6 Ways to Explore Native American Culture Near Boston

As Thanksgiving approaches, honor this country's legacy by learning about the history, heritage and contemporary culture of the people who lived here first.

Can you smell the turkey roasting yet? Or the pumpkin pie baking? Thanksgiving is approaching and, with it, mouthwatering visions of this annual family meal.

In November, Americans—especially those of us living in the Northeast, where the holiday hits particularly close to home—conjure up nostalgia for that first harvest festival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, where the Pilgrims gathered for a communal meal with the area’s native inhabitants.

But November also marks a lesser-known, yet still significant occasion: Native American Heritage Month.

Boston's home state gets its name from one of its many native groups, the Massachusett; other local tribes include the Wampanoag, Ponkapoag, Naumkeag and Narraganset. Though their collective heritage might not be recognized as prominently in the East as in some Western states, there’s much to learn and explore in Boston. Ready? Let’s go.

Grab the kiddos and take them to the Boston Children’s Museum, where the special exhibition Native Voices: New England Tribal Families examines the cultures of five modern-day New England native communities. The whole experience is hands-on and immersive, allowing the pint-sized to venture into "environments" that have them tobogganing with Penobscot children, exploring a cranberry bog with the Aquinnah Wampanoag, and even visiting powwows across the U.S. 
308 Congress St., Boston, MA, 617.426.6500 

Take a day and venture 45 minutes south of Boston to the seaside town of Plymouth, where resides Smithsonian-affiliated living history museum Plimoth Plantation. Dedicated to telling two distinct yet related cultural stories, this place plays host to the English Village and the Wampanoag Homesite, the latter of which demonstrates how the 17 century Wampanoag people would have lived and their style of dwellings, how they would have prepared food and more.
137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, MA, 508.746.1622

Appeal to the Great Spirit stands in front of the Museum of Fine Arts (©Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Appeal to the Great Spirit stands in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

You don't have to pay admission to the Museum of Fine Arts to observe Cyrus E. Dallin’s arresting bronze sculpture Appeal to the Great Spirit—it stands within the Bank of America Plaza outdoors along Huntington Avenue. The larger-than-real-life Sioux chief sits on horseback with his arms out and face uplifted to the sky. Its artist grew up in Utah among the Ute tribe. Of course, there's more to check out in the museum's Art of the Americas' wing.
465 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA, 617.267.9300

The fashion-conscious crowd can get a style fix at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where the new exhibition Native Fashion Now (opens Nov. 21) spotlights a range of contemporary apparel, from street wear to haute couture, created over the last 60 years by Native American designers. Beaded Christian Louboutin boots by Jamie Okuma, innovative jewelry by Pat Pruitt and Patricia Michaels' recent "Project Runway" ensembles make serious statements.

 Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013-14 (detail). Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. (Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Coruby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman. ©Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver)
Jamie Okuma. Boots, 2013-14 (detail). Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. (©Walter Silver)

Karen Kramer, PEM's Curator of Native American Art and Culture, says, "Native American art and culture are often perceived as phenomena of the past—or just mere replicas. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience."
161 Essex St., Salem, MA, 978.745.9500

At Harvard University, much of the Peabody Museum is devoted to the American Indian. In fact, it's currently running three related exhibitions. The largest, "Change and Continuity: Hall of the North American Indian" honors a variety of this country's native tribes with authentic artifacts from eight different regions. Others focus on Lakota sketches from the battle of Little Big Horn and Harvard's Indian College.
11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA, 617.496.1027

Wiyohpiyata warrior art on display at the Peabody Museum (©President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Wiyohpiyata warrior art on display at the Peabody Museum (Courtesy President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Abandon museum galleries for this annual event: the Cultural Survival Bazaar. For two weekends, indigenous people from around the world gather to sell handcrafted wares, and many of these artisans come from various Native American traditions. Wampanoag Elizabeth James-Perry creates woven cedar basketry and wampum jewelry. Leonard (Mohawk and Cheyenne) and Amalia (Apache) Four Hawks make pottery, clay sculpture and jewelry for their Fire Hawk Studio. After shopping, get a taste of traditional Wampanoag food at Chef Sherry Pocknett's Sly Fox's Den food stand in dishes like buffalo sausage with peppers and onions, smoked bluefish and mussels, and snapping turtle soup.
Dec. 11-13, 2015: The Shops at Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St., Boston, MA
Dec. 19-20, 2015: Harvard University, 1730 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA