Groups find cultural treasures and slices of the rip-roaring West in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico
In big cities and wide-open spaces, pockets of Western heritage abound. Awaiting tour groups are top-notch museums, lively historic districts, Native American communities and special events like rodeos and powwows.
At many attractions, glimpses of yesteryear will bring back a flood of memories for baby boomers who grew up watching Western movies and TV shows or playing cowboys and Indians with their toy six-shooters and tomahawks. Travelers of all ages enjoy learning about lifestyles in the West today and traditions that have survived.
Once known as Indian Territory, Oklahoma is still home to more American Indian tribes than any other state. Thirty-nine tribal headquarters and members of at least 67 tribes make their home within the state’s borders. Oklahoma license plates bear the words “Native America,” and you’ll see many plates with “Cherokee Nation,” “Muscogee Nation” and other tribal designations.
The state also has strong cowboy roots. Ranches dot the landscape, rodeos take place every month of the year, Western wear and tack stores are numerous, and you’ll find one horse for every 12 people, more per capita than any other state.
Oklahoma City, the state capital and biggest metro area, abounds with reminders of the state’s wild ’n’ wooly past with attractions like the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Anyone with a passion for America’s cowboys-and-Indians past can spend hours roaming the galleries. From ranching and rodeos to Native American cultures, it’s a sterling showcase of Western life. The nostalgia-loaded Western Performers Gallery spotlights movie and TV favorites like John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Props, posters, comic books, trading cards and lunch boxes recall the good old days. Actor Sam Elliott narrates Silver Screen Cowboys, a film about Western stars who rode the range righting wrongs, usually with the help of their pistols or fists. The museum also abounds with world-class Western art and sculpture. Save time for the museum gift shop, a treasure chest of Western lore, from artwork and jewelry to books and DVDs of old movies.
The Oklahoma History Center, another must-see museum, also immortalizes Western stars with movie clips. One gallery spotlights all 39 Indian tribes of Oklahoma, which means “land of the red man.” In 2014 the city will unveil the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. The Red Earth Festival, one of the largest powwows in America, takes place the first weekend in June in Oklahoma City. Representatives from more than 100 tribes gather to celebrate their heritage with competitions, dance, music and food.
For more Western encounters in Oklahoma City, groups should see a cattle auction at the Oklahoma National Stockyards, a historic commercial district with Western wear stores, shows at the Rodeo Opry and the landmark Cattleman’s Steakhouse. OKC pays tribute to the cowboy’s trusted companion, his horse, at six major horse shows at the State Fairgrounds Arena
In Northeastern Oklahoma, groups will find many Cherokee attractions and can take advantage of day-long tours offered by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism Department. (After the Navajos, the Cherokees are the largest group of American Indians.) At the Ancient Village, one of the outdoor museums at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, you can see demonstrations of various crafts, from cooking and gardening to arrowhead and basket making. Sights in downtown Tahlequah include the Cherokee National Capitol and Cherokee National Supreme Court Building.
Cherokee Tourism offers an itinerary devoted to the late humorist Will Rogers, America’s most famous Cherokee (and a cowboy as well). The tour visits the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore and Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch near Oologah.
Tulsa is home to the Gilcrease Museum, which boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Native American and Western art. Paintings of bronco busters, covered wagons, cattle drives and Indian life, along with the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountains, all romanticize the early West. Among the renowned artists: Remington, Russell, Moran, Caitlin and Bierstadt.
Remingtons, Russells and Native American artifacts are on display at Woolaroc Ranch, Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville and Duncan’s Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, where a theater presentation and interactive exhibits tell the story of the legendary route used to move herds of cattle from Texas to the Kansas railroads in the late 19th century. Andarko preserves its Indian heritage at the Indian City USA, National Indian Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians and Southern Plains Indian Museum. At the Chickasaw Cultural Center, near Sulphur, groups can immerse them-selves in the culture of the Chickasaw Nation through state-of-the-art displays, an authentic Chickasaw village, large format theater and Chickasaw foods.
