California Native American Cultural Guide
As one of the largest states in the country, California has a profound Native American heritage that spans the entire length of this 760 mile-long state. Home to over 100 tribes, California’s tribal heritage runs deep and although tourism often overlooks indigenous experiences and activities, it’s time that more travelers dedicated a portion of their trips to experience them.
Whether you're drawn to immersive museums like the Autry Museum of the American West, which pays tribute to the contributions of Native American tribes, or you're eager to visit sacred sites and historical locations like Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, the state provides an abundance of opportunities for cultural enrichment.
Satisfy your palate with indigenous cuisine at restaurants like Wahpepah's Kitchen or Café Ohlone, and savor indigenous-inspired libations at breweries such as Mad River Brewing or wineries like Camins 2 Dreams. For those seeking active and educational adventures, consider jet boat tours along the Klamath River or immerse yourself in the vibrant ambiance of a Pow Wow, where the traditions, music, and dances of Native American communities come to life.
Furthermore, annual events like the California Indian Basketweavers' Association gathering and the Indigenous People's Day Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island provide unique insights into the cultural significance of these traditions and the contemporary challenges faced by Native American communities.
From Pow Wows to delicious, indigenous-owned restaurants, museums, and even breweries, here are some of the best cultural experiences to have in California.
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In essence, California's Native American Cultural Guide invites travelers to not just witness, but actively engage with the indigenous heritage that has indelibly shaped the state's history. By delving into these cultural destinations and participating in these activities, you can establish a profound connection with the diverse and enduring legacy of Native American communities in California.
Museums are one of the best ways for interested visitors to connect with California’s Native American roots. Weaving a beautiful tapestry of indigenous life, these museums reveal a side of the Golden State that many people have never seen or heard before. These museums, complete with archives, ethnographic materials, and archaeological artifacts, reveal an important part of California’s history.
Here are some of the best indigenous-focused museums in the state, organized by region for easy planning purposes!
- Autry Museum of the American West
- One of the standout features of the Autry Museum is its dedication to celebrating the diverse cultures that have thrived in the American West. The museum's collection is now over 70% Native American. It showcases the traditions, stories, and contributions of Native American tribes, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and other groups who have made the West their home. This commitment to inclusivity fosters a deeper understanding of the region's complex history and the ongoing legacy of these diverse communities.
- Barona Cultural Center & Museum
- Located in Lakeside, California, just outside of San Diego, the Barona Cultural Center & Museum focuses on San Diego county’s rich indigenous heritage. Exhibits include photograph and audio archives, artifacts, and ethnographic materials. Visitors will also enjoy their research library, beautiful gardens, and native seed library. The Barona Cultural Center & Museum also happens to be the only museum on a reservation within the San Diego area.
- Malki Museum
- The lifework of Jane Penn, The Malki Museum is a direct tribute to her ancestors including her great aunt, Margaret Pablo who envisioned a museum to continue telling the story of her people. The Cahuilla people are represented in Jane’s original collection of Cahuilla arts and crafts. Visitors will enjoy the impressive collection of archaeological artifacts, including Jane’s contributions, a native garden, and seasonal events. The Malki Museum is located in Banning, California, just outside the San Bernardino National Forest.
- Antelope Valley Indian Museum
- A visit to the Antelope Valley Indian Museum reveals archaeological artifacts and beautiful artwork, a dedication to the indigenous peoples of the Great Basin region of California. Visitors will find a collection of traditional pottery, beadwork, weavings, and paintings, most donated to the museum by Grace Wilcox Oliver who purchased the property and artifacts from the original collector, Howard Arden Edwards. Be aware that the museum is only open on weekends from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.
- Chumash Indian Museum
- Located in Thousand Oaks, California, the Chumash Indian Museum displays exhibits and a demonstration village of the Chumash people. Artifacts on display include arrowheads, beads, and traditional woven baskets, among many others. Guests will also enjoy their educational displays about the history and lifestyle of the Chumash people. Visitors can take part in once-monthly nature hikes, led by a docent of the museum. Located across town, visitors may also be interested in the Satwiwa Native American Center for more information on the Chumash people.
