An Ojibwe woman weaving an intricate basket from sweet grass grabs the attention of older visitors, but kids feel tugged forward into the Mille Lacs Indian Museum by the spiritual drumming, distinctive singing and colorful powwow dances. They can toggle between videos that show women’s gentle shawl dances and upbeat jingle dress dances and men’s kinetic dances that may draw inspiration from animals and birds.
Powwow clothing, called regalia, takes its inspiration from nature. American Indian artists pass their patterns and techniques for traditional bead and dyed quillwork through generations, along with feather headpieces and other brightly colored adornments handcrafted and worn on the best occasions.
Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe) and Dakota (Sioux) heritage figure strongly in Minnesota’s past and its present. Here are some of the best places to admire tribal artistry, learn about their histories, and appreciate their cultures through storytelling and music.
Mille Lacs Indian Museum, north of Onamia
This lakeshore museum tells the story of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, arriving in northern Minnesota after being pushed from the East. A room with dioramas shows how they followed a rhythm of four seasons harvesting maple syrup, fishing, gathering berries, drying wild rice, trapping and hunting. Besides seeing the indoor demonstrations and partaking in classes on weaving, beading and traditional cooking, visitors should also look for seasonal programs on maple syruping, ricing, traditional dances, and building canoes or tipis.
The museum, along with its trading post and extensive book store, can be especially busy in mid-August during the annual powwow. The event, which takes place at the powwow grounds on the Lake Mille Lacs shore two miles north of the museum, has been a tradition since the 1950s.
Bois Forte Heritage Museum, near Tower
Tucked behind the Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, this gem of a museum tells how the Bois Forte Ojibwe were told to wander west until they reached the “lakes with food,” shallow-shored lakes rich with wild rice. The exhibits include a sobering section on Indian boarding schools, an area that pays tribute to the tribe’s many veterans, and a replica of an early birchbark-covered dwelling.
Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone
Tucked among the rolling prairie landscape, reddish pink pipestone (or catlinite) can still be found and hand-quarried following Plains Indian traditions for more than 2,000 years. Soft enough to skillfully carve into animals and people, the prized pipestone became one of the most cherished and sacred possessions of Plains Indians who have used them for ceremonies and significant gatherings for more than 2,000 years.
Carvers may still be seen carefully sculpting and sanding the rock at the Pipestone National Monument visitor center, which includes exhibits on pipestone history and the efforts to protect this sacred site. A scenic walking trail includes a look at prairie, small quarries and the beautiful Winnewissa Falls.
Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage
This national monument along Lake Superior focuses on the North West Fur Company, which relied in part on Ojibwe Indians to help keep the early 1800s North American fur trade booming. European traders offered everything from cast iron cookware, knives, beads and blankets in exchange for furs, maple sugar and wild rice from the Indians.
The visitor center uses new technology such as projecting digital images into a tipi and encouraging families to make virtual trades to help them survive the winter. Costumed interpreters at the historic fort explain life in the fur era, which was always liveliest during the annual North West Company Rendezvous. Re-enactors continue this event the second full weekend in August in conjunction with the Rendezvous Days Powwow, sponsored by the Grand Portage Reservation.
Minnesota River Valley
The 1851 Traverse des Sioux Treaty opened up close to 24 million acres of the Minnesota territory to European settlement and marked the end of an era for Minnesota’s Dakota tribes that had followed bison across the Great Plains. Restricted to reservation lands but guaranteed payments, the Dakota were starving a decade later when Civil War gripped America and payments weren’t delivered as promised. Frustrations exploded into violence and the short, but deadly, U.S. Dakota War in 1862.
The Treaty Site History Center near St. Peter is a good place to start learning about this historical turning point. Other parts of the story are told at historic sites all along the Minnesota River Valley. Other notable stops include the Lower Sioux Agency historic site near Morton, New Ulm’s Brown County Historical Society, Fort Ridgely State Park near Fairfax, and Historic Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities. Visitors at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls can reserve a tipi, fall asleep looking up at the stars, and imagine the Dakotas’ long-ago life on the prairie.
Find more historic sites throughout Minnesota in the Arts & Heritage section.