Ho-Chunk Tourism

Indians at Stand RockIndians at Stand RockH.H. Bennett photograph turned postcard of a group of Ho-Chunk on top of Stand Rock.
Courtesy of Dells Boat Company
Indians at Stand Rock
Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial BrochureStand Rock Indian Ceremonial BrochureThe front of the brochure features the “Sunrise Call of the Zuni”, 1978
Courtesy of Trumble Photography
Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial Brochure
Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial DancesStand Rock Indian Ceremonial DancesThe dance depicted in this brochure is called the Green Corn Dance, 1978
Courtesy of Trumble Photography
Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial Dances

The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk were able to remain in Wisconsin under a series of odd circumstances. Attempts were made by the U.S. government to round up the resistant bands and ship them out to Nebraska by train. Chief Yellow Thunder, a famous Ho-Chunk leader, is credited with walking from Nebraska to Wisconsin several times and beating the train before its return. Under the guise of becoming a “white” farmer, Chief Yellow Thunder purchased a 40-acre homestead near present-day Wisconsin Dells in 1849. Other Ho-Chunks sought refuge on Chief Yellow Thunder’s land. In 1881 Congress passed a law allowing all Ho-Chunks the right to purchase homesteads in Wisconsin.

The tribe is considered unique due to their non-reservation status. Communities of Ho-Chunk sprang up among the remaining Wisconsin homestead lands near areas like Black River Falls, Tomah, and Wisconsin Dells. These lands were often inferior, and the Ho-Chunk eked out a living working in cranberry bogs and being hired as performers in the tourist industry. Ho-Chunk performers could be found anywhere from Casey’s Wild West Show to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. However, the tribe’s close proximity to the growing tourist site of Wisconsin Dells provided the most opportunities for employment in this industry.

Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial


Created as a show for tourists in Wisconsin Dells, the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial became one of the most popular attractions in the area during its 78-year run (1919 to 1997). The show was created largely in response to tourist curiosity about local Native American culture. In many ways, it followed the early trend of Indian show business that Ho-Chunk peoples became involved in during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, the Indian Ceremonial differed from earlier cultural performances; the program was geared for a tourist audience and had a set line-up of dances and skits.

Stand Rock became a contact site between the Ho-Chunk and tourists as early as 1916, when two Ho-Chunk men, Sanborn and Winslow White Eagle, would dance on the beach as the evening steamer passed by and tourists would throw coins into a hat as pay. Captain Glen Parsons, a pilot and general manager for the Dells Boat Company, recognized the business opportunity. With the help of George Crandall (a local white entrepreneur and environmental activist) and a Ho-Chunk group headed by Russell Decorah, Parsons organized the first “official” ceremonial performance at Stand Rock in 1919.

In 1929, the Parsons/Crandall partnership dissolved and the show, now run by Crandall’s daughter Phyllis, was officially named the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial. The show had now increased from a 10-day run held once a summer to a two-month run held throughout July and August. The Neesh-la Indian Development Corporation, formed in the late 1970s and run by a group of Ho-Chunk individuals, finally took control of Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial management and paved the way for other Ho-Chunk individuals to manage the show in its later years.

Fun Facts

Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial, 1997
Video by Sherman Funmaker

The Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial has always had only Native performers. In 1940, the ceremonial earned the distinction of being the only all-Native American show in the United States. Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial became an entirely Ho-Chunk run show in 1987, with individuals from the tribe serving on its board of directors and holding positions of management. Members from the Ho-Chunk Nation have performed in the show every year since its beginning. The ceremonial also brought in performers from other tribal groups, including the Pueblo and Aztec. Chief Evergreen Tree from Cochiti Pueblo is one of the show’s most memorable performers of all time. He entertained tourists at Stand Rock with his bird and animal imitations for over 50 years.

Indian Villages and Guides

Indian Villages and the Old Dells Park

The Old Dells Park and Pipe Dyer’s Trading Post served as another space for interactions between tourists and Ho-Chunk peoples. The trading post and the Old Dells Park were situated next to the Wisconsin River and acted as an “Indian Village” for tourists to visit. Ho-Chunk men and women would arrive for the summer months to set-up wigwams (chee-po-doe-kays) and sell their arts and crafts. The Old Dells Park also employed Native Americans from other tribes to come and work for the summer. The Park even featured a Seminole man from Florida who wrestled alligators on site.

Pipe Dyer’s Trading PostPipe Dyer’s Trading PostCourtesy of H.H. Bennett Studio/Wisconsin Historical Society
Pipe Dyer’s Trading Post
Randy Little EagleRandy Little EagleOlder son in family of guides, ca. 1970
Back of postcard reads: Native Winnebago Indian, Guide on the Lower Dells of the Wisconsin River
Courtesy of Trumble Photography
Lance Little EagleLance Little EagleYounger son in family of guides, ca. 1970
Back of postcard reads: Native Winnebago Indian, Wisconsin River Guide
Courtesy of Trumble Photography
Randy Little EagleLance Little Eagle
Melanie Little EagleMelanie Little EagleYoungest child in family of guides, ca. 1970
Back of postcard reads: Winnebago Indian Guide on the Lower Dells of the Wisconsin River
Courtesy of Trumble Photography
Modern Tour GuideModern Tour GuideDaughter of Lance Little Eagle and curator of this exhibit, 2009
Courtesy of curator and Dells Boat Tours
Melanie Little EagleModern Tour Guide

The Old Dells Park was not the first “Indian Village” to receive Ho-Chunk participation. In 1908 the Ho-Chunk helped stage a Wild West Show and an Indian village for the Black River Falls homecoming celebrations. Shortly afterwards, a group of Winnebago Nebraskans visited their relatives in Wisconsin. Following the visit, the Ho-Chunk had their own homecoming celebration near one of their villages and made sure there was entertainment for non-Indian visitors; they even sold refreshments throughout the day.

Native American River Guides

The Wisconsin River and its towering sandstone cliffs have always been one of Wisconsin Dells’ main attractions. Throughout the years, many boat companies have operated on the river to give tourists the chance to see the formations that made the Dells famous and to entertain passengers with local history and lore. The Dells Boat Company continued its long-standing interest in Native American cultural tourism (Captain Glen Parsons began the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial in the early 1900s) and hired several Ho-Chunks as tour guides for boat tours.

The height of the Native American tour guide trend occurred during the 1970s on the lower Dells boat tours. Set apart from non-Indian guides, Ho-Chunk tour guides were required to inform passengers of their Native heritage and would often dress in traditional garb. In addition, postcards were made for each guide wearing traditional regalia or ribbon shirts. These postcards were sold to tourists for profit. The demand for Ho-Chunk tour guides has since faded and these days it would be unlikely for a tourist to tell the difference between an Indian and a non-Indian guide.

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