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Casino funds preserve Wisconsin sacred site

CRANDON, Wis. - Laying silently hidden for centuries under layers of leaves and branches, surrounded by a canopy of trees on a hill in Fond du Lac County, Na Na Wi Gewan, The Center, emerged in this generation to return its ancient presence.

"At one time, it belonged to all the people," said Phil Shopadock, chairperson of a Forest County Potawatomi committee overseeing the 60-acre property purchased by the tribe in 2001.

Today it belongs to a tribe that is protecting it for all people.

"It's coming back, reactivating," said Shopadock.

About a two-hour drive south of the tribe's Crandon location, the site, near Campbellsport, is one of the few sacred lands on the continent owned by American Indians. Bought with $500,000 of the general funds from a casino operation in Milwaukee, the site may be more than 5,000 years old.

From the top of a small hill covered with maple, beech and oak trees, looking down into a depression, a large circle of rocks, surrounded by smaller circles occupy about 20 acres of the property. Looking northwest to a distant hill, the circles line up with a summer solstice sunset. A sight line runs from another circle of rocks to equinox sunsets.

No plants grow inside the circle, possibly because water pools there, freezing and thawing continually in late fall and early spring.

"Some of us believe it's the center," said Clarice Ritchie, also a member of the committee. "At one time we were a Red Race, a race of people who lived on Turtle Island. I think the teaching was received at this place. From here, the people carried it as they went in the four directions."

Many spiritual people visited the site and shared what they knew about its layout. Some individuals described searches for the place that had carried through generations.

Elders have talked of a place in the center of Turtle Island, said Ritchie. The medicine wheel here is identical to others on the continent. They all line up with the four directions.

The Potawatomi became aware of the site nearly 20 years ago, when Robert Krug, who owned the farmland for about 40 years, began sending out queries about the pattern of stones that rested on his land.

The site was undisturbed for generations because it did not lend itself to being plowed for farms. It was revealed through Krug's grandchildren when they climbed the hill one day when Krug went up to consider having the trees cut down.

"He was on the hill talking with the foresters, when his grandchildren asked why all the rocks were laid in a pattern," said Ritchie.

The first people Krug invited to examine the site were archaeologists. No one seemed to be able to tell Krug much about the site. Tribes from the south, southeast, the mid-Plains, east coast and Alaska visited the site as did the Russian Academy of Science, which noted it was similar to a medicine wheel found in Siberia.

In 1986 Krug invited Herman Bender, a Wisconsin geologist, to explore the site.

"It's all about the sun," Bender said. "The equinox line is the best marked line of all,"

Bender said oak trees interspersing the forested area are at least 150 years old, telling us it was once open space with a clear view of the horizon before settlement and farmlands ended the natural and purposeful prairie fires that were a part of Indian life.

Krug approached the Potawatomi Executive Council and invited the tribe to visit the site. Not long after, negotiation began and Krug sold the property to the tribe for $500,000.

"It was obvious to us it was a sacred place," said Ritchie. "I can't begin to put into words the feelings that come to me while I'm there."

Solstice and equinox lines are now two-degrees off since the earth rotated from the solstice and equinox lines marked by the site, dating the equinox and solstice to about 3,500 years ago.

There was at one time a lake and waterway that went all the way to Lake Michigan. Not far away parts of an old Indian trail still lace the hills.

The circle of rocks are largely undisturbed by the centuries. Even the glaciers went around it, said Shopadock.

"There's an ability to express yourself when in that circle, you can say things you can't say anywhere else," said Ritchie.

Petroglyphs of turtles, buffalo and bears leap out the landscape. The moss growing on some of the grandfather rocks is more than 2,500 years old.

"Many of the grandfathers relate to the stars," Ritchie said. "Various petroforms were laid out to mirror constellations such as the Big and Little dippers."

Since its discovery, gatherings, fasting and ceremonies have been held at the site. Little by little the site revealed its lessons.

"To me, it's like a university, there's so much this place teaches us," said Shopadock.

The place is reaffirmed every 1,000 years, said Shopadock.

"Krug was chosen to hold the property until this time," said Ritchie. "It was a path picked for a reason."

The committee is exploring ideas for how the property should be utilized and guidelines for people who visit the area. The current farmhouse is historic and being preserved because the stones in its foundation are a part of the grandfathers who comprise the site. Building an informational center for group meetings is also being discussed. An area may be set aside for burial grounds so that those ancestors of all American Indians who wait for reburial may be returned to the earth.

This was the beginning of something, said Ritchie.

"It moves you within," said Ritchie. "You experience something that is unexplainable. Anyone going there is influenced to be a better person."

Ritchie said the Potawatomi plan to place the property in trust to preserve it forever.

"We believe it should only be used for spiritual purposes," said Ritchie. "We want it to be available to all people."

The committee said the site will be open to all tribes and no fee charged to visitors.

"All tribes are welcome to come, to do ceremony as we do ceremony today," said Ritchie.

The Potawatomi Nation, one of the Woodland groups of Indians, at one time originated in the Great Lakes area, according to tribal elder James Thunder. Once allied with the Odawa and Ojibwe tribes, a confederation known as the Council of Three Fires, they migrated toward the east. Eventually the people returned to the Great Lakes area and lived on millions of acres of land before it was ceded by the signing of 42 treaties. Today, seven bands live across Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Michigan.