Pounding ash logs; foraging for food in the woods; weaving baskets. These are the activities of which traditional Ho-Chunk life is made, and—to tribal tourism officials’ surprise—it’s exactly what visitors want to experience.
In 2016, the Ho-Chunk Nation worked with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism to develop an assessment of what tourists might be interested in seeing and doing on their 6,132 acres of tribal trust land in the state.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Ho-Chunk spokesperson Collin Price. “The biggest revelation was that tourists want experiences. They are really interested in why we do things within our tribe, how we do it, and if they can participate in it.”
Price now leads Ho-Chunk efforts to create customized experiences for tourists curious about Native American ways.
“These experiences are special to our tribe, and we want to share them with the public to encourage a sense of exploration,” he said, noting that not every aspect of Ho-Chunk culture is open to observation. “We have to be careful to balance the spirituality and sacredness of some of the things that we do and talk about.”
The Ho-Chunk member, who grew up in Tomah, Wisconsin, knows a little something about tribal tourism. He is the former executive director of Native American Tourism of Wisconsin (NATOW) and is pleased to see the other ten tribes in the state embracing the viability of tourism.
“Leadership is starting to understand the power of tourism as another way to generate significant revenue,” he told ICMN.
Interested in touring Ho-Chunk lands? Call tribal headquarters in Black River Falls, and the tourism staff will work with you to customize a visit. Best of all, Ho-Chunk tourism experiences are free. Below is a sampling.
SEASONAL DAY CAMPS
One of the newest offerings on Ho-Chunk lands are seasonal day camps. The first one was held last winter at Black River Falls. Price said it was very well attended. Spring camp at the 385-acre Whirling Thunder Ranch in Tomah featured gardening on the ranch’s organic farm. Participants learned about the plants, trees, fruits and vegetables, such as beans, potatoes and apples, grown by the tribe. While the day camps are free to the public, the tribe compensates all experts and artisans for their time.
Across the Wisconsin landscape are thousands of marked and unmarked raised earthen mounds shaped into various symbols and animals, such as bears, panthers and eagles, their origins an enduring mystery.
“We believe they were created for the purposes of burials by a civilization that is gone now,” said Jon Greendeer, Ho-Chunk executive director of heritage preservation.
The Ho-Chunk have become protectors of the state’s effigy mounds, Greendeer said.
“We don’t want people eviscerating these sites,” he said.
People are encouraged to pay their respects, and learn. Greendeer pointed visitors to Dane County, home of 23 mounds. One of the most visited sites is on the northern shore of Lake Mendota, where visitors will find three bird effigies with large wingspans. Another notable site is the Kingsley Bend Indian Mounds near Devils’ Lake State Park.
KICKAPOO VALLEY RESERVE
Between La Farge and Ontario, Wisconsin, lie 8,600 acres of pure, natural beauty known as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. According to Price, it is one of the most scenic drives in the state, home to more than 400 plant species and a menagerie of birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. The valley is a popular place to hike rustic and shaded trails, as well as hunt, fish, kayak, canoe and camp. Plans are under way to tell the story of the river valley with interactive kiosks and digital signage scattered throughout the parks and along the hiking trails.
“We are looking forward to doing this in the near future,” said Price.
The Ho-Chunk Nation operates six gaming facilities in Wisconsin: in Black River Falls, Madison, Nekoosa, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and Wittenberg. All are located off the I-94 corridor, for easy access. Three of the properties are Class III casinos, where guests will find an assortment of gaming options including card games, roulette, craps and slot machines.
The Ho-Chunk Nation hosts two major pow wows every year—on Memorial Day and Labor Day—that feature cultural dancing and drumming competitions. These popular events are held at the tribe’s Andrew Blackhawk Memorial Pow-Wow Grounds in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Other highlights include traditional Native crafts and foods, including, of course, fry bread. Greendeer says the tribe also stages smaller, noncompetitive pow wows with social dancing throughout the year, including the sobriety pow wow in December.
CAMPGROUND AND RV RESORT
The Ho-Chunk Nation also owns a campground and RV resort in the Wisconsin Dells. Close to the Wisconsin River, the casino, water parks and nature trails, the campground features all the amenities campers need to feel at home: a heated pool, a gift shop and food store, hot showers, canoe and boat rentals, playgrounds, volleyball court, horseshoe pit and a camper’s lounge with a fireplace. Pets are always welcome. Price hinted at future upgrades.
“I really want to break the news, but I can’t,” he said. “There are some exciting plans in the works.”
COMING SOON: MUSEUM AND CULTURAL CENTER
The tribe plans to establish a main $20 million cultural center and museum, starting small and building from there. Plans are also under way for a cultural center in Madison.
“We are six to 12 months away from establishing our very first cultural center in Tomah,” Price said. “All these centers will tell the Ho-Chunk story, and have elements of our history, culture and experiences within those places.”