Wisconsin Native Americans

Wisconsin Native Americans

Gambling may be what comes to mind when considering a visit to American Indian reservations. And casinos do play a key role, generating money for schools, health clinics, day care and other social services. But there is so much more to see among Wisconsin's first people.

Last summer my wife, Pat, and I set out on a six-day trip to Wisconsin, which boasts 11 sovereign tribal nations, to visit museums, cultural centers and powwows. Further, by talking to tribal members, we learned about their culture, traditions and history.

Of the 11 tribal nations, encompassing more than 500,000 acres of forests, lakes and wild-rice beds, we visited parts of six. Along the way, we often stayed in tribe-owned hotels near casinos, though we don't gamble.

The Oneida

We left Chicago on a Monday, following Interstate Highway 94 to Milwaukee, then Interstate Highway 43 farther north. Our first stop was the Oneida Nation Museum in De Pere, about eight miles west of Green Bay. The museum welcomes visitors from several countries, so brochures explain the tribe's "creation" story in French, German, Spanish, Japanese and English.

Rita Lara, museum director, described the Oneida — one of two Wisconsin tribes forcibly relocated from the East multiple times — as matrilineal: Children are born into a Bear, Wolf or Turtle clan, and every clan has three clan mothers, who pick the chief.

Exhibits and handouts explained these bits of Oneida history:

The Oneida are part of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy.

Rather than powwows, they hold social dances.

They assisted George Washington's starving army at Valley Forge.

At one point their children were forced to attend federal boarding schools intent on abolishing the Oneida language and culture.

"We get a lot of grade-school children, and they're generally surprised that we don't live in teepees and dress in traditional tribal clothing," Lara said with a laugh.

The Mohicans

That night we headed 63 miles northwest to Bowler and the rustic Konkapot Lodge in a lovely wooded area near North Star Casino, operated by the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation. The Mohicans and the Munsee formerly lived along the Hudson River. The tribe was forcibly moved so often that its tribal symbol is "Many Trails."

On Tuesday, we visited the nearby Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library Museum of the Mohican Nation, honoring a tribal chief of 26 years who saved many historical documents.

An introductory DVD, "Mohicans of Wisconsin Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation," informs visitors that the Mohicans lost their homeland and more than 95 percent of their members. In return, it explains, the Europeans introduced everything from diseases and rum to words such as "covet," "mortgage" and "debt."

Our tour guide, Leah Miller, daughter of the late chief, noted that despite the wrongs done to the tribe, the Mohicans have a history of contact with nontribal people and work well with the neighboring community. Mohican businesses, including an 18-hole golf course, are growing, and the tribe provides a modern health clinic, housing, day care and education. The casino bankrolls all of this, though even that raises some concern. (One tribal member on the DVD says, "I hope we don't get hung up on the casino and money" but focus instead "on spiritual development.")

The Menominee

We then drove 20 miles east to Keshena, near Crandon, to check out the Menominee Logging Camp Museum. Bordering the Wolf River, the museum has seven replica buildings made of logs that house more than 20,000 artifacts. Our dedicated and loquacious native guide was Stan Latender, the grandson of a logging-camp boss who dynamited stumps. Latender said the Menominee reservation is so densely forested that it can be seen from outer space and that NASA has used it as a reference point in satellite photos.