Colorful hanks — strings knotted together with 4,000 tiny seed beads — create a wall-sized rainbow at the Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post near Onamia, Minn. Sunset oranges, raspberry reds and lupine purples catch the eyes of visitors who have walked across this historic store’s wood floors for more than a century.
The work of more than 250 Indian artists lines the shelves and display cases — beaded flowers on barrettes, feather-themed earrings, intricate birchbark baskets, prairie star quilts, buttery-soft moccasins.
A dozen of us are trying to choose just three hanks each for a two-day beading workshop at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum next door.
Others drape pinks, shiny silver and shimmering greens across the counter, picturing flower petals and leaves. I finally opt for royal blue, spring green and what the clerk aptly dubs “mac-and-cheese” yellow.
While the museum is closed for all but workshops until spring, I know that its centerpiece — the circular Four Seasons room — features life-size dioramas of what Ojibwe families did throughout the year. Winter was the time for gathering indoors, sharing stories and working on crafts and tools.
Our class sits along the windows in the airy lobby, while powwow drums and singing play softly over speakers. We carefully stitch tiny beads to black velvet within view of exhibits, including one that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the jingle dress.
While the dress has been adapted for powwows, it originated near Mille Lacs, where a man had a dream about the dress while his granddaughter was sick during the flu pandemic. It is sewn from cotton with layers of delicate metal cones (originally made from snuff can lids) to create a distinct sound during dances.
Classmates admire a beaded rose on soft leather and birchbark ornaments made by Sandy McMillion of Brainerd, who has come to classes for years.
“I learn something different every time I come,” she says of workshops that have included leather mittens and moccasins, quilling and sweetgrass baskets.
“Every time I’ve taken a class here, it’s good medicine,” adds Emma Jost of Anoka.
The creative camaraderie chases away the gloom of a steely November weekend. On our second day, we gather at the window to watch three bald eagles soaring in circles.
On the nearby shore of Lake Mille Lacs, icy chunks and thin swaths of snow began to collect. Fleets of ice-fishing houses seem to wait impatiently for the depths of winter, when more than 5,500 of them will create seasonal villages. Like crafting, they draw people together, a way to enjoy the outdoors while staying warm, sharing stories and small triumphs while waiting for spring.
The Mille Lacs Trading Post is free and open year-round (Wed.-Sat., December through February). Mille Lacs Indian Museum reopens in May, but hosts a maple sap and syrup event in March. Quillwork earrings, birchbark baskets and pottery classes are planned for spring and summer. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will have its annual powwow over Memorial Day weekend (1-320-532-3632; mnhs.org/millelacs).
People have lived where Lake Mille Lacs joins the Rum River for 9,000 years, following the bounty of each season, from syruping to spearfishing. Mille Lacs Kathio State Park covers more than 10,000 acres, with archaeological sites that make it a National Historic Landmark District.
The park interpretive center shows off shards of pottery and models of dwellings from the Woodland period. The area also is considered the ancestral home of Mdewakanton Dakota.
The park kicks off 2020 with a Jan. 1 snowshoe hike. Additional hikes feature a lesson in how wildlife survives the winter on Jan. 18 and the park’s archaeological finds on Jan. 25. The park rents snowshoes for eight miles of wooded trails, as well as cross-country skis for 18 miles of rolling forest trails.
Visitors can get a beginning cross-country ski lesson on Feb. 1 or join a candlelight ski event on Feb. 8. There’s a sledding hill near the trail center warming house. Nineteen miles of snowmobile trails connect to the statewide trail network.
The park’s 70 campsites are year-round, along with five heated camper cabins (1-320-532-3523; dnr.state.mn.us).
Father Hennepin State Park on the southeast side of Mille Lacs is smaller and quiet in the winter, but it hugs the lakeshore and is open for snowshoeing. Watch for one of the area’s albino deer (dnr.state.mn.us).
Where to stay
Eddy’s Resort’s 1960s heyday inspired the design for its 64 rooms and four cabins, many with a view of its 18 bright-red icehouses. The Launch Bar & Grill serves a “loaded” breakfast of house-smoked corned beef, potatoes, eggs and cheese, and a bourbon applewood bacon jam appetizer and wild rice meatloaf for dinner (1-320-532-3657; eddysresort.com).
Izatys Golf Resort, which began in 1921, blends an inn, townhouses and beach villas. Join a guided ATV tour along the Soo Line Trail. Tuck into a traditional Friday fish fry, or steamed mussels, housemade lamb ravioli or Brie- and-chutney-stuffed brioche breakfast muffins in the restaurant (1-320-532-4574; izatys.com).
McQuoid’s rooms, cabins and log condos along the lakeshore can include snowmobile or ATV rentals and optional guided trips along area trails. Fishing guides and icehouses can be rented through Mac’s Twin Bay (1-800-862-3535; mcquoidsinn.com).
Grand Casino Mille Lacs often fills all 494 of its rooms above one of the state’s largest casinos. Diners can find a full buffet, along with the casual 1991 Kitchen, the B3 burger bar, Up North bar, and Plum’s for pizza. Cover band Viva Knievel will rock New Year’s Eve at the Events Center, while Richard Marx and the Guess Who will perform in early 2020 (1-800-468-3517; grandcasinomn.com).
Where to eat
Farm Market Cafe serves locally sourced breakfast sandwiches and hash browns, plus veggie burgers, wraps, salads, homemade breads and homemade chicken noodle soup for lunch. Leave room for fruit and seasonal pies and locally roasted coffees (1-320-532-4880; farmmarketcafe.com).
Onamia and other communities on the southwest corner of Lake Mille Lacs are about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities, straight up Hwy. 169.
Mille Lacs Area Tourism: 1-888-350-2692; millelacs.com.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (email@example.com) has written for Travel since 2001 and was recently named Travel Writer of the Year by the Midwest Travel Journalist’s Association.