- Nuui Cunni Cultural Center
- Originally created by the US Forest Service Sequoia National Forest, the Nuui Cunni Cultural Center aims to educate the public about the indigenous peoples of this beautiful area. Guests will love the cultural artifacts and the native garden with over 50 indigenous plants. The Nuui Cuuni Cultural Center has also been holding crafting classes every Wednesday for the last 15 years! Visitors can take part in traditional Native American crafts like basket weaving. This wonderful museum is located along Lake Isabella in Central California.
- Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center
- The Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center helps visitors connect with the rich indigenous heritage of Central California. Two tribes called the Owens Valley home, the Newe (Shoshone) and Nuumu (Paiute). Located in the shadow of the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains, not far from Yosemite National Park, the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center is in Bishop, California. This cultural center aims to educate guests on their way of life through historic archives, artifacts, and beautiful photography, among other ethnographic displays. They also hold seasonal events like the spring and fall pinenut blessing and a holiday market in December.
- Maturango Museum
- Situated in the northern Mojave Desert, the Maturango Museum. Located near Death Valley, this museum has both a permanent and temporary collection of exhibits that include exhibits on archaeological artifacts, art galleries, and more. They also lead tours to the stunning Coso Petroglyphs, of which some date back 13,000 years.
- Sierra Mono Museum
- Located at the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Mono Museum celebrates the Mono peoples' cultural tradition. Visitors can peruse the museum to see their permanent displays, with artifacts like soaproot brushes, or stop by for storytelling time. Stop by their gift shop for intricately crafted beadwork jewelry and other fun souvenirs, all purchases supporting the museum.
- California Indian Museum & Cultural Center
- The California Indian Museum & Cultural Center aims to ensure the survival of Native American culture through education and creating displays from an indigenous perspective. The museum holds an unbelievable density of artifacts and has curated exhibits like the Precious Cargo Exhibit, detailing cradle basket traditions, and an Indigenous Foods Exhibit, among many others like their photography collection. CIMCC also works with Tribal Youth Ambassadors to promote Native American culture in their local community.
- Wintu Cultural Resource Center and Museum
- In the shadow of the indigenous spiritual meriden of Mount Shasta, the Wintu Cultural Resource Center, and Museum tells the story of the Wintu people and neighboring tribes through a beautifully displayed timeline and archaeological artifacts.
Landmarks & Historical Sites
California is home to dozens of indigenous landmarks and historical sites. From impressive petroglyphs to stunning traditional structures, a visit to these important locations helps to tell the story of the Golden State’s Native American heritage. These are some of the landmarks and historical sites that would make a great addition to any trip to California.
- Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
- Located in Santa Barbara County, the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is a small cave, decorated with fabulous Chumash paintings. Said to have been completed sometime in the 1600’s, the paintings are vibrant, and yet, researchers aren’t sure what they indicate. Because this is such a small site, there is only parking for a few cars and visitors should be aware that the stairs and trail leading to the cave are steep. The cave is also protected by a gate but visitors can still peer inside to reveal the paintings.
- Indian Canyons State Nature Preserve
- As the home of the Aguas Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Indian Canyons and Tahquitz Canyon encompass an area near Palm Springs. As a sacred place to the Cahuilla peoples, this nature preserve is a mosaic of indigenous life and includes house pits, reservoirs, dams, irrigation ditches, and rock art. The canyons include Palm Canyon, Andreas Canyon, and Murray Canyon, all home to unique indigenous plants, like the striking fan palms, waterfalls, and generally stunning scenery. Evidence of Cahuilla life is everywhere, including bedrock mortars. Admission is $12 for adults or $6 for children. Visitors can also join ranger-led interpretive hikes from October to June.
