An Abstract View of Ho-Chunk History
Prepared by the Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Heritage Preservation:
Division of Cultural Resources
Ho-Chunk or "The People"
Ho Chunk: People of the Sacred Language
The Ho Chunk People have remained and continue to remain one of the strongest indigenous Nations in the United States. This is because the Elders of the Nation are honored and their teachings have upheld throughout history.
Ho Chunk Elders say that history begins with the creation of all things on earth. They say that Ho Chunk means "People of the Big Voice," or "People of the Sacred Language." Ho Chunks have always occupied lands in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota. They have hunted, fished, and gathered plants to provide their food source. The land was sacred because through it the Creator provided all their needs: Food, Clothing, Lodging and the means for their culture to thrive in its existence.
The Ho Chunk people respected the land and took care to harvest from the land only what they needed and never with greed. They were a benevolent people. The people numbered in the thousands. The Clan Chiefs watched over their people and performed their clan duties with reverence and diligence, teaching their offspring to do the same.
Every member of the Nation has his or her place within the clan system and within the Nation. There was never any identity crisis in the old days, because children were reared in a very strict society with rigid guidelines and duties to perform on a daily basis. The People were rich with culture and pride to perform their duties well.
As Caretakers of the land, they moved as the food source did, and during seasons providing the plant life abundant to this region. Villages moved to conserve the area's resources. Eventually some of the Chiefs took their people south along the Mississippi and migrated to warmer climates. Thus we have some southern tribes that speak dialects of the Ho Chunk Language (e.g., Otoe, Ponca, and Iowa).
The men hunted while the women gathered. The food staples consisted of corn, squash, green plants, roots, berries, making maple syrup and maple candy, venison, fresh fish, and small game. After harvest, the food storage process consisted of drying foods naturally for the long winters.
Women tanned hides, wove mats from the strong grasses near the waters' edge, made clothing, and taught the younger women. The grandmothers and grandfathers played an important part in the instruction and rearing of children.
The Dagas, or Uncles, were the disciplinarians within a family unit. There was no need for a mother or father to raise their voices, for the practice was to train the children to have such respect for a Daga. Then the chlildren lived in fear of the punishment (usually work, or a pail of water thrown on the head) from their Daga that they were well-mannered and productive children.
The Ho Chunk people are credited as being the mound builders within the region. The large effigy and conical mounds are found in southern Wisconsin and along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, these were solely the long inhabited areas of the pre-Columbian Ho Chunk people. These effigy mounds appear in the shapes of animals and birds, and many contain burials. It is important to note that all of these mounds were built with primitive equipment and by hand. They are so symmetrically accurate that it is amazing to view them today with the assistance of a compass.
The Ho Chunk were successful farmers due to their "raised garden" beds, where they grew specialized garden plants for sustenance. This successful gardening would later be an attribute, as in later times the United States government have 40-acre plots to each family encouraging them to farm.
Ho Chunk men were gifted in the art of silversmith and creating copper jewelry. They were able to design jewelry and body decorations for both men and women. This jewelry, particularly earrings showed the wealth of the individual.
From 1634 to 1963
Three Hundred Twenty Eight Years of Feast or Famine
Land Occupations and Cessions
Ho Chunk occupied lands not only in Wisconsin, but in Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois. History tells us that the Ho Chunk held title to more that ten million acres of the finest land in America.
Before 1634, the HoChunk people enjoyed abundant hunting, gathering, and gardening. From the Red Banks near Lake Winnebago to the waters of the Mississippi and south along the Fox, Wisconsin, and Rock Rivers, the "People" lived and thrived, practicing their cultural ways. . . the ways of their grandfathers. Then they met the French trader Jean Nicolet and the missionary Marquette near the Red Banks in 1634. They traded with the French, and that supplemented their sustenance, and provided tools, guns, iron pots and pans and other European goods. This way of life continued for over 150 years, until the settlers began reaching Wisconsin.
Winnebago was a name given by the Sauk and Fox, who called the people Ouinepegi, or People of the Stinky Waters. The Ho Chunk traveled and lived extensively along the Fox, Mississippi, and Wisconsin Rivers where fishing and edible vegetation was bountiful, the shores fertile for gardens, and the waterways convenient for travel. This name was heard as Winnebago by the government agents, and was the name the United States government took for the Ho Chunk people. This remained the official name of the Nation until the Constitution Reform in 1993, when the Ho Chunk reclaimed their original name.
