Exploring Native American heritage in North Dakota, Montana and Idaho

For a triple-state education in Native American history, take a road trip through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho in the Great American West. It’s here you’ll discover monuments of battles gone by and Indigenous communities steeped in faith.

By The Great American West
Published 8 Sept 2021, 10:15 BST
The United Tribes International Powwow in Bismark, North Dakota, known as the Home of the Champions.  

The United Tribes International Powwow in Bismark, North Dakota, known as the Home of the Champions.  

Photograph by North Dakota Tourism

Heralded as North America’s most rugged region, vast swathes of arid wilderness dominate the Great American West. Packed with monuments, memorials and 15 national parks — including the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone, the four famous faces of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the pristine forests and lakes of Glacier National Park — the Great American West has outdoor adventures, awe-inspiring wildlife and authentic Wild West history aplenty.

It’s also a region steeped in rich Native American heritage, showcasing the diverse languages, customs and civilisations of its ancestral peoples. North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, in particular, are home to a repository of stories and offer a gateway to the past. We take a step back in time to delve into the ancient roots of the unique customs of three Native American tribes, as well as the incredible landscapes they call home.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples in North Dakota

In 1862, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples joined together to create an affiliated tribe, known as the MHA Nation, in the Missouri River area of North Dakota. While the three separate tribes each have their own customs and traditions, it's believed they came together to help protect each other against the smallpox epidemic. To discover their story, visit the newly opened MHA Interpretive Center in New Town, North Dakota, which offers living history programmes, educational classes and even traditionally prepared meals. Meanwhile, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota, depicts the fascinating heritage of the Northern Plains — home of the MHA Nation — with engaging exhibits and world-class art collections. While here, join a self-guided tour to learn the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, including the time they spent with the Mandan peoples.

Afterwards, a visit to the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, North Dakota, is a great way to experience traditional Mandan life. Learn about the military barracks that once stood here, as well as visiting reconstructed earth lodges, hiking, horse-riding and even camping in a tipi.

Don't miss: The Old West cowboy town of Medora, North Dakota, which offers action-packed adventures such as trail rides, mountain biking and hiking in the rugged Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Afterwards, spend an evening at the Medora Musical and Pitchfork Steak Fondue — a Broadway-style variety show with delicious western food.

A group visit reconstructed earth lodges in the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, North Dakota.  

Photograph by North Dakota Tourism

The outdoor theatre musical in historic Medora, North Dakota. An Old West performance dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt's time in the Badlands.

Photograph by North Dakota Tourism

The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho

Once the largest and most powerful Sahaptin-speaking tribes, the Nez Perce have a rich and fascinating history. Although they call themselves Nimi’ipuu (meaning ‘we, the people’), the tribe are commonly known as the ‘pierced noses’ — a name given to them by French Canadian fur traders, despite having never practised nose-piercing. The Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho, which comprises 38 separate sites, is the best place to delve into the ancient roots of their unique customs. Start at the National Historic Museum and Visitor Center to view impressive artwork and artifacts and gain an understanding of the park’s extensive layout. There's also the chance to learn about the tribe's reputation for salmon fishing in the streams around the villages, and how — after acquiring horses in the 18th century — they established one of the largest horse herds on the continent (the Nez Perce created the Appaloosa breed and hunted bison with this newfound mode of transport).

From the Visitor Center, head approximately 55 miles east peeling off Highway 12 to reach the historic Heart of the Monster, a site lodged within the beautiful Clearwater River valley, near the town of Kamiah. This sacred geological feature is central to the origin story of the Nez Perce peoples and offers audio guides to learn about the legend of the 'Coyote and the Monster.' Another great way to learn about the tribe is to take a jet boat tour with Nez Perce Tourism along the Snake River to Buffalo Eddy, which is home to clusters of captivating petroglyphs that depict images of bison, sheep and deer thought to date back 4,500 years.

Don't miss: For an alternative taste of Native American tradition, tie in a stay at the Coeur d’Alene Casino and Resort in Worley, Idaho, where you can embrace the heritage of the Coeur d’Alene tribe through hand-crafting workshops, evening entertainment and guided nature hikes that weave through ancestral lands. 

The Visitor Center at the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho. Here, guests can get an overview of the tribes history with impressive artwork and artifacts.

Photograph by Visit Idaho Tourism

The Snake River, which cuts through the heart of Hells Canyon in Idaho. Take a jet boat tour to Buffalo Eddy to view captivating petroglyphs thought to date back 4,500 years.

 

Photograph by Visit Idaho Tourism

The Blackfeet Indians in Montana

The Blackfeet, or Blackfoot, are a nation divided into three bands — the Piegan, the Blood and the Siksika — and are thought to have begun as buffalo hunters in the early 1700s. As buffaloes neared extinction, the Blackfeet transitioned from hunting to farming and ranching, and today a population of almost 10,000 lives on in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. A guided tour of Glacier National Park, Montana, from the Blackfeet perspective is the best way to explore their ancestral home. Here, tribal members shed light on the park’s extensive wildlife, flora and fauna used for nutrition and medicine, and their spiritual and philosophical perspectives on the land. Don’t miss Goat Lick Overlook on Highway 2, where a population of up to 165 goats (alongside elk and deer) are attracted to the natural minerals on the cliffs.

Six miles south of Havre, insightful tours are available at the historic Fort Assinniboine, which was once a busy, self-contained city. It's here you'll learn how the Blackfeet reached the height of their power in the early 1800s, fighting off neighbouring tribes as well as British, French and American fur traders.

Don't miss: With such a rich history of mining in the area, Montana is home to untold numbers of ghost towns. Experience the quiet solitude of Zortman in the Little Rocky Mountains (a historic town that now has a population of just 40 people) before tying in a visit to Kendall, near Lewistown, to be transported back to an era of gold, saloons and vigilantes. Meanwhile, the Bear Paw Battlefield is a significant and poignant part of the Nez Perce story. This is the location of the final battle of the Nez Perce Flight of 1877, where Chief Joseph surrendered just 40 miles from freedom after a gruelling 1,100-mile journey. A visit here should be tied in with the nearby Blaine County Museum in Chinook, which is well worth a stopover to view artifacts found at the battlefield, time-period photographs and paintings of the conflict.

A young Blackfeet Indian performs the the Sun Dance at the North American Indian Days in Browning, Montana. This is the largest and most impressive annual ceremony in the the Blackfeet calendar.

 

Photograph by Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development (MOTBD)

Glacier National Park in Montana is home to pristine forests, rugged mountains and spectacular lakes.

Photograph by Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development (MOTBD)

Plan your trip

Discover North America specialises in tailor-made fly-drive, motorhome and escorted tours across the Great American West. The Western Highline offers a 13-day fly-drive tour starting from £1,599 per person, beginning in Fargo, North Dakota, and ending in Spokane, Washington. Those not wanting to drive can take the Empire Builder Amtrak train instead. Both itineraries are tailored for every individual, with hotels included in the price and changeable according to preference. For more information, and to plan your trip, visit the Discover North America website.

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