Central & Northern California
- Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park
- Perhaps one of the most unique Native American sites in the entire state of California, the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park is home to the largest amount of bedrock mortars in the entirety of the United States. Bedrock mortars, known as chaw’se in Miwok, are areas in a large stone slab where the Miwok peoples ground acorns and seeds. These grinding areas are distinct holes, formed within the stone. The largest collection of chaw’se in the park also happens to be covered in hundreds of petroglyphs. The park also includes a reconstructed Miwok village and Roundhouse. Cultural gatherings still take place in the Roundhouse today. Stop by the Chaw’se Regional Indian Museum, housed in a beautiful building whose architecture reflects that of the Roundhouse, for cultural and natural displays. The park also has hiking trails, picnic areas, and campsites.
- Wassama Round House State Historic Park
- The Wassama Round House State Historic Park’s foremost mission is to preserve the traditional meeting place for the Southern Sierra Miwok people. The Round House that still stands in the park today was traditionally used for gatherings, harvests, mourning dances, and prayer. This is a stunning place to connect with California’s indigenous heritage in a very palpable way. This historic state park is located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Ahwahnee, California.
- Carrizo Plain National Monument – Painted Rock
- Located between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, the Carrizo Plain National Monument – Painted Rock. The park's star of the show, Painted Rock itself, is decorated with thousand-year-old petroglyphs. Guests will need a reservation whether they want to do a self-guided trip or hop on a tour of the area.
- Sky Rock Petroglyphs
- The petroglyphs at Sky Rock are estimated to be between 2000 to 3000 years old, and they offer a glimpse into the artistic and spiritual expressions of the indigenous people who once inhabited the area. The carvings depict a variety of images, including human-like figures, animals, geometric patterns, and abstract symbols. While their exact meaning remains a subject of scholarly debate, it is believed that they may have served as a form of communication, storytelling, or ceremonial art for the ancient inhabitants.
One of the best ways to experience a culture is through taste. Indigenous eateries are an integral part of understanding Native American culture and traditions, exploring their wholesome ingredients and unique flavor profiles. Here are some of the best indigenous-owned restaurants in California!
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- Wahpepah’s Kitchen
- Located in downtown Oakland, Wahpepah’s Kitchen focuses on reclaiming native food and its naturally healthy composition. Ancestral preparation and celebration of food is at the heart of owner Crystal Wahpepah's, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe, core philosophy. Just a few of the immaculately curated dishes include the Bison Frybread Taco, Three Sisters Veggie Bowl, Heirloom Blue Corn Bread, and Smoked Salmon Dip.
- Cafe Ohlone
- Owned and operated by two Ohlone people, Cafe Ohlone’s ties to native heritage are evident in every facet of their restaurant and business. As self-described cultural diplomats, Cafe Ohlone celebrates native culinary traditions through generations of knowledge. Located on the doorstep of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, stop in for incredible indigenous eats like Soft Boiled Quail Eggs, Crispy Ohlone Potatoes, and Roasted Fiddleheads, all washed down with Rose Hip Tea.
- Temalpahk Farm
- The Temalpahk Farm, nestled in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains in Coachella, California, is owned and operated by members of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. While not technically a restaurant, Temalpahk Farm does have a Smoothie Bar and Market where visitors can shop their organic, sustainable produce and products and grab a fresh smoothie to sip while they peruse.
Breweries & Wineries
Many visitors will be familiar with California’s burgeoning craft beer scene and long history of winemaking – and will probably be looking to partake in a sample or two! Why not seek out indigenous-owned breweries and vineyards? Grab a brew or sip a glass of wine at these Native American-owned wineries and breweries.
- Mad River Brewing
- Mad River Brewing is one of the first indigenous-owned breweries in the United States. Some of their taste bud-tingling brews include the Maize Goddess Indigenous Ale and the Canyon of Dreams Pale Ale. These beers are Yurok Country Certified by the Yurok Tribe. Products that meet this rigorous certification must meet certain environmental standards. Mad River Brewing is located in Blue Lake, California.
