Growing up, I watched a lot of westerns. Movies and television series. Bonanza, High Chaparral, and Laredo were my favorites. As I matured and became more aware of my Native American heritage, I started watching these productions with a more critical eye. Rarely, did any of the “Indians” look like me, or anyone else I knew. Instead, they were often white actors with a heavy layer of brown makeup.
But, Dances with Wolves, for what it’s worth, opened the door to Native Americans getting more regular work. My brother, John Trudell became an actor, appearing in several movies and TV series. But, today, we’re seeing a true growth among Native Americans in Hollywood. We have programs about Native Americans with Native Americans, created and run by Indigenous people. Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls are current successes that tell more accurate Native stories.
That got me thinking about tourism and Native Americans. Where can people visit and learn real, accurate information about Indigenous people? The Midwest is home to more than a dozen such attractions. Here are my suggestions of places to visit to learn the real stories of Native Americans in the Midwest.
1. Effigy Mounds, Harpers Ferry, Iowa
With prehistoric Indigenous villages often built as mound cities, you can find a few notable in the Midwest, such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois and Mitchell (SD) Prehistoric Indian Village. But, Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeastern Iowa offers a look at the engineering, community, and art that went into creating the village, from 1400-750 B.P. (Before Present). With about 200 mounds, they were often designed in animal shapes, such as bison, deer, and bear, as well geometrical shapes including rectangles. Mounds were used for ceremonial purposes, as well as graves. Located near the Mississippi River, the grounds are magnificent, offering amazing views of wildlife and more.
2. Mid-America All-Indian Museum, Wichita, Kansas
Offering a look at contemporary Native American art and life, the Mid-America All-Indian Museum showcases the art of Blackbear Bosin, a Comanche/Kiowa. Bosin created the Keeper of the Plains statue in the mid-1970s that is displayed along the Arkansas River. Bosin’s art includes paintings and murals. The center also features exhibits that focus on modern life of Native Americans, such as their influence on Wichita’s aviation history. The Indian center also hosts powwows and other ceremonies.
Pro Tip: The Keeper of the Plains, standing more than 70 feet above the Arkansas River, is illuminated with fire at its base for 15 minutes nightly (9 p.m. during spring/summer and 7 p.m. fall/winter).
3. Genoa Indian Industrial School Museum, Genoa, Nebraska
As one of five off-reservation boarding schools, Native American children from 20 tribes across 10 states were forcibly sent to the Genoa Indian School. Located in east-central Nebraska, the Genoa Indian Industrial School Museum provides a look at life for Native American children, removed from their homes from as far away as Arizona, at the boarding school. Forced to cut their hair, wear military-style uniforms, and learn English, children were physically punished if they were caught speaking their traditional language. Among their daily academic courses, Native American children learned trades, such as sewing, housekeeping, and blacksmithing. Open from 1884 until 1934, when the federal government ran out of money to operate the school, students found ways to “survive” the school by participating in sports and band. Visitors often find students’ initials carved in buildings. It was the children’s way of letting others know they had been there.
4. Akta Lakota Museum And Cultural Center, Chamberlain, South Dakota
From days of living on the prairie to reservation life, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center offers a look at the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Councils), the Lakota name for the seven tribes that make up the Sioux Nation. Exhibits feature clothing, housewares, tools, and weapons used as the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota — the traditional tribes. With displays offering accurate looks at buffalo hunts, as well as Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers, the Lakota Museum practically walks visitors through life as a Native American. A special exhibit recently opened that celebrates “The Gift” of a sacred pipe. Black Elk, a Lakota spiritual leader, said they were brought to the people by White Buffalo Woman. Each ceremony is explained through art, a poem, and a song. The museum, located on the campus of St. Joseph Indian Mission, also includes an exhibit on the school, from its role as a boarding school to its current role. Art created by former students — all Native American — is prominently displayed.
