Tourism and the Community

There has been a lot of talk recently about the proposed renovations of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  One writer questioned whether or not the Corn Palace was important to Mitchell as a source of income or just as a part of Mitchell’s identity.  It is both.

Travel around the United States, indeed in much of the world, and tell folks you meet that you are from Mitchell and the first response you get most of the time is “Corn Palace!”.  Without the Corn Palace, most people would not even know we exist, much less what state we are in.

Because of the Corn Palace, about one third of a million people travel to Mitchell each and every year.  These people purchase gasoline for their vehicles, souvenirs in the Corn Palace gift shop.  Quite a few spend the night in the area hotels and campgrounds, often going out for supper and breakfast and shopping in local stores.  Without the Corn Palace, Cabela’s may have chosen a different city in which to place their first South Dakota store.  Many of the Corn Palace visitors go to one or more of Mitchell’s four museums.  Without the Corn Palace, many of the people, young and old, employed at these area businesses would be working or living elsewhere.

Should we renovate the Corn Palace?  Of course we should! The economic impact on tourism in Davison county in 2010 was $36,670,337 (this figure comes from the South Dakota Tourism annual report).  For every dollar spent on tourism, according to some economic indicators, the community will see $7 returned.  This is no small potatoes here.  Can Mitchell afford not to renovate and improve the Corn Palace?  I really don’t think so. The city’s annual budget is $30,619,741.  Tourism revenue is as much as 8% of its income (one writer stated that it was less than 2%).

Improvements to the Corn Palace will also benefit the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, Dakota Discovery Museum, McGovern Museum and the Carnegie Resource Center.  Renovating the Corn Palace will also bring much needed revenue to the city so that the city may offer more programs for its citizens, better streets, better facilities.  And that, folks, is what it’s all about.

A young tourist learning how to throw a spear with an atlatl.

Industrial Bison 1000 A.D.

One thousand years ago, a small group of people settled on a bluff overlooking a creek in present day South Dakota.  Today we call the creek Firesteel Creek; it was dammed in 1928 to create Lake Mitchell.   There were many good reasons for these people to choose this site.  The creek provided water, and fish and shellfish for food.  Trees, such as cottonwood and willow, grew along the shoreline of the creek, providing wood for their lodges, tools and fires.  The floodplain along the creek was rich and fertile, giving them ample opportunity for farming.  Most importantly, the wildlife in this area was abundant.  Bison, deer, pronghorn, and elk were among the large game animals that roamed this region.  Smaller animals included squirrels, racoons, skunks, rabbits, fox, coyote and many different species of birds.

During the excavations at the Prehistoric Indian Village we find many different artifacts relating to the reasons for settling on the bluff.  We know that the villagers farmed; they raised corn, beans, squash, sunflower, amaranth and tobacco.  We know they fished; we find fish bones.  We know they hunted; we find many different species of animal bones in the site showing evidence of butchering.  Indeed, the number of bones is incredible.

These people also traded extensively with other people.  We find artifacts from as far away as present day south Florida, Oregon, Washington and the Great Lakes.  To trade with others, however, one must have something of value that others would want or need.  For a long time, our scientists wondered what our villagers had.  The answer, published recently by Landon Karr in the Journal of Field Archaeology, is bison.  We have learned that our villagers were processing bison on an industrial scale.

The villagers were making pemmican, an early form of a “power bar” favored by modern athletes.  Pemmican was made by scraping clean the large bones of the bison.  These bones were then broken into small pieces and heated in water until the marrow and marrow fat inside the bones were thoroughly cooked.  The marrow and fat was then mixed with dried berries and grains, and with dried meat.  The resulting product, pemmican, had a shelf life of up to eight years!  While you or I may not want to eat an eight year old piece of pemmican, and we might gasp at the thought of eating all that fat, for our villagers and the people who traded for the pemmican, it was a most important food item.  Its long shelf life meant it would stay edible on long journeys, last through the bitter, frigid winters of the northern plains, and be available in times of drought.  The fat, an excellent preservative, was also a good source of energy while the berries, grains and meat provided much needed minerals and vitamins.

