Native American arts authentic at Chief Oshkosh, Egg Harbor

One of our last stops during a girlfriend getaway to Door County this month was almost an afterthought. “That place with the teepee has been there forever,” a Milwaukee friend insisted. The rest of us knew what she was talking about but didn’t recall ever stepping inside.

Trendy products, catchy business names and stylish storefronts are a part of what makes Wisconsin’s much-loved peninsula a boutique shopper’s dream, but Egg Harbor’s Chief Oshkosh Native American Arts is different. Outside are a couple of weathered totem poles, and the shop is a simple log building, painted dark brown with white trim.

Nothing flashy, but inside are treasures: traditional handcrafts and fine art, made by Native Americans in Wisconsin and beyond.

Roy Oshkosh, leader of the state’s Menominee Nation, opened the business as the Chief Oshkosh Trading Post around 1950. In the back yard was a 600-seat amphitheater that presented weekly summer powwows at which his Owassie dancers introduced authentic Native American ceremonials. Kids would learn to dance with them, near the end of each performance.

The business location was deliberate. “Look in the middle of the peninsula, for a babbling brook running through a wooded glen, then disappearing into the ground and never to be seen again,” the grandmother of Chief Oshkosh had advised. She was describing land that had been a popular summer camp for Native Americans long ago, and her grandson bought the property shortly after he knew he found it.

The bowl-shaped amphitheater also was the site of Boy Scout camporees until Chief Oshkosh’s death in 1974. The business lost its distinctiveness as ownership changed, but now an Oneida artist and teacher is slowly changing things.

Coleen Bins is elevating the quality of merchandise sold indoors and aims to restore the outdoor theater to its peak of glory. The latter work begins with an Aug. 17 fundraising concert by Joanne Shenandoah, a Grammy Award winner and New York Oneida whose fans include Neil Young.

While working on her master’s degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Coleen got to know Joanne and deepened her understanding of Oneida heritage and history.

“My education not only took place in the university,” she says. “I got an education in our traditions as well,” and the Shenandoah family was instrumental in this process.

Instead of cheap souvenirs that reinforce Native American stereotypes – tomahawks, bows and arrows, phony peace pipes – Coleen sells traditional crafts and fine art made by Native Americans in Wisconsin and beyond.

“I concentrate on the Woodland region of native peoples since our art is all about our surrounding environment,” she says. In her inventory are works by watercolorist Dawn Dark Mountain of Madison, painter Mary Prescott and dollmaker Judith Jourdan of Oneida, wooden flute maker Michael Farmer of Baileys Harbor and many others. Some of these artists excel in more than one medium.

Birch bark baskets and canoes, hand-beaded and silver jewelry, indigenous music CDs and herbal blends are among the other items she sells.

“Now it is time to add the performance arts as well,” Coleen explains, and concert proceeds will help restore amphitheater seating. Only mowing and stone steps provide hints about the grassy bowl’s past.

This is Coleen’s first fundraiser, and she has no idea how much the restoration will cost.

“We have decided to do this the way Roy did it, with the help of others. That way it belongs to many,” she explains. “This concert will get the ball rolling.”

She is unsure how much the restoration will cost but will ask the Menominee Nation if they are interested in helping. “We want to ask people who understand what we have to offer to help us first,” Coleen says.

Why are the amphitheater and retail business important to her? She expresses frustration with the disrespect and lack of knowledge associated with Native American history, culture and traditions.

“I want Native people to share their stories with the public the way Roy did,” Coleen says. “Now, and finally, instead of someone interpreting who we are and what we do … we can talk about ourselves and share in a respectful way.”

Learn more about Chief Oshkosh Native American Arts at facebook.com/chiefoshkosh and 920-868-3240.

In addition to operating the Chief Oshkosh shop, Coleen returned to the Oneida in Wisconsin in 1994 to teach arts and heritage for 12 years. Now she is a guest teacher whose travels acquaint children and adults about Native American art. She is a metalsmith artist who also works in other art mediums.

Joanne Shenandoah of the New York Oneida Nation performs at the longtime Chief Oshkosh amphitheater, behind the log cabin shop and teepee at 7631 Hwy. 42, Egg Harbor, from 7:30-9 p.m. Aug. 17. Rain location is Calvary United Methodist Church, 4650 Hwy. E. Bring a blanket to sit on. Admission is $15; call 920-868-3240 to reserve a ticket.

“Sacred Ground: A Tribute to Mother Earth” won Joanne the 2005 Grammy for Best Native American Music Album.

The Associated Press says she has become “one of the most acclaimed Native American recording artists of her time.” Other accolades come from Neil Young and Robbie Robertson (of The Band), both of whom have worked with her.

Joanne also will sing for Wisconsin’s Oneida Nation on Aug. 18, but that performance is not open to the public. Her other venues have included the White House, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, Woodstock ’94 and the Toronto Skydome. She routinely promotes universal peace through work that involves lectures and workshops as well as music.

For more: joanneshenandoah.com. “Lifegivers,” a tribute to the life cycles of women, is her newest recording.