Lac du Flambeau: Ojibwe heritage rich

The past matters to Nick Hockings, and he gladly relives it daily, especially during this time of year.

Waswagoning – on the shore of a pristine lake in the heart of Lac du Flambeau country – is one way for Nick to keep his Ojibwe tribe’s cultural traditions alive, and its historical record accurate.

It also is evidence of the depth that Native American tourism can have in Wisconsin, given the right determination and resources. Waswagoning is an authentic 17th century Native American village, developed by Nick 11 years ago, not long after traditional spring tribal spear fishing drew the ire of protesters and sparked violence. The court system eventually sided with the tribe.

Lac du Flambeau means “Lake of the Torches,” Waswagoning means “The Place Where They Spearfish by Torchlight” and guides at the historic village will explain the mindset of their ancestors as well as the techniques that make up tribal traditions.

Nick and others from the Ojibwe’s Lac du Flambeau Band trapped and skinned the animals whose hides drape and warm the wigwams at Waswagoning. They have stripped birch bark to make waterproof baskets and canoes, built a smokehouse out of basswood, dug fire pits and cleared walking paths.

They know how a spinning stick can turn dried grass into fire, how wild rice is harvested, why deer tallow is eaten in winter. Life rhythms, then and to some extent now, change with the four seasons.

This attraction is about attitude as well as the skills that were needed to survive. The Ojibwe has seven clans, Nick patiently explains, each with its own role to make sure the community’s needs are covered. So the gentle deer clan provides a sense of home as well as actual housing. The bear clan protects the others, acting as police, legal guardians, medicinal herb/plant experts.

Nick’s commitment, as a part of the bird clan, is to be a keeper of the traditions and a spiritual guide. That makes Waswagoning a good match for him; he has spent his adult life explaining and demonstrating Native American culture in other forums, too.

Ed Hall of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian has “helped bring the significance of Native American cultures to the forefront,” but the average tourist has yet to distinguish one tribe from another.

He observes that more Wisconsin tribal members are participating in all levels of the tourism industry, but as tourism offerings become more sophisticated and wide-ranging, development holds more inner struggles.

“What are you willing to exchange dollars for, and what will you not” turn into an attraction, he asked, during this year’s Native American Tourism of Wisconsin conference at Lac du Flambeau. Sacred sites and rituals, tribes tend to agree, are not appropriate to capitalize upon commercially.

In Wisconsin, the foundation for strong cultural tourism has been set, says Gayle Junnila of Minnesota’s state tourism office, which she says is waiting for tribes “to tell us what they want to do here.”

“We are sensitive to the difference between gaming and cultural heritage,” she says, but no attraction can be promoted until it is solidly established.

“You have to have a viable product – you have to have activities, events, attractions that are open on specific dates. People need to know these things will be there when they arrive during a vacation.”

Ed wants Native Americans to acknowledge and interpret the negative aspects of history as well as cultural traditions. “They are a part of our story, too,” he contends.

For the Lac du Flambeau, untouched is the abandoned government boarding school that was closed decades ago. It is a silent symbol of conflict; students were punished for speaking their native Ojibwe language, forced to discard their native dress and wear school uniforms, disciplined because of their heritage.

The Lac du Flambeau population of 2,000 quadruples in summer, says Stephanie Tralongo of the local chamber of commerce. Although the biggest business easily is Lake of the Torches Resort Casino, the community does not want the impact of tourism to be limited to the thrill of gambling.

Waswagoning is not the only local attraction that is about history and heritage. At the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center, elaborate dioramas and other exhibits document Lac du Flambeau history and lifestyle. There also are craft and nature workshops for the public, conducted by tribal members, as well as pow wows, typically weekly in summer, but downtown construction work has hampered the schedule this year.

“How has gambling affected our culture,” Nick Hockings asks, rhetorically. “We’ve always gambled. It’s always been a part of our lives.” Native Americans for centuries have competed, entertained and settled arguments by way of a game, while wagering canoes to arrows.

There is a big difference between that and warfare, Nick says, but “the demonizing still exists” because Native Americans tend to be complacent or at a loss about how to stand up for themselves.

For more about Waswagoning, see www.waswagoning.com or call (715) 588-2615. The village is open for tours five days a week, from June to early September.

For more about the Ojibwe museum, see www.ojibwe.com or call (715) 588-3333. Hours of operation depend upon the time of year.

For more about tourism in Wisconsin’s 11 Native American communities, consult the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council at www.glitc.org or (715) 588-3324.