Our site holds countless bison bones.  One could never estimate how many of these enormous creatures were butchered during the 100 to 150 years our village was inhabited.  Biologists estimate that there were 30 million bison roaming North America 1,000 years ago.

Every part of the bison was used by our villagers.  The bladder and stomach were used as pouches, buckets and cooking vessels.  The brain was used to tan hides; the hooves for glue and rattles.  The hide was used for bull boats, containers, drums, moccasins, shields and, if the hides were tanned, for bags, belts, clothing and coverings for shelters.  The hair was used for ornaments, padding and stuffing, ropes and headdresses.  Horns became cups, fire carriers, ladles, rattles and toys.  Fly brushes and whips were made from the tail.  Bones became arrowheads, fish hooks, hoes, paddles, knives and much, much more.  The buffalo chips, once dried, became fuel for their fires.  These are just a few of the items that were made from the bison, as you can see nothing went to waste.  And don’t forget, they ate much of the beast; the meat, liver and other internal organs, the tongue. Even the blood was consumed.

So, while many may think that the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is just a collection of ancient, buried lodges, it really is much more than that.  The countless bones tell of a much richer history and lifestyle.  One really has to dig to learn about our past, connecting it to the present.

The Wild Side of the Museum

American Badger, aka "The Culprit"

 Being the director of a small museum and archaeology site has its challenges, none more amusing and frustrating than dealing with an invasion of wildlife on the grounds.  Our grounds cover approximately six acres on the shore of Lake Mitchell.  We have trees and bushes along the shoreline but the majority of our grounds are open.  And, therein lies the problem.

Each year, we plant gardens of corn, squash, beans and sunflowers to show visitors the way the people who lived here 1,000 years ago farmed.  Soon after the plants sprout from the spring sun-warmed soil, the deer come to graze on the tender plants.  Most have just given birth and they leave their fawns nearby as they enjoy their herbal meal.  Consequently, our gardens are not fruitful at all.  This year we harvested only squash – apparently deer do not care for them.

Our wide open space attracts thirteen-lined ground squirrels, often mistakenly called gophers.  Cute little creatures, they dig numerous holes and occasionally come up inside the Archeodome, much to the surprise of the archaeologists working on the site.  They also contribute to what we refer to as “gopher archaeology”.  Quite often we will find artifacts right outside their burrows.  Then there is “reverse gopher archaeology”.  That occurs when someone walking through the area drops an item and it falls into a burrow, ultimately ending up in a 1,000 year archaeological site.  Frustrating indeed to the archaeologists.

This Thanksgiving weekend, another creature, not so warm and cuddly, took up residence on our grounds.  I came to work Monday morning to find 26 badger holes on our grounds.  That’s just two nights of work for one or two of these creatures.  As carnivores, there is no doubt that they are after our abundant ground squirrel population.  Unfortunately, they are doing quite a bit of damage.  The bright side, however, is that they are handling our ground squirrel population quite nicely, I’m sure!  I have resisted putting poison out to control the ground squirrels (“look, Mommy, those cute little animals look sick” is just not good for family tourism) and we really shouldn’t shoot them within City limits.

I do have to do something about the badgers.  I am not afraid of them, even though our maintenance man asked that I not go near the burrows (“they’re dangerous and will chase you”).  So, Monday morning, I began to make the calls.  First to the County Extension Office (“we’ll call you back”), then to the state’s division of wildlife (“I have a trapper who may contact you”), back to the extension office (“call the police”), the police department (“our animal control person is not working right now”).  In fairness to these agencies, I’m sure this is not an everyday problem.  The state wildlife office looks like my best bet, they did call me back to let me know that they are working on my problem.

A state trapper finally called me, he’ll be here tomorrow.  The good news: he doesn’t think we have too many badgers.  The bad news: they are notoriously difficult to trap.

