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Visitor center cultural trail shares stories of indigenous peoples

The Indiana Dunes Visitor Center now tells not only the history of the area, but also the original people who lived there.

After six years of work, the first phase of the Indiana Dunes Native Cultural Trail was dedicated Wednesday.

Indiana Dunes Tourism and Indiana Dunes National Park partnered with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to make this happen.

So far, the cost to start the trail, including the fire pit, has been around $600,000 to $700,000.

Fundraising is underway for future phases of the trail, including public art, welcome shelter and programming, as well as a one-mile trail that will stretch across National Park Service land to explore the terrain.

Students from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology proposed a rough design study for the road. Park spokesman Bruce Rowe expects National Park Service funding to be approved within the next few years.

“We have a lot of small microhabitats here on 20 acres that we are excited to tell the story of,” said Christine Livingston, Indiana Dunes Vice President of Tourism, who led the team. The visitor center is located on five acres in Porter, and another 15 acres are owned by Lake Erie Land Co. It was donated to the park by .

“I think you’ll see the welcome center come to life pretty soon,” Rowe added.

“We think the story of indigenous peoples has been undertold, mistold, or not told at all,” Livingston said. “We think this story is very powerful and will touch a lot of people.”

Iron Bear Singers perform a traditional song with drums on Wednesday, September 27, 2023.

Diane Hunter of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma explained changes to the signage surrounding the visitor center. It’s important to recognize not only native species, but also those that have cultural significance to the area’s original inhabitants, she said.

Turtles are important not only to Miami and the Potawatomi, but to indigenous nations in the Great Lakes region, Hunter said.

Jennifer Kanine of the Potawatomi Pokagon Band knows that snapping turtles are among the species that “recover, resurrect, and come back.” He and others harvest wild rice. “Sometimes we hit the turtles with our feet,” Kanine said.

Rebecca Richards, chairwoman of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Tribal Council, put Indiana Dunes in perspective. “Our ancestral homelands are very large, covering southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana,” he said, including the Indiana Dunes and what is now the University of Notre Dame campus.

“A project like this goes a long way in contributing and convincing people that indigenous people still exist,” he added.

Feathers representing veterans adorn the top of the Pokagon Band of Potawotomi community Eagle Feather Staff on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.

Dustin Olds, second chief of the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma, also knows the area.

“We were forcibly removed from the area in the fall of 1846, but we enjoy returning to this area at every opportunity,” he said.

“This is a beautiful part of the country, and every time I come here, I can see why you never want to leave,” Olds said.

“It was an important place where we could interact with relatives of other nationalities,” he said.

Madalene Big Bear, a member of the Potawatomi tribe, said the traditional clothing designs worn by dancers at the dedication ceremony represent the history of trade. The tiny bells on the skirts, called cones, are made from the lids of tobacco tins and represent the traditional ceremonial and medicinal use of tobacco, She said.

Like the people of Miami, the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.

“September. October 4, 1838 was the last day the U.S. government rounded up our people and removed them from this area,” Big Bear said. They had to walk from sunrise to sunset for 60 days towards their new home in Kansas.

“Our governments are the longest-running governments in human history,” Big Bear said. “This is not very accepted.”

Dressed in traditional garb, Potawatomi citizen Broderick Race's Pokagon Band watches as a celebration celebrates the completion of the first segment of the Native Culture Trail at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.

At the flag-raising ceremony, the Iron Bear Singers sang the oldest flag song on the continent, he said.

Big Bear said it was illegal to sing these songs or even give tribal members traditional names until the Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, but tribes defied the ban and continued the practices anyway.

The ceremony included a round dance in which anyone of any nationality was invited to dance shoulder to shoulder. Many people from the audience participated.

Nicole Harmon, director of Humane Indiana Wildlife’s rehabilitation center in Valparaiso, introduced red-tailed hawk, or bebamset, to use the Potawatomi word. “The hawks brought us fire from the sun,” Big Bear explained, making the Potawatomi guardians of the fire.

Harmon said Phoenix, the female hawk released Wednesday, had been at the rehabilitation center for eight years.

He said the center has seen about 30 red-tailed hawks in the last three months due to West Nile virus. “It may take up to 17 weeks for the virus to pass through the system.”

Oklahoma Tribal Historic Preservation officer Logan York Miami Tribe carries his tribe's flag during a celebration of the completion of the first segment of the Native Culture Trail at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023.

The traditional name of the Miami people before anglicization is Miamia. This is also reflected in the new fire pit behind the visitor center.

Hunter said Miamia are “people downstream.” According to legend, “At first Miamia came out of the water”. This area is between South Bend and Lake Michigan in St. He said it was on the St. Joseph River.

“Miamia people have lived in this area since time immemorial,” Hunter said.

Livingston, Big Bear, Kanine and others who planned the new trail said they were pleased not only with the exhibit but also with the attention received during its opening.

“We are in the business of creating great experiences,” Livingstone said. He hopes that the exhibition will make visitors see things differently, act differently and talk differently after seeing the exhibition.

He learned a lot during the six-year route to starting his new cultural path. The board also includes a list of “dirty words” to avoid when discussing indigenous peoples in the region, Livingston said.

Doug Ross is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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