.

  6. “I went to school with an Indian guy…”

    While this person does know I exist, they typically begin educating me on Indians. They misinform me about a lot of things I didn’t know about myself like:

  • How I don’t pay taxes – I do.
  • That I’m rich off casino money – I am not
  • I’m lucky to get that free education– Still paying back that student loan

These personal anecdotes are validated by recent studies that reveal 64% of Americans believe that Native people no longer exist. Common perceptions (in addition to no taxes, free education, and casino money) are that we are noble savages, alcoholics, and spiritual beings — all at the same time.

These interactions become free history lessons in which I affirm we still exist, I correct the stereotypical inaccuracies, and I make them pronounce my name correctly so that they’ve spoken one of the original languages of this land into the Universe.

Kaua’i | Hawaiian

This is what its like for me to travel while being Native.

Manahu i-na-nia-ne Tazbah Chavez

On my mother’s side I am Diné (Navajo Nation) of the Totsonii (Big Water Clan) and on my father’s side I am Nüümü (Paiute) and San Carlos Apache. I grew up on my Paiute homelands, in a California valley surrounded by mountains, streams, high desert, rivers, and forest. I spent my childhood picking pine nuts in the ancient White Mountains, living in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada’s towering peaks, going to Grandpa’s sweat lodge on the weekends, fancy dancing at pow wows, and running barefoot through the fields with my cousins.

I came into my womanhood traditionally on my mother’s side through my Kinaalda when I was 11 years old. The puberty ceremony takes place over four days and nights in a traditional hogan and is imbued with Diné teachings for a healthy life and family. Hundreds of relatives came to honor and celebrate my journey into becoming a life giver. It is how I learned to be a woman, to care for people, about the responsibility of being a future matriarch, and selflessness.

I feel grateful to have grown up in my community and cultures because many countries did a lot to exterminate Native people. Let me tell you about it.

Bishop, CA | Paiute / Shoshone

All of my ancestors were held as prisoners-of-war during the Indian Wars of the 1800s. The California Gold Rush of the 1850’s devastated California tribes as it created not only a rapid influx of settlers into tribal lands, but there were also horrific policies in place to exterminate Native people with an estimated 370 massacres. In one estimate, 100,000 Native people were killed by the military, militia expeditions, and individual settlers in the first few years of the gold rush. This was authorized by California governors, like Peter Burnett who declared, “a war of extermination will continue to be waged until the Indian race becomes extinct.” In the 1860s, my Paiute ancestors were killed and captured by the military and held at Fort Tejon, California until they escaped. No Indian could testify against these atrocities in a court of law. We did not become United States citizens until 1924.

California Indigenous peoples, also endured periods of Spanish and Russian conquest prior to United States control. The California Mission system is an example of the Spanish conquest. 21 Missions were built between San Diego and Sonoma, California and tourists visit the Missions today without realizing that they were built by slave labor, on stolen lands, designed to colonize and convert Native people to Christianity.

When Mexico established its independence from Spain, the mission system was dismantled, but they did not return the land to Native people. Instead Indigenous peoples of California were left starving and displaced from their traditional territories. Under Spanish rule the Indigenous population dropped by an estimated 50,000, and then by another 100,000 under the Mexican government. The United States conquest of California has been characterized as genocide, reducing the population by another 134,000 by 1900.

Northern Baja, Mexico | Pai-Pai, Kumeyaay, Cucapá and Kiliwa

During this same time period, on my mother’s side, Col. Kit Carson led a scorched-earth
campaign against my Dinè ancestors in the Southwest. Scorched-earth policy is a military tactic that destroys anything useful to the enemy. This meant destroying my people’s way of survival, including food sources, livestock, water supplies, and the people themselves. Our people were marched from what is today Arizona to New Mexico, walking over 300 miles into prison camps without knowing where they were going, why, or for how long.

Fast forward to the 1920s and on both sides of my family, my grandparents were put into off reservation boarding schools as children. These schools were founded by the United States government with the purpose of assimilating Native children into White society to “civilize” them. They did this by removing them from their families and homelands and forbidding them to speak their languages and practice their cultures. My Paiute grandmother, who helped raise me, left boarding school with a certificate in Laundry Services. The boarding school era resulting in loss of language, cultural disruption, and abuse. Finally, in 1935 Native children were permitted to
attend public schools.

