In a quiet corner of Wisconsin lake country, Ojibwe culture lives and breathes.
The French called this place Lac du Flambeau, “lake of the torches.'' To the Ojibwe it was Wa-Swa-Goning, “the
place where they spear fish by torchlight.”
Violent protests shattered its north-woods serenity in the 1980s, when the courts upheld spear-fishing treaty rights. The backlash traumatized the community, but also strengthened its commitment to tradition.
It's easy to see why the Plains Indians saw the Great Spirit at work in a far corner of Minnesota.
Amid an ocean of tall grass, a fractured pile of hard red rock suddenly erupts from the sod. It's Sioux quartzite, once sand at the edge of a red ocean, cooked and pressed into marble-like stone over a billion years.
Beneath the quartzite is a thin seam of a softer stone, a red, hardened clay that's barely harder than a fingernail.
As the afternoon sun beat down on Mankato's Land of Memories Park, the drumming began.
Into a circle ringed by bleachers came dancers carrying sacred eagle staffs, honoring the memory of 38 Dakota warriors hanged
nearby in 1862. Other dancers carried flags, one honoring the military veterans who are venerated in Indian culture.
After them came the men's traditional dancers, wearing turkey-feather bustles and perhaps a bone breastplate, using a controlled, heel-to-toe step. Then came the fancy dancers, in a whirl of color and spinning leaps; grass dancers, with streamers swaying; and young women in jingle dresses.
Just 15 minutes from the tourist playground of Galena, a young woman scrubs a cast-iron pot with a corncob.
Another woman sews the ticking for a straw mattress. Over an open fire, a man carefully pours molten lead into a mold, which he opens to reveal a shiny new musket ball.
Today, the village of Elizabeth, Ill., sits on U.S. 20, the well-trod path that brings hordes of Chicagoans to this picturesque corner of Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Dubuque.
Wisconsin and Minnesota have two main tribes. The Ojibwe migrated from the east along the Great Lakes, pushed by newly
arrived Europeans and other tribes.
With the help of guns acquired in the fur trade, they pushed the Dakota south and west in the 18th century and replaced them
in the north woods.
The Dakota are thought to be descendants of the Woodland Indians who built effigy mounds in the Upper Midwest. Today, they live in small communities along the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys and in South Dakota.
In the 17th century, when Europeans began to flee religious and economic oppression, the New World was not an untouched wilderness.
In the wooded forests beyond Lake Superior, the Dakota and Ojibwe tapped maple trees for sugar, harvested wild rice and
hunted the abundant game.
Many of them cultivated crops and lived in villages, like the Europeans. They were careful stewards of the land, reseeding rice beds and maintaining healthy soil through controlled burns, just as state agencies do today.
For many people, the Minnesota River Valley is full of shadows.
In 1862, years of greed and misunderstanding erupted into a clash that cost settlers their lives, the Dakota their homeland
and a new state its innocence. Even today, the valley's lush peacefulness is undercut by anger and guilt.
But on the first weekend of August, people of indigenous and European descent alike come to Upper Sioux Agency State Park to have a good time. At a wacipi, or powwow, the tradition of welcoming outsiders has held steady for many generations.
In the middle of farm fields, on a slab of the same Sioux quartzite that pops out of the sod farther west at Pipestone and Blue Mound, the story of an ancient people is written with nearly 2,000 characters.
They’re dramatic characters — serpents of the underworld, and thunderbirds who shoot lightening bolts from their eyes.
There are buffalos and stick figures and atlatls, a spear-throwing device, but no bow and arrows, which began to replace the atlatl 1,000 years ago.
In the southwest corner of the state, the prairie hardly looks like typical Minnesota vacation land.
Instead of lakes, fractured red quartzite erupts from the earth, and wind towers pop up on the horizon like giant black daisies. Herds of bison graze in fields, and yellow blooms cover prickly pear cactus.
This was the spiritual center of the universe for indigenous people on the prairie, and it exerts a pull on others, too.
Along an international border, it's surprising how much difference a few yards can make.
To many Minnesotans, the stretch of Rainy River between Baudette and International Falls is beyond boondocks. It's beautiful —the highway that hugs it is the most scenic part of the 191-mile Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway — but it's far off the beaten path. The Minnesota Historical Society closed its Grand Mound Historic Site there, and Franz Jevne State Park is visited so infrequently the DNR doesn't staff it.
But for Canadians, this is well-traversed land. Their nation's fortunes grew with the traders who traveled this river, and their towns are clustered along the border.