Encounters with ancients

America's natural landscape is home to the history of its people, writes Tim Richards.

Whether you take your inspiration from spirit guides or the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves, Native American traditions are among the most fascinating ingredients in the United States' melting pot.

For millennia before that pot existed, these indigenous people lived and thrived across the breadth of what is now known as America. Their ancient cultures live on today. Here are 10 ways to encounter them.

MOON WHEN THE THUNDERBIRDS RETURN

The stars shine bright above the soaring rock formation known as Devil's Tower, although the guide calls it Mato Tipila, while pointing to constellations featured in the traditions of the Lakota people.

This week-long tour, which departs from Rapid City, South Dakota, combines first-hand experience and ancient knowledge.

Tour members hear about dance and music and the exploits of legendary tribal members, such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Black Elk.

The highest point of the Black Hills is visited on the trip, as is the sacred Wind Cave where the Lakota believe their story began.

See ndn2rs.com, tour from $1895.

GATHERING OF NATIONS

Spend a few hours in front of the music stage at this huge annual gathering in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and you will realise Native American culture is more diverse than the cliches presented in old westerns.

At North America's biggest pow-wow, belting rock music is succeeded by country, metal, blues and even reggae.

Elsewhere, traditional dance competitions are fiercely contested, in a whirl of colour and sound.

To wind down, check out the huge traders' market for authentic native goods, including local foods.

See gatheringofnations.com. Entry $17 a day.

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK

The Spanish called this area of Colorado "green table", but a drought 700 years ago left behind its most amazing attraction: the clifftop dwellings built by the Anasazi people, before they moved on. They built their sandstone houses under the overhangs of spectacular canyons, formed by erosion from ancient waterways.

The largest dwelling is known as the Cliff Palace, with 150 rooms that housed 100 people.

Mirroring the colour of the surrounding stone as if merged with it, these remarkable structures prompt visions of the inhabitants' long-forgotten lives.

See nps.gov/meve. Entry $15 a vehicle.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN

A startlingly curved, sand-coloured building, the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C. promises something beyond traditional museum displays. Part of the famous Smithsonian Institution, the museum allows a glimpse of the lives of indigenous people in North and South America.

The collection began when New Yorker George Heye bought a Navajo hide shirt in Arizona in 1897. Now, it is an inspirational insight into human adaptability, containing everything from Huron moosehair embroidery to Arctic hunting tools. There is another branch in New York.

See nmai.si.edu. Entry free.

FORT ABRAHAM LINCOLN STATE PARK

An understanding of Native America must include the clashes between European settlers and the native people. It was from this fort on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota's capital, that Lieutenant-Colonel George Custer rode with his troops to his doomed stand at Little Bighorn.

Visitors can tour his reconstructed house, a model of gentility compared with his violent end. Nearby is On-A-Slant Village, a Native American village with rebuilt earth lodges. An indigenous guide atmospherically draws a picture of everyday life here, over its two centuries of occupation.

See parkrec.nd.gov. Entry $5 a vehicle and $6 a person.

CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL

The presidential heads carved into Mount Rushmore may seem impressive, but they are small fry compared with this project in South Dakota. It aims to blast and carve a huge statue of the warrior Crazy Horse, astride a steed, from the rock of the Black Hills.

It has taken since 1948 just to create the face, and the finished statue would stand at 200 metres wide and 175 metres high.

Whether it is a breathtaking vision or grand folly, it is worth the trip to see it in the making.

See crazyhorsememorial.org. Entry $10.

MONUMENT VALLEY SAFARI

John Wayne would look right at home in Utah's Monument Valley, and for good reason. With its impressive vertical-walled buttes standing in a striking red landscape, it was a popular location for Hollywood directors of western movies.

Gun-slinging cowboys aside, there is plenty of fascinating culture to discover via the Navajo guides of this family-owned operation. Tours of various lengths are available, from a 90-minute primer to an 18-hour overnight photographic tour, which includes a visit to Anasazi ruins. A great place to stay on site is the View Hotel (monumentvalleyview.com), which looks out over the valley.

See monumentvalleysafari.com. Tours from $60.

INDIAN CULTURE TOUR

There is nothing like hitting the road in the US's wide open spaces, and this three-day, self-drive road trip crosses the Arizona territory of the Navajo Nation.

Attractions along the way include the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum, whose exhibits range from traditional rugs to creation stories. Check out the historic Tuba City Trading Post and the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise. The drive also reaches the dramatic canyons and ancient ruins of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

See discovernavajo.com/indianculturetour.html. Free.

ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER

Alaska's native people are as diverse as the northern landscape is dramatic, and this Anchorage institution reveals their culture and history. It is not just about looking at static displays - visitors can see and take part in storytelling, song, dance and traditional games.

Outside in the woods are six replica homes revealing the traditional lives of Alaskan natives, with locals on site to talk to.

See alaskanative.net. Entry $25.

NATIVE VOICES

You don't have to head to the remotest corners of the US to experience Native American culture. The Native Voices theatre company stages new works at Los Angeles' Autry National Center of the American West. Its playwrights, directors and actors express what it is to be Native American in the 21st century.

Highlights of the company's annual calendar include its festival of new plays in May-June and a short play festival in November.

See theautry.org. Museum entry $10, play admission free.

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