In 1836, the Ho Chunk were removed from the choice land of southern Wisconsin to make room for the miners that were fast taking over the land. The area was also in demand for the lush farmland of the various river valleys. This land was taken from the Ho Chunk for a pittance, and the people were forcibly removed to northeastern Iowa. Within ten years they were moved to the northern Minnesota territory. Here they served the United States government by being a buffer between the warring Lakota/Dakota and Ojibwe. Unfortunately, the Ho Chunk had to endure attacks from both tribes. By this time they were imploring the United States government to move them to better land near the Mississippi. Due to white resistance, the Ho Chunk were moved further west. By 1859, their reservation was reduced from 18 square miles to 9 square miles. In 1863, the Ho Chunk were again moved, this time to a desolate reservation in South Dakota, a land so different from the lush forests and hunting grounds they were familiar with in Wisconsin.
Through various treaties, eventually all of the Wisconsin homeland was ceded, as the Ho Chunk were removed to various scattered parcels of land. Throughout eleven removals, the Ho Chunk continued to return to Wisconsin. Finally, the United States government allowed the Ho Chunk to exchange their South Dakota reservation for lands near the more friendly Omahas of Nebraska, who willingly released part of their reservation so that the Ho Chunks could become their neighbors. The Nation split, with part of the tribe returning to Wisconsin, and part moving to the reservation in Nebraska. Those tribal members who stayed in Nebraska on the reservation are today known as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edward P. Smith, in his report of Indian Affairs, expressed much frustration in trying to "civilize" the "Winnebagoes" and keep them on the Nebraska reservation. The Ho Chunk people longed for their lush gardens of Wisconsin, the lands where their grandfathers and grandmothers worked, lived, and were buried. This was home to them. The people continued to return to Wisconsin, and in the winter of 1873, many Ho Chunk people were removed to the Nebraska reservation from Wisconsin, traveling in cattle cars on trains. This was a horrific experience for the people, as many elders, women and children suffered and died.
Once it was apparent that part of the Nation was determined to stay in Wisconsin and refused to move to the Nebraska reservation, families were given 40-acre homestead plots, and encouraged to farm and assimilate. (Please see Treaty History) Both the Wisconsin and Nebraska Ho Chunk (Winnebago) were engaged in efforts to produce crops from the land. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner encouraged farming and assisted by providing farm equipment and incentives such as a (minimal) salary. White foremen were hired to help teach the people to operate the equipment. At the same time, the United States government was busy building Indian schools to teach sewing and industrial arts to the tribal children. It was important for the United States government to assimilate the tribal people, or in the words of the Indian Commissioner "civilize the people," as soon as possible.
Organizing as a Government
The growing of crops was not the first joint venture between the Wisconsin Ho Chunk and Nebraska Winnebago. In 1949, both bands of Ho Chunk (Winnebago) agreed to file a common claim before the Indian Claims Committee to seek payment on the millions of acres of ceded land. In Wisconsin, a group assembled themselves as the Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee. The Great Lakes Area Field Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Ashland, Wisconsin records the following individuals as the first elected officers: Nathaniel Decorah of Mauston (Chair), Reverand Mitchell Whiterabbit of Indian Mission, Black River Falls (Secretary), and Ulysses White of Wisconsin Rapids (Treasurer). Further membership included: Gilbert Lowe (Mirrillan), Albert Lowe (Tomah), Floyd WhiteEagle (Wisconsin Dells), Robert Blackdeer (Onalaska), George Whitewing Sr. (Wittenberg), and James Smoke (Tomah).
By 1961, the Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee was investigating organizing itself under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The first Wisconsin Winnebago Tribal Constitution was drafted and redrafted during 1962. This organization was lead by the elected members along with an individual by the name of Angelo LaMere, who spent many hours on the road gathering Ho Chunk elders together to form the new government.
A census was taken that year by the Superintendent of the BIA, with the assistance of the secretary, determined that there were 494 eligible to vote in the first election under the reorganization. The Constitution and Bylaws of the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribe were ratified by the tribe on January 19, 1963, approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on February 11, 1963, approved by by the Assistant Secretary of the Interior on March 19, 1963, along with the approval of the Great Lakes Agency of the BIA. Once the referendum was passed to reorganize, the first election of officers was conducted in June, 1963. From there, began the hard work to determine the needs of the people.