While Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, far less attention is paid to their welcoming party: the Native Americans who had been living here for millennia.
“America was populated with indigenous people long before the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims came to this land,” says Cecile Ganteaume, an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
She shares some places to learn about the original Americans with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Great places to honor the original Americans
Spiro Mounds, Okla.
People were still living near this extensive city and ceremonial complex when Spanish explorers first came through the region hundreds of years ago. The area includes 12 mounds, an elite village area and a surrounding settlement, but it’s most famous for the artifacts discovered there. “It has yielded stupendously beautiful pottery, mica and copper, which historians have been studying for decades,” Ganteaume says. okhistory.org/sites/spiromounds
Mashantucket Pequot Museum
The thriving American Indian culture that greeted the Pilgrims has long since disappeared. But this huge site, which calls itself the world’s largest Native American museum, includes a re-created village depicting life before and after European contact. Located at the Foxwoods Resort Casino, it includes artifacts, along with sensory displays, videos and interactive programs. “There’s nothing like this in the Northeast,” Ganteaume says. The museum closes Dec. 2 for the winter and reopens in the spring. pequotmuseum.org
Mesa Verde, Colo.
For more than 700 years, thousands of people lived in cliff dwellings in southwest Colorado, including one structure with more than 140 rooms. Today visitors can tour these ancient high-rises and learn about their culture, which was supported by growing corn and other crops in nearby fields. nps.gov/meve
Museum of the Plains Indian
Blackfoot Reservation, Browning, Mont.
Although located on the Blackfoot Reservation, this museum is one of the best places in the world to see artifacts from all the Plains Indians, including the Crow, Sioux, Nez Perce and many others. Displays include historic clothing, weapons and toys. “These were the iconic, stereotypical American Indians. They were buffalo hunters and equestrians,” Ganteaume says. doi.gov/iacb/museum-plains-indian
Makah Tribal Museum
Neah Bay, Wash.
Hundreds of years ago, six Indian longhouses were buried in mud, perfectly preserving their contents. After the ruins were discovered, an 11-year excavation at the Ozette Archaeological Site yielded more than 55,000 artifacts, many displayed here. makahmuseum.com
Chaco Canyon, N.M.
This archaeological site was the center of Pueblo culture for more than 400 years, reaching its peak around the year 1000. Ganteaume says it’s notable for the complex society that developed here and its architecture, which includes a great house built with thousands of wood roof beams. “There is evidence of incredible long-distance trade.” Findings include traces of cacao, the source of chocolate, which grows in rainforests, and the bones of the colorful macaw, both of which came from more than 1,000 miles away. nps.gov/chcu
Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Ohio
One of the world’s largest concentration of prehistoric landforms spiral over the landscape just south of Columbus. “They’re pretty enormous, and all these mounds would have had structures on top of them. What we see today as mounds are villages actually,” Ganteaume says. The city, she notes, had a complex society with leaders controlling the flow of goods and managing agriculture. nps.gov/hocu
Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology
Following the Gold Rush, California’s American Indian tribes were decimated. You can get a glimpse of their lost culture at this expansive museum. “There once was a huge population up and down the coast,” Ganteaume says. The museum’s famous for its former resident, Ishi, a Native American who may have been the last remaining member of his tribe. After emerging from the wild, he was taken to the museum, which was in San Francisco at the time. He was studied by anthropologists and gave demonstrations to visitors, before dying of tuberculosis in 1916. hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu
Old Oraibi, Ariz.
The Hopi Indians, known for their dances and kachina dolls, live in a wilderness area not far from the Grand Canyon. Oraibi, a preserved village, dates to 1150. In recent years the tribe has slowly begun to open to tourists. “It’s on a mesa top. It’s a very dramatic setting,” Ganteaume says. experiencehopi.com
Big Cypress Reservation, Fla.
When the federal government ordered the removal of Indian tribes from the Southeast, the Seminoles resisted, escaping to the swamps of South Florida, beyond the reach of the U.S. Army. Today they live on the Big Cypress Reservation and preserve more than 180,000 artifacts at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate. “The Seminoles,” Ganteaume says, “are survivors.” ahtahthiki.com