Cultural celebrations in Montana

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Surveying the best Native American cultural experiences across Montana

Yes, Montana is an incredible destination for outdoor adventure, wildlife-watching, and ranch retreats. It also happens to be a great place to learn more about Native Americans and American Indians. The state has 11 Indian tribes living on seven reservations—in summer, this means there are always opportunities to expand your cultural horizons and attend a festival affiliated with at least one tribe.

I experienced some of this culture firsthand earlier this year when the Expedia Viewfinder team visited Western Montana for our #PictureMontana summit. Here is a more comprehensive look at the best ways to get a Native American fix year-round.

North American Indian Days

This annual festival, held every July in Browning, to the east of Glacier National Park, is one of the largest gatherings of Native tribes from the United States and Canada. The festival celebrates Blackfeet traditions and attracts a variety of Plains tribes, who pitch tepees on the festival ground and engage in all sorts of colorful and lively activities—among them are stick games, dancing, drumming, and more. One of the most popular events of the festival is the Indian Relay, a relay race that involves bareback horseback riding. Each team in the race comprises four riders, and when teams switch, one rider jumps off and the next rider jumps on—all while the horse is moving. I dare you watch this event without sweating.

Arlee Powwow

The annual powwow in Arlee, about 30 minutes north of Missoula, isn’t just a celebration of Native American culture but also a celebration of American Independence. The party certainly has been raging for a while; this year’s event, which was held on July 4 (as it always is), was the 118th annual. It is the premier annual celebration of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes, sponsored by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Nation. The powwow includes drumming, singing and dancing contests, gambling, food, arts and crafts, and a big parade. There’s also a Snininpnmcutn, a special dance designed to honor veterans.

The People’s Center

On the surface, this museum in Pablo, south of Polson and Flathead Lake, offers a detailed look at the history of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes. Take a guided tour, however, and you realize that the exhibits themselves are only part of the experience. Because Native cultures rely so heavily on oral history, having a tour guide share personal anecdotes about artifacts and events throughout history provides perspective you simply can’t get anywhere else. The museum also offers classes in a variety of cultural activities, including basket weaving and dance. Pablo also happens to be the headquarters for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be shy about trying Native dances yourself; often Native American dancers are happy to teach their culture to others.

Museum of the Plains Indian

This facility, also in Browning, serves up a more traditional museum experience (perhaps because it’s owned by the Indian Arts & Crafts Board, which is a division of the federal government). Permanent exhibits feature headdresses, artwork, and hand-carved tools that have been used by Plains tribes for generations. Two special exhibition galleries are devoted to changing presentations promoting current Native American art. In totality, the collection is unique because it’s an all-inclusive look at the Plains Indians, instead of simply spotlighting one tribe. The result leaves visitors with a breadth of knowledge and experience—always a good way to round out understanding of a destination or area.

Finally, for a one-of-a-kind cultural experience inside Glacier National Park, sign up with Sun Tours for a guided tour over Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Native-owned company specializes in tours that introduce participants to the park from the perspective of the Blackfeet tribe—instead of simply noting picturesque landmarks. Tour guides stop at various points along each tour and provide guests with anecdotes about significant events that occurred in each spot along the way.

I haven’t done the tour myself, but friends who have say you learn more on an outing with Sun Tours than you would if you read an entire book about Blackfeet history. That’s the kind of cultural immersion I can support.

What are your favorite ways to experience new cultures?

Expedia compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site, such compensation may include travel and other costs.

Matt Villano

In more than 20 years as a professional journalist, Matt Villano has had articles published in outlets including TIME, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Entrepreneur, to name a few. He currently blogs about family travel at WanderingPod.com, and occasionally covers family travel for Family Fun and Scholastic Parent & Child magazines. Villano also wrote the family travel blog for Parenting magazine, and an adventure travel blog for SeeAmerica.com (a one-time website of Brand USA). In addition to travel, Villano’s areas of expertise are business, technology and gambling. When he’s not working at his stand-up desk, Villano is chasing after his three daughters, both of whom are future New York Yankees fans. His favorite destination on Earth is his (adopted) hometown of Healdsburg, California. No. 2 on the list: Vancouver Island, British Columbia (specifically Tofino). For more about Villano, visit Whalehead.com.

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