Native American tourism: beyond the casinos

When dinner arrives, my side dish of wild rice is enough to feed two. The grains are large, almost meaty in texture and slightly nutty in taste. The robust dish is a simple, buttery and meaningful connection to age-old times.

I am eating lake-grown rice and told these fat grains are longer than those found in a riverbed. The nearby crop for centuries has been harvested just as autumn and its changing leaf colors arrive.

The next day, I cross the street at Mole Lake Casino and visit Susie Ackley, who sells the wild rice from her home for $12 per pound. Much of her business comes from passersby who happen to notice a little sales sign in the front yard, which faces Hwy. 55.

About 200 years ago, more than 500 people died as the Sokaogon and Sioux nations fought to decide who would be the steward and benefactor of this abundant crop of manoomin. The Battle of Mole Lake remains a reminder of how much the bounty and environment are valued.

During this century, battles about water purity pitted the Sokaogon Chippewa and Forest County Potawatomi against corporate America. Exxon’s plan to mine zinc and copper near Crandon ended when the tribes bought the 5,700-acre mining site.

Wisconsin’s 11 Native American tribes, who nurture at least 500,000 acres, have endured much and continue to refine their identity in a world that seeks both authenticity and convenience.

The tribes’ desire to live in harmony with nature often results in impoverishment; counties with Native American reservations rank among the poorest. A lack of structural development means lack of employment.

Tourism is one way to survive, but casinos no longer are the only way for these communities to attract travelers, particularly the international tourist, who conveys a thirst to distinguish one tribe’s heritage and culture from another.

Consider these projects and advancements:

– Work has begun to designate Hwy. 55, Crandon to Keshena, as a state and national scenic byway. The route began as a footpath for Native Americans and weaves into the Menominee Nation’s lush forests. During the mid 1800s, the path morphed into a military route, to shuttle supplies between forts.

Today the road still follows the twists of the Wolf River, which is known for its fishing and rafting opportunities. About 24 miles already is a National Scenic River. www.wolfriverbyway.org, 877-764-9653

– New in Lac du Flambeau is the Woodland Indian Art Center, which sells the work of Native American artists who live near the Great Lakes. Workshops on beading and other traditional crafts engage tourists and local residents who want to uphold heritage.

“When people want to learn, we find instructors for them,” says Emily Umentum of the art center. A goal is to not lose long-ago art-making methods, such as porcupine quill wrapping or birch bark biting (using the teeth to produce artistic patterns).

The project simultaneously elevates the profile of obscure but talented artists, such as tribal elder Jerry LaBarge, known internationally for his decoy carvings. www.niijii.org, 715-588-3700

– The Lac du Flambeau community also is proceeding with museum expansion and enhancing an outdoor gathering area for powwows and other events.

Madison’s Design Coalition this year won a nationwide competition to design this project. Blueprints call for a museum entrance that remarkably resembles a traditional Ojibwe bark basket in shape (circular at the top, square at ground level) and an Indian Bowl powwow grounds entrance that is anchored by the canopy of an elongated, inverted canoe with fabric roof. www.designcoalition.org

– Sue Thering of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Landscape Architecture is helping Wisconsin’s tribes apply for National Endowment for the Arts grants, to assist in cultural art center development.

– In Mole Lake, the Sokaogon have spent $250,000 to restore Dinesen Log Cabin, the 1870s home to a Danish explorer whose daughter wrote the book “Out of Africa,” which began a 1985 movie. The cabin eventually will become a visitors’ center that also exhibits Native American artifacts.

The cabin is a quick walk from a new lodge that is attached to the Mole Lake Casino and Convention Center, whose Café Manoomin routinely offers wild rice as a dinner side dish. www.molelake.com, 877-478-5772

Regardless of the project, for some people environmental impact remains a worry and priority. Tribal spokespeople refer to ATV drivers who leave trails or kick up a lot of dust, unknowingly disturbing wild ginseng plants, berry patches or fledgling bushes.

“I was taught by my elders to not take money over our (natural) resources because our resources are something we never can replace, and they contain everything we need to survive,” explained Tina Van Zile, an environmentalist for the Sokaogon Chippewa, during this month’s first Wolf River Tourism Conference in Mole Lake.

“That’s one thing people on the outside still don’t understand sometimes.”

For more about Native American tourism in Wisconsin: www.natow.org, 414-975-9813. No state east of the Mississippi River has more tribes.

Powwows occur June 10-12 and July 1-4 at Lac du Flambeau’s Indian Bowl, June 17-19 at Mole Lake Campgrounds, June 30 to July 3 at the Oneida Nation’s Norbert Hill Center, July 2-3 at the Red Cliff’s Legendary Waters Resort and July 15 at Lac Courte Oreilles’ Casino/Convention grounds.

Other events include the June 3-4 Taste of Oneida, June 18 Lac du Flambeau Chippewa Lakesfest, and the July 10-14 U.S. Indigenous Games at Wisconsin State Fair Park, West Allis.

The Woodland Indian Art Center, Lac du Flambeau, is one of 30 stops during the July 29-31 and Oct. 7-9 Northwoods Art Tours. www.northwoodsarttour.com, 715-385-3334

For more about Jeff and Susie Ackley’s wild rice, call 715-478-5437.

All “Roads Traveled” columns are archived at www.roadstraveled.com. These articles began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.