Skip to main content

Where the birds are

  • Author:
  • Updated:

American Indian sites at national wildlife refuges

ROCHERT, Minn. - One sign that the wild rice is ripe is when birds begin to gather over the lakes at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in late August. Hundreds of migrating ring-necked ducks are among the waterfowl that come to Tamarac's 21 lakes to feast.

Just as the birds are drawn to the lakes, so are the local Ojibwe people. The Ojibwe have been gathering wild rice, known as manoomin, at Tamarac Refuge for many generations. Birdwatchers are sometimes surprised to see their canoes among the flocks of birds. While one person steers the canoe with a pole, another uses a pair of cedar sticks to guide the stalks over the boat and gently shake the grain free.

A canoe can hold up to 500 pounds of rice, if the ricer is very industrious. A ricing party may take 1 - 3 loads a day. Yet the Ojibwe take only 15 percent of the total crop, leaving plenty for the birds.

Signs mark historic Native sites throughout the refuge and visitors can walk the same trails the Ojibwe used to travel from their spring sugarbush (maple sugar collecting sites) to their fall wild ricing sites. Many of the refuge's trails and roads are open for hiking in the summer and snowshoeing or cross country skiing in the winter. The refuge also has a five-mile auto route.

A historical exhibit at the visitor center includes information on ricing.

The refuge is 18 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes at the junction of county roads 26 and 29. It is open during daylight hours. Tamarac's visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during summer and fall weekends.

The relationship between birds and American Indians has played out in other ways at other national wildlife refuges.

Wapato harvesting

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, near the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington state, was once the location of the village of Cathlapotle, inhabited by Chinookan peoples.

They harvested salmon and a wetland tuber called wapato, food for wintering tundra swans and other water birds protected by the refuge.

Residents of Cathlapotle lived in large, communal buildings made of cedar planks. In 1805, the Lewis and Clark explorers observed 14 houses in the village and estimated that 900 people lived there. A 78-foot-long plankhouse of the sort used by residents of Cathlapotle has been recreated and is open to the public Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the summer and available to groups by special arrangement. Call (360) 887-4106 or visit

There are several hiking trails and an auto route on the refuge, open during daylight hours seven days a week. Information can be obtained at refuge headquarters at 28908 NW Main Ave. in Ridgefield, Monday - Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (360) 887-3883 or visit

Tipi rings

Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge in western North Dakota has managed to promote waterfowl nesting and brood rearing. But in the 1980s, when the man-made lake was lowered because of a dam problem, refuge personnel were amazed to discover an intact tipi ring on the lake floor.

The ring of stones used to hold down the edges of a tipi turned out to be the first of 58,000 stone artifacts recovered from the lake bed, some of them rare Folsom spear tips belonging to Paleoindians 10,500

years ago.

Today, the tipi ring can be seen on the refuge's Lake Ilo walking trail displayed along with some tipi poles. The refuge also has several kiosks that tell the history of the area. And there is a small display in the refuge office, open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

In addition to the tipi ring, refuge manager Kory Richardson said tourists make their way to the remote refuge to see grasslands species birds such as Baird's sparrow and Sprague's pipit. He said birders have come from as far away as England, California and Texas to see the little brown birds. A 1-mile self-guided interpretive trail winds along the north lake shore and meanders through planted tree belts and native prairies. The trail passes a great blue heron rookery. For more information, call (701) 548-8110 or visit

The Lake Ilo NWR office is located one mile west and one and a half miles south of Dunn Center, N.D. The office is on the south shore of the lake.

Ancient mounds

The rich Mississippi delta bottomland at the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge is a magnet for pied-billed grebes, moorhens, wading birds and wood ducks.

But 2,000 years ago, this rich land was cultivated by people who built flat-topped mounds that were centers of life from A.D. 200 - 1400. Sometimes one large flat-topped mound dominated a village or ceremonial center, but usually several mounds surrounded a plaza, with the village at its edges. The mounds had political, social and religious functions.

The Swan Lake Mound Complex is the largest of several mound sites at Yazoo Refuge.

Retired refuge manager Tim Wilkins said the Swan Lake Mound is 24 feet tall and covers a quarter-acre. Located off Yazoo Refuge Road, the area around the mound is kept mowed for visitors.

Yazoo's birds can be seen from two new wildlife observation areas. A quarter-mile boardwalk leads to an observation platform at Lizard Lake; and at Alligator Pond, an open-sided observation tower provides excellent views of wildlife. A small exhibit in the visitor's office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

Located 28 miles south of Greenville, the refuge is open during daylight hours year-round. For more information, call (662) 839-2638 or visit