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Native American Legends Explained at Michigan's Sweetgrass Golf Club


Michigan has a surprisingly lengthy golf season. Among the Wolverine State's many offerings is Sweetgrass Golf Club. Located next to the Island Resort & Casino and owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian Community, a band of the Potawatomi Nation, the course debuted in July 2008. Sweetgrass opens for its first full season in 2009. It draws from the area's Native American heritage, which is subtly incorporated into the layout.

Designed by Paul Albanese, Sweetgrass stretches 7,300 yards from the tips, while four forward boxes accommodate all levels of play. Set on a largely untouched site, the wind-swept fairways are lined with fescues and its namesake herb sweetgrass - an aromatic plant found throughout the property. From bunkers named after tribal elders and terrain reminiscent of long-forgotten fortress ruins, Sweetgrass offers Native American inspiration on every hole.

Golfers encounter Potawatomi legend from the start. The opening hole, "Cedar," a short par-4, welcomes players with cedar posts lining the entrance of the fairway. Cedar was one of the four traditional medicines used by the tribe - sweetgrass, tobacco and sage being the others.

The second hole, "God's Kettle," increases in length and difficulty. This par-4 tells the story of Weme-gen-debay, a noted chief and great hunter who discovered a copper kettle used to boil maple sap into sugar for the "feast of the dead," a ritual in which tribal members honor the spirit world.

Holes three and four represent tribal tales of security. The par-3 "Wolf" - heavily protected by mounds and bunkers - reflects the protective and defensive nature of the animal. The par-4 fourth is reminiscent of Michigami, the fortified city created in the 1650s to repel attacks from the Iroquois.

No. 5 - a par-4 with water right of the fairway - is known as "The Serpent and the Flood" and explains the story of the aquatic god, Neben Manito, who created the earth from water while fighting the Great Serpent.

Animals have played a vital role in the lives of Potawatomi. Deer have long been a crucial source of food, but the white deer is sacred, never harmed. A waste bunker on the par-5 sixth hole is shaped like the animal, though only discernable from high above the earth. Meanwhile, beware of the "rabbit-hole" bunkers on the seventh. This par-3 stretches 230 yards from the back tees and pays tribute to a common character in Native American lore.

The Potawatomi people live in tight communities sharing land, food and medicine. The par-4 eighth was named after Zoie Brozowski, who visited the community as a child and generously willed money to the tribe upon her passing.

"Trailing Arbutus," the par-5 ninth, appropriately reflects the coming of spring. The daughter of Old Man Manito (winter) blows her warm breath every year to melt the snow and ice and the spring flower of trailing arbutus grows in her wake, lining the two majestic waterfalls on this uphill hole.

Prior to playing the back nine - No. 10 is a well-bunkered par-4 named "Firekeeper" (Bodewadmi); golfers will notice a fire pit near the tee. Fire warms cool mornings and symbolizes the light of the Creator.

"Good Harvest" - the par-5 11th - was dedicated to Douglas Good and his family, who farmed the land where the course now stands for more than century. The Potawatomi believe Mother Earth provides a bounty for the people and should be protected. The 11th features much nature - water, trees, farmland, low lands and wild game.

The par-3 12th is named "Maple Sugar" (Zi za ba kwet), for both its food and preventative medicine qualities. Golfers may need medicinal magic for par if a tee shot comes to rest on the wrong tier of this multi-leveled hole. A Biarritz green - designed with a deep gully that bisects the front and back - provides a dramatic finish.

The "Eagle" (Ke no) is sacred to Native Americans and watches over the tribe, serving as the messenger between the Creator and his people. The par-4 13th measures a robust 489 yards from the tips and requires bird's-eye vision to record par.

Serving as breather between daunting holes, the par-4 14th tells the story of Snowbird Legend: two young Indians who traveled to deliver gifts to their grandmother but were caught in a snowstorm and slept to afterlife. The Creator has since sent two birds - which lie in bunkers behind the green - that warn of approaching snow.

The "Turtle" (Mshike), otherwise known as the Island Green 15th, is a par-3 with rock outcroppings resembling its namesake, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge in the Potawatomi culture. This lore also is prevalent on the par-4 17th as golfers use a turtle-shaped boulder as their target from the tee.

The 16th hole - "Ogeema Muckwa" - is dedicated to Kenneth Meshigaud, tribal chairperson of the Hannahville Indian Community for more than 20 years. The long doglegging hole honors the Bear Clan which leads, protects and provides medicines.

Saving one of the best for last, the finish at Sweetgrass is an uphill par-5 culminating in a vast, shared green. Called the "Seven Grandfathers" (Noeg Gmeshomsenanek) in honor of the seven men given the responsibility by the Creator to look after the people, there are seven bunkers on this hole. The Grandfathers taught wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth.

While Sweetgrass Golf Club is a must-play course and an unforgettable experience, entertainment at the Island Resort & Casino continues well into the night. With a recent multi-million dollar expansion, a plethora of activities await including fine-dining, Vegas-style gaming and musical performances by such national acts as the Blues Brothers, 3 Doors Down, Martina McBride and Huey Lewis & the News.

Also onsite is the Palm Tower's 162 spacious new rooms and penthouse suites Two other championship courses are available - TimberStone and Greywalls - within an hour's drive.

For more information about Sweetgrass Golf Club and the Island Resort & Casino, call 800/682-6040 or visit www.islandresortandcasino.com.  

How to get There

The beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula may seem to be a world away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, but Sweetgrass Golf Club is easily accessible via a pair of regional airports in Escanaba and Marquette, Mich., as well as the Austin Straubel International Airport in nearby Green Bay, Wisc.