Badger, Rat and Mole from "The Wind in the Willows"

In the meantime, I wonder if Mr. Toad, Rat and Mole will be stopping by next?  Or, perhaps someone from Hufflepuff?

What a Summer We Had!

As we sadly count down the days to the end of October, we all look back to the summer of 2011 with big smiles.  What a summer we had!

Our summer began with a bang!  We rocked the Village with a special fundraising concert by the Beach Boys.  Close your eyes for a moment and you went back in time, sitting in your lounge chair on a beach somewhere listening to those great surf songs by America’s answer to the Beatles.  The concert was followed by one of the best fireworks displays this town has seen.  Two lucky individuals went home with surfboards autographed by the Beach Boys.

Our annual Archaeology Awareness Days event in July brought folks from all over to see primitive potters, flint knappers,  early medicinal plant specialists, atlatl experts and a special demonstration of long bows courtesy of Cabela’s.  This is one of our most popular events.

Jerome Kills Small, a professor of Native Language Studies at the University of South Dakota, also joined in us July for an Evening of Storytelling and Friendship.   He told us all trickster stories as we sat around a campfire on a bluff overlooking Lake Mitchell.  It was a most delightful evening!

We were very busy in August .  The staff now gives guided tours throughout the Village and they were busy every day.  Cabela’s invited us to do an outreach program at their store on Saturdays; it was a lot fun to do and it brought many more visitors to the Village.  They have invited us to return next summer.

One of our favorite events was in September: Lynn Moroney, a Chickasaw  Skyteller from Oklahoma, gave us an evening of star stories.  After her performance, the Sioux Empire Astronomy Club set up telescopes and let us peer into space to see nebulae and galaxies!  Almost 150 people came for this great event.

We observed National Archaeology Day on October 22nd with a display of posters from around the world.  Some of the posters were created by archaeologists from overseas.  We also displayed few artifacts from other archaeological sites in the United States.  The poster display featured a poster of the penultimate archaeologist, Indiana Jones.

Throughout the season we welcomed school tours to the Village.  Over 1,000 students from all over South Dakota and neighboring states learned about our early inhabitants.  We also welcomed over 10,000 visitors from around the world!

Soon, we close the doors for the winter.  While we won’t be welcoming visitors to our unique site we will still be working hard.  There is so much to do: we have to finish our student research library and change the office into something more functional.  Most of all, though, we have to raise money for all the new projects and exhibits we wish to have for the summer of 2012.

One of the ways we raise funds is through our membership program.  There are many benefits to becoming a member of the Village and we ask that you, too, consider joining us.  Memberships begin at just $25, less than what you would spend in a month for your coffees and lattes!   For more information, please check out our website at, stop by the Village, call us at 605-996-5473 or send us an email at  We cannot do all the wonderful things we do without you!

A young visitor tests his atlatl skills.  The Thomsen Center Archeodome is in the background.






Skyteller coming to the Village

We are welcoming Skyteller Lynn Maroney to the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village on September 24th at 7:00 pm.  What an exciting evening this will be!

Lynn grew up in Oklahoma, a child of Chickasaw ancestry.  Many evenings were spent gazing in wonder at the stars and constellations as they glided across the evening skies.  She learned the Greco-Roman stories behind the constellations but it was the legends of her own people that brought her to the path she follows today.

Lynn has learned the stories of indigenous people from all over the world and, for the last 30 years, has shared them with children of all ages.  She has performed all over the United States, from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC to the Academy of Science in San Fransisco, California.   A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Lynn’s Native American ancestry and pioneer roots are deeply woven into her stories.

Lynn has also conducted workshops for NASA Outreach, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the International Planetarium Society, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Local astronomy clubs will bring their telescopes to this event to share with visitors the wonders of the night sky.  This is going to be one spectacular evening!

For more information please call us at 605-996-5473.  Admission to this special event is just $5 for children, $8 for seniors, $10 for adults.  Group discounts are available.  We’ll have refreshments by the fire pit!

Where are the Teepees?


