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The True Natives
Visit the sites of the original settlers -- the American Indians -- that are being respectfully preserved throughout the Heartland.

Published: Sep/Oct 2002
By Jill Carstens-Faust

From the western reaches of Montana and Wyoming to the ancient mounds found throughout the Upper Midwest, America's Heartland has been touched by the sacred traditions and earth-respecting ways of the American Indian. Today, visitors can learn much about these cultures at a host of museums, monuments, mounds and more. Following are a few sites these states have to offer.

Worlds of the West

Montana's vast landscape is home to seven reservations representing 11 tribes. In northwestern Montana, the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning features the Museum of the Plains Indian. It houses a permanent exhibit of Northern Plains Indians' artifacts as well as displays of artistry and craftsmanship.

The canyons and spectacular scenery of south-central Montana are the backdrop for the Crow tribe's home. This land also was the scene of the brutal clash between Custer's Seventh Cavalry and members of the Sioux and Cheyenne people. Through museum exhibits, an interpretive center and ranger-led programs, visitors to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument can get a sense of this epic event.

North of Interstate 90, between Missoula and Kalispell, the Flathead Reservation is inhabited by members of the Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai tribes. The People's Center in Pablo tells their stories using exhibit galleries and "ed-venture" tours, which feature activities in the company of an American Indian guide.

The immense stretch of landscape just north of Lander, Wyo., is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The two tribes coexist on the 1.7-million-acre Wind River reservation. Of interest to visitors are Fort Washakie's Shoshone Tribal Cultural Center and the Northern Arapaho Cultural Museum at St. Michael's Mission.

Located 27 miles west of Thermopolis, in north-central Wyoming, the Legend Rock Petroglyph Site dates back 2,000 years and is decorated with 283 pictures on 92 panels. Its motifs show connections to several prehistoric groups.

People of the Plains

In North Dakota, ruins and earthlodge dwellings are reminders of the state's earliest inhabitants. Visitors to Bismarck will find the remains of such dwellings at Ward Earthlodge Village and Double Ditch Indian Village. An eagle-shaped interpretive center welcomes those visiting Knife River Indian Villages at Stanton.

At Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Mandan, On-A-Slant Indian Village presents re-enactments during summer months. Other locations of note include the Writing Rock State Historic Site at Grenora, the Five Nations Arts and Great Plains Cooperative at Mandan and Bismarck's North Dakota Heritage Center.

The legends of Indian leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull are kept alive in the modern-day lore of South Dakota. Perhaps best known is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a work in progress of the famed Lakota leader. Other lesser-known attractions, but equally powerful in telling the story of the Great Sioux Nation, include the Akta Lakota ("to honor the people") Museum in Chamberlain, The Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, the Heritage Center and the Wounded Knee site in Pine Ridge and the Sitting Bull Monument near Mobridge.

What is now known as Kansas once belonged to the People of the Southwind, the Kansa Indians. By 1846, thousands of American Indians had been forced to settle in Kansas. When the push of western expansion came, 30 different tribes were relocated to Oklahoma. Four nations, the Iowa, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo and Potawatomie, refused to leave and remain in the state today.

Kansas offers up a wealth of attractions dedicated to the American Indian. They include the Pawnee Indian Village near Republic, the Native American Heritage Museum at Highland, the Mid-America All-Indian Center at Wichita and the American Indian Art Center in Abilene.

Indian Territory

Once known as Indian Territory, Oklahoma is still home to more American Indian tribes than any other state; as many as 39 tribal headquarters and members of at least 67 tribes call the state home. Consequently, dozens of attractions throughout the state honor these cultures through exhibits, dramatic presentations and artistry.

Among the notable are the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, which contains the Cherokee National Museum, the Tsa-La-Gi Ancient Village, and the official archives and library of the Cherokee Nation; Indian City U.S.A. at Anadarko, an assemblage containing a museum and replicas of Indian villages; and the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Park, considered among the most important prehistoric sites east of the Rocky Mountains.

Much is now known about the red stone quarried from the earth around Pipestone, Minn. It is thought that digging began in the 17th century and the stone came to be the preferred material for making pipes by many of the Plains Indians. The pipes marked much of their ceremonial rituals and activities.

Today, visitors learn about the stone's ties to the past through exhibits at Pipestone National Monument and demonstrations of pipe making by native craftsworkers. Come July, the Song of Hiawatha Pageant unfolds on the stage of a large outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the monument.

