With traditional homelands stretching from the redwood forests in the northern reaches of the state to the desert along the Mexican border, California’s Native American lands are as diverse as the state’s more than 100 federally recognized tribes. While travelers are most familiar with the beautiful resorts and casinos operated by the tribes, they may not be aware of the many other ways to experience both California’s Indian past and the dynamic, modern lives of the state’s Native American peoples.
Visiting these tribal lands is a whole different way to see the Golden State, whether you stop into cultural centers, attend a powwow, or explore unspoiled natural areas.
Museums and Cultural Centers
During California’s ancient past, at least 64 different languages were spoken here, giving the state one of the most diverse populations of any region in the Western Hemisphere. Today California has the largest Native American population of any state and, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, approximately 1.4 million Californians identify as full or partially American Indian and Alaskan Native.
California’s indigenous peoples celebrate and commemorate their unique heritage at tribal museums and cultural centers throughout the state. Right in the heart of Palm Springs, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is building an ambitious new cultural plaza with design details and architecture inspired by basketry, pottery, and desert landscapes. The plaza features a 48,000-square-foot museum that’s destined to be California’s most impressive Native American cultural facility. It will include an interpretive trail and a spa at the site of the healing hot springs the tribe has used for thousands of years.
To the south in San Diego County, the award-winning Barona Cultural Center & Museum looks at the history and living traditions of the region’s Kumeyaay/Diegueño people. The museum’s extensive collection has artifacts that date back 10,000 years, and you can pick up authentic shell jewelry and baskets made by local native artisans at the museum store. Outside the Inland Empire town of Banning, the Malki Museum opened in 1965 and was the first California museum founded by Native Americans. Housed in an adobe building on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, it exhibits baskets and pottery and has an ethnobotanical garden with 50 native plants used by the Cahuilla.
Several tribes curate cultural centers on historic tribal lands now managed as part of national parks and forests (in Mendocino County, 523 acres were recently returned to local indigenous tribes, but public access is not permitted). Los Angeles has the largest indigenous population of any U.S. city, and in an old Angeles National Forest fire station northeast of downtown in the San Gabriel Mountains, the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center tells the story of five regional tribes—the Chumash, Tongva, Kitanemuk, Serrano, and Tataviam. Its events include the Yarmar Spring Celebration, which features storytelling, musical performances, and crafts demonstrations.
The Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles is part of the homeland for both the Tongva and Chumash peoples, and in the range’s western end at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center, you can see the replica of a traditional Chumash dwelling known as an ‘ap, and learn about the culture from tribal guest hosts. From the center, the 1.5-mile Satwiwa Loop Trail explores an area considered sacred by the Chumash.
On Sequoia National Forest land east of Bakersfield, the Nuui Cunni Cultural Center is operated by the Kern River Paiute Council and hosts regular basketmaking, gourd art, and other native craft classes. Visit the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop to see elaborately woven baskets or to purchase arts and crafts created by native artisans.
In Santa Rosa, the nonprofit National Indian Justice Center’s California Indian Museum & Cultural Center has an exhibit about Ishi, the famous Yahi tribesman dubbed “the last wild Indian in California” after he emerged in 1911 from the mountains near Oroville in Butte County. In the Shasta Cascade community of Shasta Lake, the Wintu Cultural Resource Center and Museum uses artifacts and displays to tell the story of the Wintu Tribe, from the pre-European era to the present day.
Another way to experience indigenous cultures is at a powwow, an intertribal gathering during which Indians from all over the country assemble for days of dancing, singing, and storytelling. USA Today hailed the Morongo Thunder & Lightning Powwow as one of the 10 best in the U.S, and the event helps kick off the busy fall season, which also includes a major Chumash powwow in the Santa Ynez Valley, the Suscol Intertribal Council’s Annual Powwow in Napa, and Sycuan’s Annual Pow-Wow near San Diego.
Out on the Land
With nearly 5,000 enrolled members, the Yurok Tribe is considered the largest in California, and you can discover a wealth of outdoor adventures by stopping into the Yurok Country Visitor Center in Klamath. Learn about Yurok traditions as you paddle in an authentic redwood dugout canoe on two-hour guided tours that explore the Klamath River. For a higher-octane outing, 50-mile roundtrip Klamath River Jet Boat Tours travel from the coast to deep within Yurok Country along the river. The Klamath may just be California’s top stream for steelhead and salmon fishing, and, whether you’re expert or a beginner, Pergish Carlson’s Blue Creek Guide Service leads fly-fishing trips on the river.
On the opposite end of the state in the Coachella Valley, you can visit natural desert oases and a sacred canyon on Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians land. The three Indian Canyons let you escape into secluded groves of California fan palms towering above shaded pools with sites used by native peoples centuries ago and that draw numerous bird species. At Tahquitz Canyon, hikes and guided outings begin from a beautiful contemporary visitor center and lead to a 60-foot waterfall.
In the mountains of San Diego County, Los Coyotes Reservation borders Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is home to 6,533-foot Hot Springs Mountain, the highest point in the county. Purchase a hiking permit and take on the challenging 10-mile roundtrip to the summit, where the views extend from the desert to the coast. The reservation also has primitive campsites (you have to haul in your own water).