Cowboy and Indian heritage also unfolds at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Old Town Museum complex in Elk City and Pawnee Bill Ranch in Pawnee. Western movie actors are immortalized at the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum in Gene Autry and Tom Mix Museum in Dewey.
Countless attractions across our second largest state reinforce its cowboy image. From cattle roundups to buckin’ broncos, it’s all there.
In the Texas Panhandle, the Amarillo area personifies the Wild West. Take a scenic jeep tour to the floor of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, distinguished by the colorful strata of rock. At the base of 600-foot cliffs, the park’s Pioneer Amphitheater serves as the magnificent setting of the musical drama TEXAS, a summertime pageant featuring horses, sound effects, fireworks and more than 60 performers. Have a chuckwagon breakfast or supper at nearby Elkins Ranch.
Amarillo, a major cattle-feeding and shipping center, is home to Tuesday’s Amarillo Livestock Auction, one of the nation’s largest such auctions; the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum; Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian; and the excellent Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the campus of West Texas A & M University.
The little town of Bandera, in Texas Hill Country less than an hour from San Antonio, bills itself as the “Cowboy Capital of World.” Groups can choose from dude ranches in various sizes and price ranges. Besides horseback riding and campfires, ranch guests also have fun tubing, canoeing and kayaking down the cypress-lined Medina River.
Fort Worth brands itself with the slogan “Where the West Begins.” Unlike any other big city in the United States, Fort Worth captures the spirit of the American West with a rich variety of attractions and events. No district is as distinctly authentic as the 15-block Stockyards National Historic District, where you can see an actual cattle drive twice daily. Longhorn cattle, guided by cowhands in period dress, make their way down Exchange Avenue, a fitting tribute to Fort Worth’s heritage as a major stop along the Chisholm Trail.
Tourist magnets in the historic district include the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, located in the Stockyards’ original mule barns, plus plenty of saloons, restaurants and Western wear shops. One hotspot is Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2011, Billy Bob’s hosts top country acts every Friday and Saturday night, along with live bull riding in its indoor arena. The Stockyards Championship Rodeo takes place nearly every weekend at the Cowtown Coliseum, where the world’s first indoor rodeo was held in 1918. The Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame recently moved into the Coliseum after 35 years in the small town of Belton.
The city’s most famous rodeo is the Fort Worth Exposition and Livestock Show, which attracts nearly a million visitors every January and February to the Will Rogers Memorial Center, a landmark in the Fort Worth Cultural District. Founded in 1896, it is the oldest stock show in America and boasts the world’s longest non-mechanical parade, with hundreds of horses and riders heralding the start of this mega-event. Also in the Cultural District are the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and Amon Carter Museum of American Art, renowned for works by Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Special exhibitions and events will mark the museum’s 50th anniversary this year. There are 39 more Remingtons and Russells at the free Sid Richardson Museum in downtown’s Sundance Square entertainment district, a model of urban revitalization. Once known as Hell’s Half Kitchen, the historic quarter, named for the notorious Sundance Kid, drew cowboys to its saloons, gambling halls and brothels.
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, 26 miles west of Nacogdoches, travelers can learn about ancient Native American civilization at Caddo Mounds State Historic Site. More than 1,200 years ago, a group of Caddo Indians known as the Hasinai built a village and ceremonial center for the great Mound Builder culture. Visitors can see exhibits and follow an interpretive trail through reconstructed sites of Caddo dwellings and ceremonial areas, including two temple mounds, a burial mound and a village area. Nacogdoches, named for a Caddo tribe, is the oldest town in Texas, dating from 1687. The historic downtown abounds with specialty and antique shops, and the city offers a number of museums and historic homes. Millard’s Crossing Historic Village is a reconstruction of a 19th century East Texas village, with log and framed houses, a school, chapel and country store.
