Native American tourism: It’s not all casinos

Polkas, threshing, fiddles and Polish sausage probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when the topic is Native American tourism.

But next week state tourism officials will reward the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee reservations for their willingness to think along those lines. The two tribes and nearby communities of Gresham and Shawano will get a $40,000 Joint Effort Marketing grant to work as partners and cross-promote each others’ upcoming events.

Five “Experience Northwoods Traditions” weekends will be a tribute to the diversity and uniqueness of local culture – and an effort to attract tourists for more than gambling.

“We’re looking at being more than a casino,” said Cassie Molkentin of Stockbridge-Munsee, a band of the Mohicans, at this summer’s annual Native American tourism conference. “We want to share and educate tourists about our background.”

There are 18 miles between the Mohican North Star Casino and the Menominee Nation Casino, and the two tribes have begun to think more like partners than competitors.

Small to medium-sized casinos such as these are being overlooked because of the larger Ho-Chunk and Oneida gaming facilities in Wisconsin, says Jim Reiter, general manager of the Menominee Nation Casino.

So cross-promotion means making prospective casino customers aware of the Pine Hills Golf Course at Stockbridge-Munsee, the only course in the state that is operated by Native Americans. That tribe, in turn, lets its customers know that the Menominee have a hotel at their Keshena casino.

“Our goal is to get more people into our area,” Cassie says. “We already know that our customers go to both casinos.”

Neighboring town business owners, she adds, have been frustrated because casino traffic isn’t stopping. “Experience Northwoods Traditions” provides ways for travelers to get acquainted with the reservations as well as Gresham and Shawano.

The JEM grant requires participation from at least four tourism entities, which will provide matching funds for this fall project. Seven communities were a part of the initial discussions; those that chose to stick with the project eventually met once a week for three months to develop the JEM proposal.

“We knew of each other before, but we didn’t work together,” says Jim, who adds that participants have learned “we’re not each other’s enemy – we’re all in this together” because of the challenges of rural tourism.

A part of the work ahead is to toot their own horn about accomplishments, be it the Menominee’s donations of $280,000 in 2004 for local community projects or its successes in forest preservation.

“People actually come from Europe to look at our woods and hear about our rotations, our work to keep it all going,” Jim says.

Here are the celebrations that the Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee reservations have planned this year, in cooperation with the Shawano Country Visitors Bureau and village of Gresham. Most, but not all, events are free.

Farm Heritage Day, Sept 10, Gresham – Antique tractor parade, sawing and threshing demonstrations, farmers market, craft sale, barn dance. Barnyard Olympic games.

European Heritage Tribute, Sept 17, North Star Casino, Gresham – traditional polka music played by four bands, ethnic foods from local restaurants.

Apple Traditions, Sept. 22-25, Shawano – Sidewalk sales, parade, prize drawings, quilt show, live music, apple bobbing, food with and without apples.

Woodland and Logging Heritage, Oct. 1, Menominee Indian Reservation – lumberjack breakfast, old-time fiddle music, rustic furniture and basket making, talks about medicinal plants and mushroom picking, forest and logging museum tours.

The logging museum, Jim says, was “a gift to our tribe from a collector who knew of our forest preservation work.” There are 20,000 artifacts and seven buildings to tour.

Mohican Cultural Day, Oct. 8, Wea Tauk Village, on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation – Native American arts and crafts fair, historical museum, interaction with tribal members in traditional dress, games, singing and dancing demonstrations.

“This is my dream, and it’s coming alive,” says Cassie of this new celebration at the tribe’s “village of wigwams.” Performers are expected to include Grammy winner Bill Miller, who is from Bowler.

For more about these events, see www.northwoodstraditions.com.

For a copy of the “Native Wisconsin” tourism guide to the state’s Native American communities, consult the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council Inc. at www.glitc.org or (715) 588-3324.

Next spring, the tribes will celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Menominee’s allocation of 46,000 acres to Stockbridge-Munsee.

“We will come up with new events, in addition to what we’re doing this fall,” Jim says. “It’s been fun working together.”