Oneida of Wisconsin offer cultural attractions

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ONEIDA, Wis. - Visiting an elementary school may not be a conventional tourist activity, but a tour of the unique Oneida Nation Elementary School is a popular component of the vast array of cultural experiences provided by the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin's tourism department.

What's so special about the school?

''We have an elementary school built in the shape of a turtle that is becoming world-renowned,'' said Bobbi Webster, the nation's director of communications.

A former Turtle School student came up with the idea.

''He thought that the learning center should be similar to the Oneida creation story on the back of the turtle where everything evolved, so our school is in the shape of a turtle,'' Webster said.

The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin's tourism program evolved from the same kind of integrative, organic thinking that inspired the tribe to construct a turtle-shaped school for its children.

''It sort of happened just as a matter of natural progression in our tribal structure and the reorganization of the tribe throughout many, many years. As we began to grow and expand, there were initiatives that became more tourism-related. Certainly, our casino was the economic force within the reservation for many years,'' Webster said.

A visit to Oneida could include a stop at the Oneida Museum, the Tsyunhekhwa Natural Retail Center and Organic Farm, or the tribe's Buffalo Farm and Industrial Park.

Or, visitors could spend a day taking part in a social dance, sampling traditional foods, and learning how to make moccasins, then spend the night at the Oneida Casino playing high stakes bingo, poker or slots.

The Oneida Museum, Tsyunhehkwa Natural Retail Center and Organic Farm sparked the tribe's tourism initiatives. Tsyunhehkwa means ''life's sustenance.''

''The food center became a focal point for the community and it really grew out of providing produce in the community from our farmers and our farms,'' Webster said. The center now includes a farmers market that is open to other community farmers and crafts people, attracting more visitors to the nation.

The farms are both natural and restorative, Webster said.

''We operate them with a lot of traditional methods, using heirloom white corn that we brought from New York, not using pesticides, planting beans, corn and squash - the Three Sisters - together, cultivating [a] lot of natural vegetation and in some areas just implementing open space planning. We've even re-introduced some of the indigenous plants that had been wiped out so a lot of the natural medicine plants that had grown in this area are starting to come back,'' Webster said.

These elements of contemporary tribal life have all become part of the nation's tourism programs.

The farms, for example, have become visitor centers that host community harvest programs and visits from school children who learn how to pick beans and corn, and braid the stalks.

''We look to incorporate our culture and our history into all that we do and in doing that it become not so much a tourism tool as an education opportunity to show anybody who comes to our territory who we are and how we do things and, as the Oneida people, how we sustain our culture and heritage throughout our business and our farms. It's really tourism about who we are,'' Webster said.

The Oneida reservation borders Green Bay, Wis., home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the tribe's tourism partners.

The casino and the Packers are the two biggest tourism attractions to the area, drawing from large metropolitan areas that stretch from Green Bay to Milwaukee and Chicago.

Visitors to Oneida can stay at the nation's 400-room Radisson Hotel and Conference Center in Green Bay.

A lot of visitors are tribal members from nations across the country who come to observe Oneida's model programs in health services, housing, social services, and take the knowledge back to their tribes to emulate, Webster said.

The tribe offers individual or group tours, including a basic one hour ''drive by'' tour of the Norbert Hill Center, the tribe's administrative core; the Tsyunhehkwa Natural Retail Center; Apple Orchard; Buffalo Farm; Turtle School, and historic ''Salt Pork Avenue'' for $5 per person, which includes transportation, guide fees and Oneida Nation souvenir pin.

The deluxe three-hour tour provides a more historical and cultural look at the Oneida Nation, including stops at the Oneida Museum and Tsyunhehkwa Natural Retail Center. The fee of $15 per adult, $10 per child 12 and under; it includes transportation, guide fees, museum admission cost and a welcome package.

Other cultural experiences include an interactive pow wow exhibition in which the Oneida Nation Dancers demonstrate the different styles of pow wow dances. Participants are expected to join in.

The tourism department can put together a custom package of activities for individuals or groups that will be unique.

''But it's not the pan-Indian experience. You're not going to see Indians dancing and living in tipis. It's a walk through our history to experience Oneida culture through the Oneida people. Stereotypes have been pretty much dissipated by the time you leave our community. We think it's important to share and educate our tourists as well as provide them with a very enjoyable visit,'' Webster said.

For more information, visit www.oneidanation.org.