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The story of Madison's indigenous people

The landscapes of the Madison area have been...

Before Broadway was a concrete avenue, peppered with hardened, manmade buildings. Before the little Firehouse Bar and its Charles Tavern predecessor were built on the site where woven handmade baskets once swung from the cottonwood trees. Before James Doty purchased the 1,200 acres that would become the City of Madison, before urban planners carved curving, fluid spaces into symmetrical grids. Before the Beltline stomped its lurching steel and concrete march across the lush marshes thick with mink and muskrat, cranes and wood ducks. Before the freshwater creek once swollen with watercress became a stormwater conveyance path for the big-box hardware store across the street. Before all of that, the Whitehorse family lived here, on this parcel of land where a sleepy, pale-blue house now sits—the city grown and choked up like lilypad vines all around it.

Today, world-renowned artist and World War II veteran Harry Whitehorse, eighty-eight, works and lives here. Outside, 12,000 years of family history burble in the creek, whisper through the cattails, are carried on crow caws and the breath of ancient swampland. Much like Madison’s two hundred remaining Indian mounds, this house and its significance are easy for unwitting commuters to miss as they whiz by, as quick and singularly focused as the slim, iridescent fish in the winding Yahara River. 

In the spacious, sunny living room facing the highway, Harry’s brother Walter’s son, sixty-three-year-old Kenny Whitehorse, asks his jaji—Ho-Chunk for father—to tell him again why their people settled in these lowlands. 

“’Cuz it was cheap,” Harry shrugs, and chortling laughter fills the room. It’s an old family joke, with a twinge of twisted truth behind it. Land, even the nonfarmable, difficult-to-develop kind, was never meant to be purchased. And getting here was far from cheap. 

The Whitehorse family is Ho-Chunk, and the Ho-Chunk people are indigenous to Madison—or, as it’s known to them, Te Jop, meaning Four Lakes. For 12,000 years, the tribe has called this region home. Then called Winnebago, Madison’s Ho-Chunk people were here, on this land and its surrounding millions of acres, before there were ever deeds to purchase. They were here before the nineteenth century mining rush and the picturesque European settler’s dairy farms that dot every cheesy Wisconsin postcard today. They were here before the United States became the United States at all, before its government shipped them off at gunpoint in boxcars during forced removal—and after that, too. As of the end of 2014, 295 registered Ho-Chunk Nation tribal members lived in Dane County—158 in Madison—because Four Lakes is home and always will be. Long after buildings are bought and sold, long after brick and mortar crumble into dust, long after renewed efforts to restore Madison’s lakes and waterways are successful and the watercress, if we’re lucky, returns. 

The Whitehorse living room is packed to the gills today for this rare and privileged occasion: all four of Harry’s living siblings (and many of their spouses and offspring) are here, gathered in one place. Some have traveled across town, others across state lines, to reunite, share stories, take photographs. 

“Even if we don’t all talk, everything that we say—everything, guys—is true,” says Harry’s little sister, Helen Whitehorse, solemnly, before her face cracks into a grin and the room erupts in laughter again. 

“Boy,” says Walter, the eldest. “You started off with a big one.”

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In the beginning, or not long after, the Creator, the Earthmaker, came down from the North. He stopped here, in a clearing surrounded by forest and marked with four deep hollows. Famished from the long journey, he filled his clay cooking pot with water from a nearby spring, added some deer meat and edible roots, and started cooking. While waiting for his meal, he continued his exploration of the woods—until he heard a loud hissing back at camp. He rushed back to find his pot overflowing, the water bubbling up and pouring down the sides to fill the depressions one by one: Mendota. Monona. Waubesa. Kegonsa. 

“So this is how the Madison area is now known as Te Jop, the Four Lakes,” says Robert Mann, former executive director of heritage preservation of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “There is not a lot of history or knowledge about the Madison area,” he continues, at least not written—and that fits. Ho-Chunk is the tribe’s spiritual name, meaning Great or Sacred Voice—often translated as People of the Big Voice. “Our culture, our language, is passed down, passed down since this tale, since the beginning of time; it has always been orally told.”