Big Sur, CA | Esselen

California is home to countless tourist destinations and also the largest Indigenous population of any state. Yet Indigenous people here remain largely overlooked.

As an enrolled member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, I grew up in Payahuunadü, which translates to “place of flowing water.” If you were to Google it, you would have to type in Bishop, California. The search engine would bring up a small rural town in the High Sierras and mention that it is a former mining town. A few articles on tourism recently referred to it as a “Hidden Gem of California,” and “The Most Charming Town in California.” It is a small, friendly town known for world class rock climbing, fishing, hiking, natural hot springs, and it is honestly the Instagram traveler’s dream. The articles, posts, and visitors don’t mention us though. The Paiute and Shoshone people pre-dated Bishop and surrounding towns, and continue to live in the valley. This contributes to our erasure.

What they also don’t mention is how Los Angeles has sucked the valley dry.

Although still one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever lay eyes on, it is no longer the place of flowing water. 150 years ago we were forcibly removed from our homelands. When we returned, the elaborate irrigation systems developed by our ancestors had been taken over by a rush of White settlers. In the early 1900’s, 250 miles south of the valley, Los Angeles was growing, and their need for water did too. Through fraud, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power purchased the water of the Owens River by pretending to be farmers and ranch families, and then routed the water supply to Los Angeles. They began diverting the water in 1913, and by 1926 Owens Lake was dry. The lake bed is now one of the largest single sources of toxic dust in the country, creating health hazards for Owens Valley residents.

This remains an on-going water rights issue between the tribes against LADWP.

When the 1939 Land Exchange act was passed by Congress it exchanged land and water rights between LADWP and the federal government, reducing federally reserved Indian land by half and led to the creation of three of the five reservations in the valley. In addition the Act did not include water rights, as was previously specified it would, because at the time of signing it was negotiated that water rights would be settled at a later date. 80 years later the water rights remain unsettled. LADWP continues to control water allotments to tribes and just last year tried to decrease water allotment even after record breaking snowfall.

The bottom line is LADWP nor the federal government should have ever acquired ownership of water or land rights in the valley. They were only able to do so through a long legacy of massacre, fraud, and theft. Through colonialism.

Most residents of Los Angeles have no idea about where their water comes from, but they can further educate themselves by looking into the 1939 Land Exchange, the Owens Valley Indian Wars and the California Water Wars. Here is a link to more information on the the water rights history provided by the Owens Valley Water Commission.

Every beautiful coast, mountain range, and exciting city that draws tourists to California is home to a diverse range of Indigenous peoples who survived multiple colonial strategies to eradicate them. Today, we are still here, and it is still home to Native communities on and off-reservations.

White Sands, NM | Mescalero Apache

I’m often asked how people can participate in our culture, or what they can do for us.

First, let’s acknowledge the diversity of tribes in the United States.

There are 573 federally recognized tribes. California alone is home to 110 of those. Federal recognition means these tribes and their governments have inherent rights and a political relationship with the United States government as sovereign nations. This is a nation-to-nation relationship that is not rooted in race or ethnicity, rather it is based in land rights and the political sovereignty to govern and protect all matters of tribal citizens within tribal territories.

However, to only acknowledge the tribes the federal government recognizes is a narrow and colonial view of how many tribes actually exist. There are an estimated 100 state-recognized tribes, which means the state the tribe resides in recognizes them, however the federal government does not. These tribes are mostly without land bases and don’t have tribal sovereignty the same way federally recognized tribes do.

There are a lot of tribes who don’t have any recognition by federal or state governments, some who are applying for recognition, and some who resist the ideology altogether. There are some tribes who didn’t survive. The point is that this actually sets the count of different tribes in the U.S. at roughly 1,000. When Native and non-Native people continue to use the phrase “500 tribes,” (or nations) we are erasing all of the other tribes who don’t have, or want, federal recognition. Its another form of erasure. When speaking to tribal diversity we should also consider the tribes of Canada and Mexico. There are entire college degrees in Native American Studies, and a separate type of law dedicated to this complexity, but I can only address so much here.

