The Lac du Flambeau street signs hint at pride of heritage, and soon a rebuilt cultural space emerges for ceremonial dancing and other centuries-old traditions. It will give the average resident a new retreat and the average traveler a new reason to visit.
On an ordinary weeknight, all seems uneventful in the unincorporated Vilas County community. Kids play basketball and parents push strollers at Thunderbird Park. Fishing boats bobble gently as sun sets and a near-full moon rises.
Parking lots are almost full at The Flame – a modest bar-restaurant with decades-old trophy fish mounts, and the more modern Lake of the Torches hotel and casino. Although the two properties are only one-half mile apart, they face different lakes.
In the township are more than 100 lakes and less than 3,500 people, most of whom dwell in simple ranch homes with million-dollar views. It was French fur traders who first called the area Lac du Flambeau, “lake of the torches,” a reference to the longtime custom of spearing walleye at night, guided by torchlight.
The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who have lived here since 1745, seem quietly proud of their Ojibwe history. About one-half still reside in what is known as the Old Indian Village, near the Bear River Pow Wow grounds, about three miles outside of town, where the river meets Flambeau Lake.
That’s just one lake over from where I chat with Georgine Brown, a self-described “village rat” as a girl. She returned to the land of her parents and grandparents upon retirement eight years ago.
“I thank the Great Spirit every morning for being able to live here,” she says. When she kayaks, “it’s just a couple of loons and me, waiting for the moon to come up.”
Georgine worked for the Navy in radio communications, then the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and as a postmaster in Wisconsin’s Bad River area. She says she knows how it feels to be the “token Indian” in a crowd, committee or interview and wants us to shake that mentality.
It is smarter, Georgine suggests, to see the interconnectedness that makes the world work. Consider the Bear River: Many lakes drain into the waterway, which eventually ends up in the Mississippi River, then the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s all one, in her eyes, and each part has sacred value.
Georgine is guiding development of the new Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl and Culture Center, as president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. What she seeks is a bridge between past and present. “This is for the kids to carry on what we’ve carried on from our fathers and grandfathers,” she explains.
She envisions a throwback to the intergenerational storytelling and dancing of the 1950s and 1960s, but also an open-air and impromptu place for teens to perform, “like a jam or rap session.”
The first phase of the $3.8 million project will be finished in time for the village’s annual July 4 ceremonial dancing, which U.S. President Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower saw in 1965.
For the first time in three years, the community will have a place to dance that is not a city street. The original Indian Bowl, built in 1951, was in such disrepair that it was demolished in 2014.
“Pageantry – that’s what we’re aiming for,” Georgine says, of the Indian Bowl re-opening. It will begin with a blessing of the grounds and the arrival of birchbark canoe maker Wayne Valliere by water, paddling across Long Interlaken Lake, following a torchlit path.
As dancers perform, he will begin building a 17th century Waaswaagoning village near the lakeshore. For more than 20 years, Waaswaagoning (“lake of flames” in Ojibwe language) was an authentic reproduction of Native American life in rural Lac du Flambeau – furnished wigwams, a smokehouse, birchbark canoe, ricing pit, fire pits and tools typical for the era.
The tourist attraction was never quite the same after vandals caused extensive damage in 2005 and founder Nick Hockings died in 2012. Situating Waaswaagoning inside of the village means more eyes can monitor it.
In place since 1989 is the George W. Brown Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center, whose exhibits include a 24-foot dugout canoe, a replica fur trading post and dioramas of the four seasons, each a scene of Native American life long ago. A video explains wild rice, fish and game harvesting. ldfmuseum.com, 715-588-3333
Also in the area are excellent Ojibwe artists, Georgine says, “but many are bashful” or don’t have the means to set up a studio for travelers to visit.
The second phase of the Indian Bowl project includes an art gallery, classrooms for learning beadwork to basketry and a welcome center. Maybe an upstairs deck for prime Indian Bowl seating, too, depending on how fundraising goes. Estimated cost is $2 million.
“It costs a lot to think big on a project like this,” Georgine acknowledges.
Donations for the Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl project are welcome. indianbowlproject.org, 715-588-4552
Indian Bowl festivities begin with a parade at noon July 4 in Lac du Flambeau. Concessions typically include Indian tacos, fry bread and pulled pork. Grounds dedication and the pow wow begin at 6 p.m. lacduflambeauchamber.com, 877-588-3346
The daylong and 35th annual Bear River Powwow happens July 7 at the Old Indian Village, a major event with participation from most of Wisconsin’s 11 Native American nations. natow.org
Not all who live within the Lac du Flambeau Reservation are Ojibwe. Three miles northeast of the Lac du Flambeau village is Dillman’s Bay Resort, on a quiet peninsula and a frequent location for multi-day workshops led by artists from throughout the nation.
Other guests book a room, cabin, condo or house to simply relax and enjoy the surroundings. “North of the tension zone” is how a brochure describes the longtime, family-owned business.
The resort is dog-friendly and 15 miles northwest of Minocqua. Overnight rates start at $115. dillmans.com, 715-588-3143