In the Twin Cities, organized day tours take in several local American Indian sites, including ancient burial grounds and those featuring native crafts. For details, contact or (800) 489-6583.

Mounds of the Midwest

Indians known today as the Effigy Mound Builders lived in what is now Wisconsin and bordering states between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1000. The mounds were shaped like mammals, reptiles and birds. It is thought that thousands of mounds existed before the cultivation of the land by early settlers destroyed them. The few that still remain offer visitors a glimpse of these nomadic peoples' lifestyles.

At Lizard Mound County Park near West Bend, a self-guided nature trail winds its way around more than 20 mounds. Trail markers provide information about this extinct culture. Near Sheboygan, Indian Mound Park exhibits 18 mounds in animal and geometric forms.

Other Wisconsin locations worth noting include the Chippewa Valley Museum at Eau Claire, the George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center at Lac du Flambeau and Henschel's Museum of Indian History at Elkhart Lake.

Mounds also are found throughout Ohio; perhaps the most famous is Serpent Mound in Peebles, the largest mound in the United States. Well-preserved sites can be found in Bainbridge, Miamisburg, Locust Grove, Marietta and Newark and at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park at Chillicothe.

More can be learned about the Hopewell Indians at the Ohio Historical Society's Fort Ancient State Memorial near Oregonia. In Dayton, the SunWatch Indian Village is a reconstruction of an 800-year-old settlement by the Fort Ancient Indians. Here, visitors can learn about the system the Indians used for charting time based on the sun's position.

The Shawnee United Remnant Band owns and operates a complex composed of caverns, a park and the Woodland Native American Museum near Urbana. The museum houses exhibits on the early peoples of Ohio as well as the Shawnee culture.

More American Indian sites can be found in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, where the history of prehistoric cultures and the traditions of such tribes as the Sauk and the Ponca have been preserved.


North of Marquette, Iowa, lies Effigy Mounds National Monument, home to more than 190 of the ancient structures. Some are conical or linear shaped, while others were fashioned like birds or animals, such as the Great Bear Mound, which is 137 feet long and 3 1/2 feet tall. At the visitors center, exhibits and a film explain the history of the area; ranger-led tours provide more information. Instead of roads, the monument's grounds have 11 miles of hiking trails offering close looks at the burial mounds as well as views of the Mississippi River.

Other Iowa mound sites are the Little Maquoketa River Mounds near Dubuque, Turkey River Mounds southeast of Guttenberg, Fish Farm Mounds near New Albin, Toolesboro Indian Mounds at Toolesboro and Slinde Mounds northwest of Waukon. Several mounds are also located on a bluff at Pikes Peak State Park near McGregor. At Swisher, the Curtis Hill Indian Museum boasts the biggest private museum of American Indian artifacts in Iowa, featuring thousands of artifacts.


Covering about 4,000 acres, Illinois' Cahokia Mounds preserve the remains of the central section of what is considered the only prehistoric Indian city north of Mexico. Located near Collinville, the site was first inhabited around 700 A.D. It is thought nearly 20,000 lived at the site by 1100 A.D. Visitors can tour the interpretive center and attend lectures and other special events. Near Havana, the second-largest mound in the Midwest is on view at Rockwell Mound.

The Black Hawk site at Rock Island offers an upclose exploration of the Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox) Nations. It was here that the famous Sauk warrior and leader, Black Hawk, lived and where he returned in 1832 in an unsuccessful attempt to regain his homeland. Today, the Hauberg Indian Museum provides dioramas and other exhibits to depict the daily activities of these tribes. On the campus of Chicago's Kendall College, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian houses collections that range from the Paleo-Indian period to the present. Temporary-exhibit galleries offer special shows.


Several museums in Nebraska tell the stories of the state's indigenous inhabitants. At Niobrara, the Ponca Tribal Museum displays Ponca artifacts as well as native artwork and photographs from the tribal archives. American Indian exhibits can also be found at the Knight Museum of the High Plains Heritage in Alliance, the Sod House Museum in Gothenburg and Grand Island's Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer.

For a first-hand encounter with American Indian primitive life, visitors will enjoy the Dancing Leaf Earth Lodge & Cultural Learning Center at Wellfleet in southwestern Nebraska. Tours showcase the earth lodge and medicine wheel. Visitors can even arrange for buffalo stew meals and overnight accommodations in the earth lodge.

For More Information:

* Iowa: (888) 472-6035;
* Illinois: (800) 226-6632;
* Nebraska: (877) 632-7275;

Jill Carstens-Faust is senior/photo editor of Home & Away

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