Native American & Scandinavian Heritage Converge in Minnesota

By Explore Minnesota

A young dancer at the annual Mahkato Wacipi
Young dancer at the Mahkato Wacipi in Mankato / Karla Caspari

As seen on AFAR logo

A visit to Minnesota likely begins in the Twin Cities, where you’ll discover a striking balance between Minneapolis’ big-city cool and St. Paul’s historic streets, as well as under-the-radar restaurants, a buzzy music scene, and design stores that have put the area on hipsters’ radar.

But don’t stop there: Beyond its cosmopolitan draws, Minnesota also offers a fascinating tapestry of Scandinavian heritage and Native American culture. Here’s where to go.

Experience Lake Life

Biking and running trails along Bde Maka Ska
Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis / Mike Krivit Photography

Lakes have always been essential to this area. The Dakota word for water, “minne,” turns up in names like Minnesota, which translates to “sky-blue waters,” and Minneapolis, which adds the Greek word for city, “polis.” For locals, lake life is part of what make Minnesota such a beautiful place to live, from kayaking in the Chain of Lakes with the Minneapolis skyline in the backdrop to driving along the stunning, 88-mile stretch of the Lake Country Scenic Byway, about 3.5 hours north of the city.

Lake getaways are so woven into local culture that there’s even a museum devoted to the tradition. In Alexandria, about two hours northwest of Minneapolis, the Legacy of the Lakes Museum features antique and classic boats, musical performances, and exhibits about the area’s grand railways. In fact, throughout the state, you’ll discover interesting pockets of maritime history, like the Two Harbors Light Station on the shores of Lake Superior, the oldest lighthouse in Minnesota.

Discover Scandinavian Chic

Holiday shopping at American Swedish Institute Minneapolis
Find handmade treasures like these at Julmarknad, the American Swedish Institute's holiday market

Alexandria is also home to Big Ole, a 28-foot Viking statue constructed in 1965 for the New York World’s Fair. While locals love this kitschy symbol of Scandinavian pride, artisan and boutique owners have taken inspiration from a fresh wave of Scandinavian chic. In Minneapolis, visit the American Swedish Institute, housed in a 1908 landmark mansion, to study up on Nordic culture, then have brunch at the museum’s Fika Café.

Get a sense of the state’s Scandinavian heritage at the Gammelgården Museum (which means “old farm” in Swedish) in the small city of Scandia, about 45 minutes north of Minneapolis. The seasonal, open-air museum features five historic log buildings and artifacts. And for genuine Scandinavian gifts, head to the quaint Uffda Shop, located an hour southeast of Minneapolis in the Mississippi River town of Red Wing (also home to the famous footwear factory).

Attend a Powwow

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The Great Dakota Gathering, Winona

Around the state, there’s also been a movement to preserve Native American languages, such as Ojibwa, through bilingual signs, which have become more commonplace on roadways. At the convention center in Bemidji, for example (a gateway to the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake reservations), the doors read “welcome” and “boozhoo.” In fact, more than 250 local businesses and organizations have installed bilingual signs, which point to hope for the survival of these once endangered languages.

Dance is another form of expression being preserved. In Minnesota, there are seven Anishinaabe reservations and four Dakota communities. Here, powwows or wacipi, which translates to “they dance” in the Dakota language, are a time for reunions and traditional music, dance, and clothing. These lively events, which take place largely in summer, are open to the public and offer travelers a chance to engage authentic local culture. Feel the beat of the drum, hear Native American songs, and watch dancers perform steps that have been passed down through generations.

Explore Pipestone & Grand Portage

The Great Hall at Grand Portage National Monument on Rendezvous Days
Rendezvous Days at Grand Portage National Monument

On the southwestern border with South Dakota, about five hours from Minneapolis, Pipestone National Monument offers a glimpse into Native American history. The area has been a sacred site for more than 1,000 years, and for centuries, the pipestone mined at these quarries was a precious trade item throughout the Tribal Nations. Pipes made of the hard, red clay are believed to carry prayers to the Great Spirit. Today, Native Americans still own the land and operate the monument and its gift shop.

To tour the park, walk the 3/4-mile Circle Trail, which winds through tallgrass prairies and woodlands. The easy hike takes about 45 minutes and includes stops at the pipestone quarries, historical markers, the Old Stone Face (a natural rock formation that has facial features) and Winnewissa Falls.

At the opposite corner of the state, bordering Canada, Grand Portage National Monument is a living history site that tells the story of the Grand Portage Ojibwe and the North West Company fur trade through interactive exhibits, ranger-led programs and demonstrations. Plan your trip around the annual Rendezvous Days and Pow Wow that takes place every August and be transported to the late 1700s.