There’s so much to tell, from creation and proud warrior stories to the dark years of government removals and forced assimilation, to the 1970s era of self-determination, activism, cultural preservation and sovereignty. Oral history can be particularly challenging to collect, especially when distrust and trauma render its tellers hesitant, even mute. Most notably, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 marked the beginning of a devastating forty-five-year chapter in which Madison’s Ho-Chunk were forced at gunpoint off their ancestral home and onto lands in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and then Nebraska, where in 1865 a reservation was established. Many refused relocation, making their way back hundreds of miles to live as refugees in Wisconsin, although some were captured and forced back to the Nebraska reservation. Such removal efforts ceased in the late 1800s, when Ho-Chunk heads of households living in Wisconsin and Minnesota received allotment lands. And although there are Ho-Chunk tribal lands in Wisconsin, there is not a Ho-Chunk reservation in the state. Some Ho-Chunk people came to Madison for jobs and education but remained tied to homelands farther north in the state, places like Tomah, Wittenberg, Nekoosa and Black River Falls, where the tribe is headquartered today. Others, like the Whitehorses, purchased the land they’d once camped on and created homes and businesses in Madison, putting down deep roots. Remarkably, while Ho-Chunk Gaming is a household name, very few Madisonians actually know or recognize the history of the Ho-Chunk people and their tribal member neighbors in the community. 

“Everybody thinks Ho-Chunks, or any native tribe, is all about gambling. That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions there is about the tribe,” says Mann, who has worked to correct misconceptions like this as part of Ho-Chunk’s education and outreach initiatives. “We do our own traditional ceremonies to have all the tribal members in the area and also to further our culture, to keep it alive and revitalize it.” He says the tribe partners with the University of Wisconsin–Madison and also gives presentations in public schools and at civic meetings.
The Ho-Chunk tribe’s status as a sovereign nation and its government-to-government relationship with that of the United States is ripe for misunderstanding. Indian nations are specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Treaties were struck. Tribes retained certain rights. This inherent sovereignty, upheld in federal courts, allows them to govern their own people on their tribal lands. Tribal sovereignty is often difficult for the rest of America to grasp, as is the tribe’s right to operate gaming establishments. Tribes that operate casinos have been criticized for a variety of reasons, including objections on moral grounds and perceptions that they have an unfair advantage in the marketplace. Gaming proceeds, Mann says, are essential in providing critical services to Ho-Chunk tribal members as well as contributing to the local economy and community initiatives outside the tribe.

“The gambling gives us the opportunity to expand on providing services. With the revenue generated we are able to provide other services for the Madison area,” says Mann, referring to the Madison branch office on Mendota Street that serves the 295 registered tribal members in Dane County. These services include employment opportunity assistance, medical transportation, law enforcement, health care classes, language and culture programs, notary services and veterans affairs. There are many veterans among the Ho-Chunk tribe.

“In the Ho-Chunk society, we call them warriors. This started a long time ago, all the way back into the 1600s, with intertribal warfare. We fought in the American Revolution, also the War of 1812 and the Civil War as well. In World War I we had a lot of Ho-Chunks that volunteered in the Army, and we weren’t even considered citizens at that time,” says Mann. “Our warriors are honored, so we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, so World War II was the same. Probably one of the most disappointing things from that was that when those warriors returned from World War II, they wanted to join the American Legion, but they didn’t allow Native Americans to join.” Locally, Ho-Chunk World War II vets formed their own veterans organization, the Wisconsin Winnebago Veterans, of which Mann’s own father was a member, until the Legion changed its ways in 1970. Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is a large contributor to Wisconsin’s Badger Honor Flight, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years. Mann, a veterans affairs office manager who works extensively with the Veterans Administration in Madison today, served as an escort on a recent flight that included Harry Whitehorse. 

“That was quite the homecoming, quite amazing, that return when you walk in the airport, I was just overwhelmed. I could not believe that reception we got,” says Mann. “And so like I said, we contribute to that, our tribe contributes to different things. We try to use our gaming revenues to help other organizations and communities as well. We try to give back in a good way.”


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Seventy-two years before that Honor Flight, Harry was a sixteen-year-old enlistee in World War II, a Navy man. He used to swim beneath the ship, taking bets on how long he could stay underwater, just as he’d done in the cattails back home with his mother, Annie Greencrow Whitehorse. Already an artist but not yet famous, Harry got in trouble at port because he’d hand-drawn a three-dollar bill so perfectly that the authorities wanted to know where he’d hidden the plates. Annie prayed for his and his brother Walter’s safe return home every day, and those prayers were answered. 

Annie Greencrow Whitehorse—whose name now graces the former Schenk Middle School—was a force of a woman. The four-foot-ten-inch Bear Clan elder was a university guest lecturer, a voracious reader, a savvy entrepreneur, a respected conservationist and, above all, a mother, seven times over. Young David was killed in a racing accident in 1966, and Mildred passed away in 1987, but the other five—Walter, Harry, Alberta, Paul and Helen—are here in this living room today.
Black-and-white pictures are spread across a drum before the fireplace. Alberta holds a notebook in her hands. Inside it are precious, immeasurably valuable words, carefully printed in her mother’s slanted script. Stories copied down through the years, disjointed tales that fly back and forth through time and place, land briefly like birds and flit away again. Alberta begins to read.

