Wisconsin Native Americans

Wisconsin Native Americans

Logging has been a way of life for the Menominee since the late 1800s, though now the duty is contracted out. The last of the 33 logging camps closed in the 1950s. One replicated building contains authentic bunk beds, snuff jars and a formidable bear trap. Another building houses musical instruments (accordion, cigar-box violin) and a shoe-repair corner, and in the "chow hall" we saw circus posters used for teaching loggers to read.

We also got a sneak peek at the new Menominee Cultural Center, opening in May or June but still awaiting "repatriation" of tribal artifacts from museums in Green Bay and Washington, D.C.

The Sokaogon Chippewa

On Tuesday night we checked in at the Mole Lake Casino and Lodge, seven miles south of Crandon, operated by the Sokaogon Mole Lake band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a small tribe active in wild-rice harvesting and spear-fishing. (Chippewa and Ojibwe are interchangeable terms, though certain tribes use one or the other.)

On Wednesday, a change of pace: the close-by Dinesen Log House, owned by the Sokaogon and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Richard Ackley, related to the tribe's last chief, took us inside this attractive, restored cabin.

Built along an Indian trail in the 1860s to shelter road-building soldiers, the house was acquired in 1873 by Danish adventurer Wilhelm Dinesen, who lived there with a Chippewa housekeeper named Catherine. Wilhelm left Catherine, returned home and fathered Karen Blixen, who later wrote "Out of Africa" under the pen name Isak Dinesen (1937). It became a film with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

The Potawatomi

Next stop, the striking Forest County Potawatomi Cultural Center, Library and Museum in Crandon. Unfortunately, the museum is closed until fall while mounting a new exhibit, but the library boasts huge, spectacular murals created by tribal youth and community members. The panels depict day-to-day life, culture and significant events over the years, including today's warriors — Potawatomi soldiers or veterans of the U.S. military. (Native Americans, according to tribal information, have enlisted at three times the rate of any other racial or ethnic group, relative to population.)

Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe

Then it was 63 miles northwest to Lac du Flambeau, "Torch Lake," named by French fur traders who had seen torches dotting the lake at night as the Ojibwe (the term they use) speared walleye. We checked in for three nights at the tribe's lovely Lake of the Torches Resort (with casino).

On Thursday morning, we took a family-friendly tour at nearby Waswagoning ("The Place Where They Spear by Torchlight"), a re-created traditional Indian village along the shore of Moving Cloud Lake on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation.

Our irrepressible guide, Bob Hudack, whose "spirit" name is Mash-Koway ("One Who Stands Strong"), peppered an informative, humorous two hours with hands-on demonstrations. He explained that the Ojibwe were a patriarchal society but that, interestingly, the women elect the chiefs. He showed us a teepee-style lodge used by people traveling through the territory and noted that the tribe stored birch-bark canoes over winter by sinking them in deep water to protect them against weather and hungry porcupines. He also taught us Ojibwe words, such as "boozhoo" (hello).

That night, we attended the Indian Bowl Pow Wow near our hotel. (The powwow is a way of meeting to join in dancing, singing, renewing old friendships and making new ones.) We watched dancers in beautiful regalia demonstrate, among others, "Jingle Dress Medicine Dance," "Fancy Shawl Dance" and "Men's Feather Dance."

On Friday, in tiny "downtown" Lac du Flambeau, we visited the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum & Cultural Center. Exhibits include dioramas of a maple sugaring camp, spear-fishing camp, wild-rice harvest and ice spear-fishing. There also is a 24-foot dugout canoe — estimated between 180 and 280 years old — found preserved under 9 feet of water in Flambeau Lake in 1980.

Our final destination, Saturday morning, was Forts Folle Avoine Historical Park on the Yellow River between Danbury and Webster, about 150 miles west. Operated by the Burnett County Historical Society, "The Forts" includes a reconstructed 1802-1805 British fur trading post; an Indian village portraying the life and culture of early Woodland tribes, including the Obijwe; and an excellent visitor center. (The Forts is near two bands of Lake Superior Chippewa: the St. Croix, and the Lac Courte Oreilles.)

Noteworthy are the Forts' one- or two-hour tours. Our guide, "Angelique," spoke and acted as a fictional "mixed-blood" character living in the 1700s and early 1800s. She filled a creative two hours — probably too much for younger children — with colorful information and a good deal of humor.

Walking us into a log replica of the North West Co.'s trading post, she displayed numerous items, particularly hides. "Beaver fur makes the big money," she noted. "It was used for beaver felt hats, and the taller the hat, the more important the person." "Angelique's" survival list for those days? "Liquor, tobacco and rice."

Saturday afternoon we headed down U.S. Highway 53 and I-94 back to Chicago, taking six days' worth of wonderful memories and a deeper insight into the journey and lives of these diverse, enduring first Americans.

As a Mohican quote in one museum read: "It's not moccasins, buckskins and beads but the thinking of how you value your life."

If you go: The attractions