Kaua’i | Hawaiian

Now that we have established that, let’s talk about visiting reservations.

I get asked quite frequently what the reservation is like, and I am often told that people really want to go to one. It/s sort of positioned as if a visitor is expecting to show up and we are going to be on display for them. I want to explain a few things about this:

Reservations are not a part of a pan-Indian experience or identity. What I mean by that is we are not a monolithic people so no reservation is going to be identical to another. A reservation is not just a place to visit, it is a tribal specific community and territory that is a sovereign nation within the U.S. borders. Each reservation is home to a federally recognized tribe. Because they have sovereignty to govern all matters of their territories, they create their own jurisdictions and legislate their own tribal laws. Some have their own passports. Some Native people use their tribal identification cards to fly. Each tribe has the right to determine who can and cannot enter their territory, should they choose to. There are tribes, for instance, that have gated check points to enter their reservations. There are some tribes who prohibit non-tribal members from entering certain areas of their land. There are some you might enter or drive through without even knowing it.

There are also unspoken boundaries unknown to visitors put in place and upheld by
the community to protect their homelands. We are surrounded by sacred sites, cultural
resources, animal relatives, and traditional hunting and gathering grounds. Our DNA, world views, survival and cultures are anchored in the land. Our homes are not intended to be on display as a tourist attraction.

However, the great part is many reservations have tourism centers and cultural centers for visitors, and events that are open to the public that you can attend. For example, you could attend a pow wow open to the public, or a community market or event. Some tribes have resort style hotels and shopping centers, some do guided tours and teach cultural classes. There are a number of ways to respectfully explore Native lands and communities on the tribe’s terms. Just do your research about the specific community you want to visit and see what they have for you to experience. Tribes have websites that often display this information or you could contact the local tribal government offices to inquire. These access points are literally right at your fingertips with the help of Google. If you find yourself rolling into tribal territory on a road trip, look up the local cultural center or museum. If you’re wanting to experience a reservation beyond that, my
best advice is to be invited in by a tribal member of that community. Imagine you’re going to a new country. Do some research, but include our resources in doing so.

Here are a few links for when you find your self in Payahuunadü:

Legendary Skies, a Native owned and operated tour company on my reservation, and Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center

Kaua’i | Hawaiian

For me, learning and inclusion is actually the number one thing you can do for Native people; listen and learn about us by giving us a seat at the table.

We are very much still here. We maintain our traditions, and are also contemporary. We are on reservations, in urban cities, in the suburbs, in your classes, in your workplace, we’re your neighbors, and your friends.

There was a time when someone couldn’t learn the truth about our history or our stories
because we live in a colonized country where the history has been systematically told through the eyes of the colonizer. However, we live in a time now where there is so much Native-created content available at your fingertips that is reclaiming more of our narrative every day. We have books, movies, music, research, blogs, magazines, and museums that are great sources to learn our history and stories.

As allies, it’s important to take on the initiative to listen and learn about us because it is so exhausting educating strangers everyday that I still exist. There is no excuse for why someone in 2018 can’t use Google. Include us in all conversations that impact America. We’re the original citizens of this country and we know some things. That’s the best thing you could do for me anyway!

La Fortuna, Costa Rica | Maleku

Being Indigenous in the world and being forgotten has influenced the way that I
personally travel.

With the amount I travel I do, I consider myself a pro at packing, but my luggage is not the only thing that comes with me. Along with my perfectly curated pre-planned outfits and a new book, I also carry with me my traditions, medicine pouches, and values. I carry my identity everywhere I go. I also carry the baggage of being forgotten, erased to the point that the average person doesn’t know we still exist. Back home I was raised surrounded by my tribal community, and it was only through travel that I realized I didn’t exist.

This is not only true for me, but other Indigenous peoples. UNESCO estimates there are nearly 500 million Indigenous peoples worldwide. So because I know what its like to be forgotten, I want to ensure I don’t forget anybody as I continue to travel the world.

Banff, Alberta, Canada | Ktunaxa / Niitsítapi / Stone / Tsuu T’ina

In closing, here are a few tips I practice when traveling somewhere new:

  • Do research

Look up the history of a place, beginning with pre-colonial contact for the area and work your way up to contemporary times. There is rich history behind every place in the world.