I have been working with Native Americans in the tourism industry for two decades.  My first forays in this industry were in South Florida, home of the Miccosukee and Seminole people.  Today I work at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in South Dakota, where the ancestors of the Mandan people lived.  Despite the huge geographical gap, there is similarity to how visitors imagine how these tribes may have lived.

The Miccosukee and the Seminole were originally from the area that became Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.  Pushed south by their enemies, they ultimately settled in the sub-tropical wilderness of the Florida Everglades.  They built simple houses, called chickees, on the teardrop shaped islands, or hammocks, on the River of Grass.  The chickees were open-sided homes with a palm thatch roof.  Beds and seating were elevated above the ground, a fire was in the center of the structure.  Temporary walls could be dropped when the weather got cold – a rare occurrence – or when foul weather threatened.

Everglades Chickee

The people who lived on the northern plains lived in lodges similar to the chickees of the Everglades Indians.  The walls were  permanent, however, made of daub, a mixture of mud, grasses and sticks, which hardened from the heat of the hearth fire.  The roof was made of sod.  One bed would be placed close to the fire in the lodge, reserved for a revered elder.  Everyone else slept on the ground, presumably on bison hides.These homes, like those of the Miccosukee and Seminole, were well adapted to the climate in which these people lived.

Full-scale replica of a lodge at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

When we welcome to visitors to these sites, quite often the first question asked is “where are the teepees?”.  Literature, movies, and other media depict the First Americans as proud horsepeople who lived in great teepees.  Our visitors are always surprised to learn that teepees are a relatively recent building construction and did not come about until the horse was introduced to the First Americans.  Then, only a few tribes, most notably the Sioux tribes, used the teepee.  The horse enabled the nomadic Sioux to move about the Plains in search of the great herds of bison.

Most Native Americans did not live in teepees.  Their houses came in all shapes and sizes, from the simple iglu of the Inuit to the beautiful plank houses of the Chinook.  It becomes our responsibility to teach our visitors the ways in which these people lived.

The Prehistoric Indian Village Gives Back to the Community

The lights of the Thomsen Center Archeodome reflecting off Lake Mitchell. Photo by Rich Stedman

There are many challenges in operating a museum; whether it be a large one like the Smithsonian or a small one like the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village the challenges are similar.  Raising funds to keep our doors open, of course, is our biggest challenge.  Our responsibility to the community at large is great, due in part to our desire to give back to the community for the generosity it shows.  We are often challenged to think of unique and meaningful ways to give back to the community.

This fall, we are creating a research library for students to study and learn about archaeology, anthropology, Native Americans and more.  We are in the process of gathering books and other media through donations.  The library will be in the basement of the Boehnen Museum.  We are excited about this project and work on the library will begin once our season ends at the end of October.

The library will allow students to access our books and media.  Students will be able to check out some of the books.  Computers will be available for use by the students.  Our goal is to increase awareness of the sciences and disciplines involved in the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.  Local libraries and colleges have offered to donate books, as well as the staff here at the Village.

We also look forward to the beginning of our prairie project.  A strip of land on the north side of the Thomsen Center Archeodome will be restored to native prairie to give visitors an idea of the what the early people saw around their villages.

Next spring will see the establishment of gardens designed to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects by planting native wildflowers and grasses.  These gardens will be located near the entrance to the Boehnen museum and will include sculptures from Native American artists.

All of these projects are just the beginning of many good things to come in the future for the community and for the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.

A Story of Corn (or A Corny Story)

Corn is such an important part of our daily lives; we eat it, feed it to livestock, make fuel and oil from it;  it is a substance in plastics, papers, medicines and many, many other everyday products.  We forget its humble beginnings.

Primitive corn (Image from the University of Illinois)

Corn is a tropical plant, first domesticated about 7,000 years ago in what is now central Mexico.  The early domesticated corn looked much different from those giant cobs we enjoy on the 4th of July.  Small grassy seed heads fed countless people in Mesoamerica as the domesticated corn traveled from central Mexico to as far south as Peru and to the southwestern part of North America.  And, there it remained for thousands of years.