The Tigua Indian Cultural Center, on the Tigua Indian Reservation and Pueblo near El Paso, spotlights the little-known Tigua (TEE-wah) people, who have lived for more than three centuries in this corner of Texas near the Mexican border. Visitors to the center, located adjacent to the 1682 Ysleta Mission, can witness tribal dancing on weekends, watch artists at work, and smell and taste fresh bread made in traditional ovens, or hornos. Three miles east of Ysleta is the Socorro Mission, built in 1681 by the Piro Indians.
Indian cultures are woven into everyday life in New Mexico, which is home to 22 distinct tribes, each with a separate, sovereign government. Pueblo tours, museums and ceremonial dances provide plenty of insight. Casinos lure many groups to the reservations.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is the official interpretive center for the state’s 19 Pueblo tribes, offering a museum, exhibition galleries, a gift shop and the Pueblo Harvest Cafe & Bakery. Indian dances are held every weekend.
Acoma Pueblo, perched atop a 370-foot sandstone mesa 65 miles west of Albuquerque, is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Fewer than 50 tribal members live year-round in the earthen homes of “Sky City,” where Native guides offer tours. An addiontional 3,000 people live in nearby villages. At the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak´u Museum, groups can see potters crafting Acoma’s distinctive thin walled pottery and sample Acoma and New Mexican fare at the Yaak´a (corn) Restaurant. The tribe maintains the massive San Estevan del Rey Mission, completed in 1640. Gaming enthusiasts flock to the Sky City Casino & Hotel.
Zuni Pueblo, 35 miles south of Gallup, is famous for inlaid jewelry with mosaic patterns, needlepoint and stone carving. Jicarilla Apache Indian Nation, in the mountains and mesas of Northern New Mexico, is known for its baskets. In fact, Jicarilla means “little basket.” Groups enjoy the Jicarilla Arts and Crafts Shop and Museum, and the tribe operates two casinos.
The Navajo Nation sprawls across the Four Corners area, in the northwest corner of New Mexico north of Gallup. The largest U.S. tribe numbers 298,000 members, 70,000 of them in New Mexico. Navajo rugs and other crafts are available throughout the nation. From June to September, the Navajos put on nightly Indian dances at the Gallup Cultural Center, which occupies a restored Santa Fe Railroad depot. The center offers films about American Indian culture, audio-narrated exhibits, displays of sand paintings and other arts, and a bronze statue honoring World War II Navajo code talkers. The Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in August, centered at Red Rock Park, draws thousands with a rodeo, dances, and arts and crafts.
One of New Mexico’s special places is Taos, a laid-back art colony on a plateau at the southern end of the Rockies, locally known as the Sangre Crisco Mountains. No visitor to Taos should miss Taos Pueblo, a home for the Tiwa people for more than 1,000 years. Located north of town, the apartment-like adobe dwellings—the upper levels accessible by ladder—have changed little over the centuries. Of New Mexico’s 19 pueblo communities along the Rio Grande (there once were 76), this is the oldest and most photogenic. Besides the multi-story structures, the village has ground-level adobe houses as well. Corn dances and other events are open to the public.
Shopkeepers in the ancient buildings sell jewelry, pottery, moccasins, drums and other souvenirs. Also for sale are cookies, mini pies and hot fry bread made in outdoor hornos, or igloo-shaped adobe ovens. Other sights include an 1850 Catholic church and the ruins of one burned by the U.S. Cavalry.
Anyone with an interest in horses and cowboys will find plenty to like at Ruidoso’s Hubbard Museum of the American West, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Ruidoso hosts the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium every October. In the historic Western town of Lincoln, 32 miles northeast of Ruidoso, museum exhibits at Lincoln State Monument spotlight Billy the Kid, the 1878 Lincoln County War, cowboys, Apaches and Buffalo Soldiers. Also highly regarded is the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum in Las Cruces.
Anyone looking to explore the true cultural fabric of the American West—or in pursuit of romantic stereotypes—will find plenty of places to fuel their home-on-the-range dreams in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.