JUNE 1, 2016

Tallmadge-Sainz aims to return authentic Native American culture to Dells

Terry Shelton Special to the Dells Events

It could have been the T-shirt that read: "My Indian Name is Running With Beer." Or maybe it was the dreamcatchers stamped: "Made in China."

Regardless, that was all it took for Melanie Tallmadge-Sainz to dedicate her retirement to steering the Wisconsin Dells back to authentic Native American culture.

"We want to begin a renaissance," said Tallmadge-Sainz, a Ho-Chunk native who retired and returned to the area after spending 30 years in Arizona as an educator and talented visual and performing artist. "We use to be a vital part of the economy and the time is right to return the area to the real and authentic."

Tallmadge-Sainz should know. The parents of the 1980 Miss Indian American owned and operated the Winnebago Indian Museum on Highway 13 during what was a heyday for authentic Native American art and commerce in the Dells.

For the last three years her Little Eagle Arts Foundation (LEAF) has pursued the re-establishment of an more active Native American artistic presence in the Dells, just in time for the ongoing transformation of the downtown into the Dells River Arts District.

Now she is moving ahead with a fine arts gallery, "Native Presence," which will officially open on June 8-9 on the second floor of the Chalet Building downtown.

"Native American arts have always been an economic engine in southwest Wisconsin," said. "This takes us back to our roots."

LEAF has focused on offering multi-generational workshops and programs to Native Americans and non-Indians. Its members have developed programs with local organizations from the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona to the Kilbourn Public Library, the Friends of H.H. Bennett Studio and the Stewards of the Dells.

"Our goal has always been to create the teachable moment when the language of art bridges culture to culture," she said.

Tallmadge-Sainz, who said her Ho-Chunk Nation has no word for "art" - only "beauty" (roughly "piino") - expects to use part of the gallery for displays lasting two to 30 days. Other areas will be for workshops, including her specialty, porcupine quill embroidery.

She also expects to showcase traditional art which uses beads, cattails and other natural elements that are part of the Ho-Chunk heritage.

"We want to bring up new and emerging artists and be role models for those Native American and non-Indians who want to express themselves. We want to set a big art table," she said.

Ultimately the gallery will be divided among demonstration art, consignment art and the show gallery, she said. Tallmadge-Sainz knows she will be successful because she has the support of her nation and the city leadership, including Mayor Brian Landers.

"Our name is roughly spelled 'ohochogo' which means 'people of the big voice.' Our voice can be perfume or poison. With this gallery, you know which we choose."


Terry Shelton photo
Melanie Tallmadge-Sainz plays a Native American flute at Louis Bluff.