A Beginner's Guide to Native American Culture
Over the years many people have asked how they can learn more about Native American cultures, and where they can go to visit ruins or rock art sites. With a degree in cultural anthropology and 40 years of guiding at Grand Canyon, Hopi, Chaco and Mesa Verde, this is what I recommend as a quick start.
A lot of Native American beliefs are embodied in the traditional artwork. A great way to learn more (without being pushy) is to simply visit reservations, where there are roadside stands selling this type of art. In Hopi villages Kachina cravers approach visitors with their work.
So my first bit of advice is go to the reservations. Do not go to places like Santa Fe, Scottsdale or Sedona to learn more about Native Americans. Don't go to the towns I mentioned because the people working in the galleries there too busy. On the Rez they have plenty of time to talk.
Also, most gallery owners in these towns are extremely "New Age". While that might seem like a good fit, the more time you spend on the Rez, the more you'll see that it's the antithesis of Native American. Out on the Rez, love is not self seeking. In fact, New Age misappropriation (just making stuff up and attributing it to Native cultures) has done more damage to these cultures than almost anything else. Most especially stay away from non-native people who have given themselves native sounding names. They do that for marketing purposes. At best what you will get from them are half truths leading to confusion. The Native American perspective on the New Age can be found at newagefraud.org. To quote, "If it says New Age or Shamanism on the cover, it's not a good source for learning about natives." If you come to the Rez with a New Age agenda, you won't get anything but rejection.
Once you're talking to an actual native artist just ask, "What can you tell me about this piece?" THEN SHUT UP. The LESS you say at that point the MORE they will tell you. All you have to say is "That's fascinating! Thank you for sharing."
On the plus side, if you DO end up buying some art you'll be buying direct on the Rez, which is better for everyone involved. Trading Posts on the Rez, like Cameron for example, might cost more, but they offer higher quality arts and crafts than you typically find in a roadside stand. Best of all, the trading posts are not run by New Age flakes, and they are great places to talk because they have all the different kinds of art -- provided they aren't busy of course. The weaver at Cameron is an awesome source of insight into rug designs. Many of the designs in Hopi silver jewelry originally came from the designs found on ancient pottery, though modern silversmiths have branched into other forms now.
Be aware not everything that happened here in ancient times was wonderful. For example, some Pueblo tribes say horrible things happened at Chaco... so bad they did a "Ceremony of Forgetting" when they left. The "House of Tragedy" site at Wupatki isn't on the tour. The "River of Lost Souls" in Durango was named because Escalante and Domiguez found a massacre site on its banks. Awatovi is seldom discussed. Native people usually will not talk about these things so don't ask. See the Youtube video called "Dark Secrets of The Ancient Anasazi" for more info.
Another great source are the Youtube videos with the full account of "first contact" explorers. It's that guys' book (or court testimony) being read in English. I highly recommend Cabeza de Vaca. He was the first European to walk across North America in 1528, the first to see the Misissippii River, and the first to describe buffalo. He was also the first to set foot in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. His account launched expeditions by Coronado and De Soto. in 1540. The full 4 hour video is worth EVERY minute.
Also, the firsthand accounts of captives on the frontier (again, a biographical book being read) are another great source of info that help one understand that particular period. I highly recommend the story of Olive Oatman (Oatman, AZ is named after her). The full story is available on audio here.
The Youtube channel for Archaeology Southwest has archaeologists presenting their work in a lecture series called Archaeology Cafe. It's an incredible source of very current DATA DRIVEN information. Unlike the native stories you get from the Rez (A long time ago, when the people had already been living there for some time...) these videos will give you the archaeologists' perspective (This is what we found and what we think it means). Both perspectives are important.
When it comes to Native American culture there are no secrets, but there IS a mountain of misinformation and projection to dig though before you get down to the truth.