Pro Tip: The St. Joseph Indian Mission has been involved with providing boarding school education for Native American children since 1927. Prior to the school’s establishment, the site was used as the Chamberlain Indian School as part of the federal government’s residential program, as well as a boys’ school.
5. Reconciliation Park, Mankato, Minnesota
On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Native American men were executed as part of the largest mass execution in American history. They were sentenced for their alleged roles in the U.S.–Dakota War, the last major Indian War on the Plains. The war started after the U.S. government reneged on annual stipends in exchange for land. Local businesses wouldn’t extend credit to Native Americans, who sought to buy food and clothing for the upcoming winter. War broke out after an encounter involving Santee Dakota (Sioux) men on a buffalo hunt and a local farmer. Following several attacks on the town of New Ulm, American soldiers were dispatched to the area. Warriors were eventually captured. Reconciliation Park honors the 38 men, some of whom had nothing to do with the war, and was created to bridge hostilities and discrimination against the Santee. State and local officials acknowledged ill feelings and unfair treatment over the years. The park is anchored by a statue replica of a scroll with the names of the 38 men on one side and a poem on the other. Located across the street from the actual execution site, the park includes other sculptures, such as a white buffalo.
Pro Tip: The Santee Dakota Nation honors the 38+2 as part of its veterans memorial on the northeastern Nebraska reservation. Two additional Dakota warriors were honored by the tribe after they were captured and hanged following the Mankato executions.
6. Mitchell Museum Of The American Indian, Chicago, Illinois
With more than 10,000 items, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian seeks to share the history and culture of Native Americans through art. From canoes, clothes, and tools, the museum features a look at traditional life and how Native Americans adapted to reservation life. Something as simple as jewelry has deep meaning, including culture, community, and assimilation efforts. The Chicago museum embraces Indigenous peoples from around the globe, featuring special exhibits sharing their stories.
7. First Americans Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
With 39 tribes — five indigenous to Oklahoma — the First Americans Museum shares the diversity and history of the tribes. With the forced relocation of tribes primarily from the southeast and Midwest, each brings its own culture and history to the museum. Offering a respectful look at the state’s tribes, the First Americans Museum examines everything from history to cultural representation, sports, and contemporary issues. The museum also showcases special exhibits from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Pro Tip: Did you know that Oklahoma is a combination of two Choctaw (Chahta) words? Okla Humma means Red People.
8. Frog Bay Tribal National Park, Bayfield, Wisconsin
Located along the Lake Superior coastline, across from the Apostle Islands, the first tribally-owned and managed national park in the United States includes 4,000 feet of pristine, undisturbed beach. Frog Bay Tribal National Park is a part of the Red Cliff Band of the Chippewa reservation, north of Bayfield. The national park consists of about 300 acres of old-growth trees and about 120 acres of wetlands. About two miles of trails offer hikers access to some of the beautiful views in Wisconsin, along with opportunities to see wildlife, such as eagles, coyotes, beavers, and bears. As you travel through the tribal national park, signs explain the importance of the forest. With Madeline Island recognized as a spiritual home of the Anishinaabe, the Apostle Islands have long held a special place within Chippewa history and culture. Frog Bay Tribal National Park provides views of five of the 21 Apostle Islands.
9. Dignity Of Earth And Sky, Chamberlain, South Dakota
To Native Americans across the land, the Dignity statue — officially Dignity: Of Earth and Sky – is their Statue of Liberty. Standing 50 feet tall, Dignity, a tribute to Native American women, looks over the Missouri River Valley. She carries a 25-foot-tall star quilt — an honor among Plains tribes — with five-foot-long colored pieces that flitter with the wind and illuminate at night (thanks to strategically-placed LED lights). Created by Dale Lamphere, a noted South Dakota artist, Dignity quickly became a symbol of the tribes of the Plains, and beyond. Designed as a tribute to the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota tribes for South Dakota’s 150th birthday, the artist recruited three Indigenous models of different ages to ensure he created an authentic Native woman’s face. People from all over enjoy posing for photos next to Dignity, often appearing as miniature pieces next to her.
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