In the U.S., there are easy ways to research whose territory you are on. When the flight
attendant announces the city you’ve landed in, or when you’ve cross a state line in the car, take out your phone and click on the this link. You can type in the city and it will bring up the tribal territory you are in, the language and treaties. By doing this quick search, you are becoming a more informed traveller, and you are
increasing Indigenous visibility.

  • Visit museums or a cultural center

Look into who is funding or operating the museum though so you can be sure you’re supporting the community and learning the authentic narrative of a people and place. If you’re ever in D.C. or New York check out the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

  • Visit the land respectfully

In the U.S. it’s never just a trail or a body of water, it’s a tribe’s time-immemorial place of prayer. This is especially important for the growing hiking/outdoor community. When you leave a place, consider if you’ve given to the land more than you have taken from it. So, don’t leave trash or desecrate anything. For example, some petroglyphs in my homelands have been carved over with obscenities. Be mindful of the people whose land it is.

Anishinaabe/Lakota journalist, Chelsey Luger, wrote a great article about some popular
outdoors tourist locations. It informs readers about destinations like the Redwoods, for example, and lists the tribe, traditional name, translation, and its American name, followed by the tribal history of the location.

  • Buy authentic souvenirs

Ask where they’re made so you can support the original artisans. For example, when I visited Australia, I admired the Indigenous art there but needed to make sure I was purchasing Indigenous-made art from the local people, not Indigenous-inspired from a mass manufacturer.

This is happens a lot in the U.S. near Native communities. Tourist shops will sell Native-inspired products but they aren’t actually made by Native people and therefore don’t support Native people. It’s also illegal in the U.S. to sell a falsely suggested Native produced product.

It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian Tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.” – The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990

If you want to purchase Native-made products, check out BYellowTail and BeyondBucksin
*there’s so many more, but remember: fingertips, Google, and initiative.

I appreciate the “seat at the table” Kiona has given me and other Indigenous people to tell our stories on her platform. I thank you, the reader, for the initiative you took to read this and the openness you have to listen to our truths. A rich diversity of Indigenous peoples permanently inhabit American homelands and beyond as you explore the world.

We’re still here! Tell your friends. Please share our stories.

Native-Tazbah

About The Author

Tazbah Rose Chavez is a multi-media artist centered around the multifaceted aspects of female and indigenous identities. She holds a degree in American Indian studies, has written the script for Nike’s Dare to Rise for Equality commercial, is the artistic director for the B. Yellowtail video marketing campaigns, and interned with the Sundance Institute’s Native and Indigenous Film Program. To follow her work, visit her website or click on the social media buttons below:

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, this post was very well written. What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled so far?

    1. Thank you for the information and your personal thoughts. I am more educated having read your words. Also thanks for the specific sources to seek for more information. Happy Traveling & Writing !

  2. Great article! I used to work for a publisher that specialized in books about California so they had a lot of books about California Indians or by native authors. They also published a magazine called News From Native California. https://heydaybooks.com/book_category/california-indian/
    (I haven’t worked for them for almost 10 years, so I’m not promoting them for my own benefit, they are just one of few publishers who actively publish and promote Native materials and they have some great books.)

  3. Sometimes I am shocked about how many world travelers don’t know about First Nations. As a little kid I was so interested in Tribes that I tried to read whatever I could find. I’m German by the way and in my country there is no such link to Nature and Spirituality. But as it always has been calling me I started to travel. I was lucky enough to get in touch with the culture while traveling in North America. I hope to be back soon to learn even more!

  4. 1. People are really dumb to ask such idiotic questions.
    2. These tips are not just relevant to traveling in America, they should be followed when traveling anywhere!

  5. For starters , Do NOT call us “Indians” anymore.. The “real” Indians live across the ocean.. We Navajo are called the Dine’. Next is to invite a Native American to Thanksgiving Dinner or the family too.. This is a way NON Native Americans can get to know us NDNz.. Try it and get back to me.. i will check back for any reply’s

  6. Thank you for writing this powerful piece. Thank you from this travelling wahine Māori from New Zealand. Nga mihi mahana mai i tenei mokopuna o Porourangi, mai i Aotearoa.

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