Just over a thousand years ago, Woodland Indians from the Ohio River Valley began to migrate west and north, following the great rivers through the plains.  They brought corn with them and settled along a small creek in what is now South Dakota.  Prior to their arrival at this location, corn did not grow much farther north than Missouri.  These people, the ancestors of the Mandan Indians, were able to do something that modern science has not improved upon: they were able to take this wonderful tropical food plant and adapt it to the very short growing season of the upper plains.  By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in the late 1400s, corn was growing as far north as southern Canada.

Although the inhabitants of the Prehistoric Indian Village had been able to adapt the corn to grow here, it was still quite small.  And that is what makes this story all the more impressive.  At any given time during the history of this village, there were up to 200 people living here relying on just a few basic food sources.  Hunters brought in game such as deer, bison, birds and fish.  The farmers raised several crops: beans, squash, sunflower, amaranth and, most importantly, corn.  The corn ears were not much bigger than a man’s thumb, yet these people had to raise enough to sustain them until the following year’s harvest.

This story, then, becomes one of not just a people who were able to develop a corn that would grow in such a short growing season but of a people who were growing corn and other crops on such a large scale that they could not be called “primitive” farmers.  While they did succeed for a time, ultimately they were forced to move on, perhaps after depleting this area of natural resources.

Why We Do What We Do

Enjoying an Evening of Storytelling and Friendship with Jerome Kills Small on the banks of Lake Mitchell at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.

This past weekend, my family and I traveled to Nebraska to visit the Ashfall Fossil Bed State Park.  What an amazing site.  Very similar in ideals to our own Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.  Located out in the middle of nowhere we were surprised to find it, much less to find as many people visiting it as there were on that very warm sunny Sunday afternoon.  I met with the founding paleontologist, Mike Voorhies, and the park’s superintendent, Rick Otto.  We shared stories of museum life and the trials of raising funds.  I had wanted to see how Ashfall succeeded since they are a State Park.  I learned that while Nebraska owns the land and the park it does not fund the park.  Much like the Prehistoric Indian Village: the City of Mitchell  owns the land, which is a designated National Landmark and National Historic Site, but does not fund the Indian Village.  We have to raise the funds ourselves to keep the doors open.  Why, then, are we all doing this?

Here at the Indian Village, we offer school groups and other groups an incomparable experience in learning about our distant past – one that is not taught in the schools.  Community programs, such as our recent Evening of Storytelling and Friendship and our upcoming Skytelling Evening, bring inexpensive and unique entertainment and Native culture to the residents of our community.  It is, however, an ongoing struggle to raise funds for these community events.  The events themselves are not designed to raise money but to raise community awareness; they are for the community to enjoy.  When the community enjoys what we do, they support us in our endeavors.  Most importantly, though, when the community enjoys what we do, we want to do more for the community.  It is the same for all other regional and small museums.

Not everyone can be a “Fairy Godmother” for their community museum.  But everyone can show their support just by visiting the museum, showing it to visiting friends and relatives, attending the unique special events and, if the community museum has a membership plan such as ours does, join the museum to show continued support.  A little from many will go a long way!

Paleoindian Artifact Found at Prehistoric Indian Village

Archaeologists working at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village last month uncovered an intriguing find, a Paleoindian point believed to be between 7,500 and 8,000 years old.  According to Dr. Adrien Hannus, principal archaeologist at the Village and director of the Archeology Laboratory at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, it is infrequent that such an old artifact would be recovered from a more recent site. The Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is 1,000 years old.

The spear point is fashioned from brown chalcedony and is flaked in a style typical of the James Allen or Frederick points.  These styles are more recent than the better known Clovis points.

What is puzzling is how the Paleoindian point arrived at the Village.  Was it an artifact handed down for generations?  Or, was it something a warrior or hunter found and recognized as something old and special?  We may never know.  What we do know is that it was reworked and fashioned into something like a pendant – jewelry or a shaman’s object?  Again, it is likely to remain a mystery.

Paleoindian Spear Point from the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village