- Feather Falls Brewing Company
- Owned by the Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians, Feather Falls Brewing Co. is a microbrewery located within the Feather Falls Lodge in Oroville, California. Sample delicious brews like Soaring Eagle, a German-style pilsner, and their hefeweizen, Dancing Trees.
- 3R Brewery
- Labeled right on their intricately designed cans, 3R Brewery is Native American owned. The 3 R’s stand for Rincon Reservation Road, located in Valley Center, California. The Rincon Reservation Road connects many tribes to each other and was once a trail used by the Luiseño people to reach the coast from the mountains. Sip on the Luiseño Hazy IPA, Rez Dog Hefeweizen, or their Rincon Lite Native American Lager at their impressive tasting room.
- Camins 2 Dreams Winery
- Tucked away in the Santa Ynez Valley, Camins 2 Dreams Winery was co-founded by Tara Gomez, a Chumash Tribe member and expert enologist. After starting her own labels Kalawashaq’ Wine Cellars and Kitá, Tara opened Camins 2 Dreams with her partner Mireia. You can sample their delicious wines at their tasting room in downtown Lompoc.
- Séka Hills
- Located in the serene Capay Valley, Séka Hills produces an array of products from wine to olive oil, vinegar, wildflower honey, and more. Owned by members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the Tribe takes their stewardship of Séka Hills 25,000 acres of land seriously and uses sustainable farming practices. Visit their Tasting Room in Clarksburg to sample their tasty wines and fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil.
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Activities & Tours
Explore California’s unique landscape through these activities and tours.
- Agua Calientes Mineral Hot Springs
- Used for thousands of years by the Agua Calientes people as a therapeutic treatment and potable fresh water source, the Agua Calientes Mineral Hot Springs is not only a beautiful natural feature of the landscape in Palm Springs but also a sacred site for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The tribe reclaimed these hot springs in the early 1900s, building new bathhouses. A new wellness resort, Spa at Séc-He, opened in 2023, giving visitors a chance to soak in these healing waters once again.
- Klamath Jet Boat Tours
- The Klamath River is the lifeblood and home of the Yurok Tribe. What better way to explore this area than by taking a jet boat tour with a Yurok guide? This scenic and, at times, thrilling ride reveals the rich history of the area and Yurok people, detailed by your tour operator. Many tours also see incredible wildlife like black bears, osprey, and eagles.
Pow Wows are one of the best ways for travelers to connect with a state's indigenous heritage – and they’re a ton of fun! This is a short list of annual Pow Wows that take place in California.
- Los Angeles Pow Wow
Los Angeles, California
- Hart of the West Native American Pow Wow
- Santa Ynez Chumash InterTribal Pow Wow
Santa Ynez, Californiaia
- Morongo Thunder and Lightning Pow Wow
- San Manuel Pow Wow
San Bernardino California
- Annual Barona Pow Wow
- Hawaiian Gardens Robert Canada Friendship Pow Wow
Hawaiian Gardens, California
- UC San Diego Annual Pow Wow
San Diego, California
- Balboa Park Pow Wow
San Diego, California
- Annual UCLA Pow Wow
Los Angeles, California
- Cal State Long Beach Annual Pow Wow
Long Beach, California
- Pechanga Pow Wow
- Table Mountain Rancheria Annual Pow Wow
- Annual Santa Rosa Days Pow Wow & Gathering
- Big Sandy Rancheria Annual Pow Wow & Gathering
- Annual Labor Day Pow Wow at the University of the Pacific
- Yurok Tribe's 50th Annual Klamath Salmon Festival 2023
- Annual Sacramento Contest Pow Wow
- Annual Summer Big Time Pow Wow (Fairfield, CA)
- Annual Dancing Feathers Youth Pow Wow
San Francisco, California
- Annual Mariposa Pow Wow Chi-Tock-Kote-U-Pu
- Annual Stanford Pow Wow
- Annual Ohlone “Big Time” Gathering & Pow Wow
- Annual UC Davis Pow Wow
- Bay Area American Indian Two Spirit Pow Wow
San Francisco, California
Aside from Pow Wows, California has a wealth of events centered on Native American culture. From a sunrise vigil on Alcatraz Island to a gathering of traditional basketweavers, here are a few other events that are perfect for planning a trip around.
- Annual California Indian Basketweavers' Association
The Annual California Indian Basketweavers’ Association holds an event every year at the end of June. This gathering is a wonderful way for basketweavers to come together both physically and spiritually, and for the community at large to learn this ancient art form.
- Long Beach’s Moompetam Festival
Held every year at the Long Beach Aquarium, the Moompetam American Indian Festival celebrates the Los Angeles area's local tribal culture. Events include storytelling and craft demonstrations, as well as music and dance.
- Indigenous People’s Day on Alcatraz Island
As the sun rises on October 9th, a gathering takes place on Alcatraz Island. Known as the Indigenous People’s Day Sunrise Gathering, the event is open to any who want to take part. Many local tribes have a spiritual connection to this tiny island in San Francisco Bay and use this day to bring focus to the continued discrimination against Native Americans, as well as land rights and poor standard of living.
- Indigenous Pride LA
Celebrating California’s Native American LGBTQIA community, the Indigenous Pride LA event is held every year in October. The event includes cultural performances, drag shows, artisan booths, food, and more.
- Annual California Native American Day
Held every year on the fourth Friday in September, the Annual California Native American Day is an important celebration. Events take place in multiple locations throughout the state including at the Capitol Building in Sacramento and at Cal State San Bernardino. Events include traditional music, cultural demonstrations, delicious food, and artwork.
- Indigenous Red Market
Over 40 vendors make up the Indigenous Red Market, a gathering in Oakland, California that’s centered on providing indigenous peoples of California with better healthcare and wellness services. Each event is unique and features famous members of the community like indigenous singers, comedians, dancers, and DJ’s. Visitors can also look forward to delicious indigenous food and artwork.
California's Native American cultural heritage is a treasure trove waiting to be explored by travelers seeking a deeper connection with the state's history and traditions. With over 100 tribes and a rich tapestry of indigenous experiences, California offers a diverse range of activities, museums, landmarks, and events that showcase the deep-rooted heritage of the American West. From immersive museums celebrating the contributions of Native American tribes to sacred sites, indigenous-owned restaurants, and even breweries and wineries, there's a plethora of ways to engage with this vibrant culture.
Whether you're drawn to the educational and immersive experiences offered by museums like the Autry Museum of the American West or you prefer to explore the stunning landscapes and historical sites like Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, California provides countless opportunities for cultural enrichment.
Indulge your taste buds with indigenous cuisine at restaurants like Wahpepah's Kitchen or Café Ohlone, and sip on indigenous-inspired beverages at breweries such as Mad River Brewing or wineries like Camins 2 Dreams.
For those who seek an active and educational adventure, consider activities like jet boat tours along the Klamath River or immersing yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of a Pow Wow, where the traditions, music, and dances of Native American communities come to life.
Beyond these experiences, annual events such as the California Indian Basketweavers' Association gathering and the Indigenous People's Day Sunrise Gathering on Alcatraz Island provide unique insights into the cultural significance of these traditions and the ongoing challenges faced by Native American communities.
In conclusion, California's Native American Cultural Guide invites travelers to embark on a journey of discovery, appreciation, and celebration of the indigenous heritage that has shaped the Golden State's rich history. By exploring these cultural destinations and participating in these activities, you can forge a deeper connection with the diverse and enduring legacy of Native American communities in California.
Last Updated on October 10, 2023 by Paul G