Annie was born in 1906, the daughter of Henry Greencrow and Minnie Little Soldier. Later, she became the wife of Ralph Reubin Whitehorse, and the two were traveling salespeople of sorts, following the seasons and the land, peddling their wares, beadwork and baskets, to support the family. Each of their seven children was born in a different town. When Walter and Harry came along, they lived with the family in a cabin in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, before being sent, at preschool age, to the Indian School at Tomah. The words on the paper run out too soon.
“Well, since I’m the oldest here, I suppose I should give you a glimpse of the earliest days I can remember,” says Walter, picking up the thread. His voice is smooth, clear and rich. It sounds decades younger. 

At the Indian School, most of their classmates could not speak English, he says, and so book learning was stunted. Rampant pinkeye, measles and mumps provided even further barriers, and the children—often without their parents—suffered illnesses, or worse. “There were a lot of young people that died,” says Kenny, his voice breaking. He describes traveling years later with his father Walter to visit the marker the Ho-Chunk Nation dedicated in their honor. Native children taken from their homes and forced to assimilate into European culture is yet another dark chapter in First Nations’ history; but Walter, like the rest of the Whitehorses, frequently refocuses on the positive. His older female classmates became surrogate caretakers and the children found joy where they could, as the girls placed the little boys on their backs and sledded on their bellies downhill. It’s one of his earliest and fondest memories. 

The school regularly sent the kids on field trips to catch a picture show, often a cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-up. It had to be unimaginably awkward, painful, to square what was on that screen with what the boys knew of who they were, but they mostly laugh at the simplistic, stereotypical portrayals. Besides, there were so many good settlers, says Walter—Wisconsin immigrants who helped. Some passively, by looking the other way as the Ho-Chunk camped in nearby woods and fields. Others forcibly, like stories of settlers standing between the Native Americans and the government cavalry. 

“It was the women who went out there with those parasols and they’d hit the soldiers and say leave these people alone,” says Helen. 

Although buying land was an utterly foreign concept for Ho-Chunk tribe members, Annie Greencrow Whitehorse was savvy and adaptable. She saw the writing on the wall and she bought her parcel around 1932, here, on this very spot. She said this is where God found her, the story goes. Annie was a very spiritual woman.
For many years, the family lived in wigwams all along the waterways. Eventually, they built their first wood-floor shelter, maybe thirty-by-thirty feet, Walter estimates, with a big stove and a loft. His mother, her sisters, her son, her brother, their spouses, everyone lived on this land, or camped while passing through—who could say how many?—and, meanwhile, Walter, seven, and Harry, six, were off to Nichols School in Monona. 

“I used to like school,” says Walter. “I had a pair of shoes. Clothes. And this girl in front of me used to always trade me sandwiches.” His own frybread—fried bread dough—a couple days old and hard as a rock, seemed a fabulous deal for her delicious white bread and meat. Walter and Harry were the only two Ho-Chunk students in their school. 

And this particular land, land that “nobody wanted,” the marshes and swampland passed over by the miners and settlers, was always enough for Annie and the Whitehorses. “Our mother said, we don’t need any other thing, we have everything we need right here,” says Alberta. Hunting and fishing and trapping were plentiful. Water was everywhere, from the lakes to the rivers and creeks; you could take off in a boat and stay gone all day, and there was always enough to eat right there: berries, fish, watercress, animals and small game and, later, corn and other vegetables. “We could go swimming anytime,” says Alberta of the springs and creeks. “We’d get on that bag swing and drop ourselves into the water.”
Walter remembers catching little mud turtles and selling them for a nickel to his grandma, Minnie Whitewing, who didn’t know English, but she sure knew the value of money. But when he and Harry brought her a haul of five or six turtles at once and got only that same single nickel in return, they quit that particular venture. He also recalls walking with his mother, Annie, into town to visit the government agency for food supplies. “Up on Nolen Avenue, you’d get over the hump and maybe a couple blocks beyond that is where you got this stuff,” he says. They’d arrive around noon, load up their potato, lard and flour allotments, maybe a new pair of shoes, “but your shoes had to be really bad” before you’d get a replacement. The walk home would take all day. It was almost easier in the winter, with the sled his uncles had made. 

“I learned to read the population of the city,” says Walter, “It was 29,000-something, I can remember that. Every time the years passed, it would get up to 30,000 or 35,000.”

Then there were the Fourth of July celebrations, back in the early 1930s, when the family would dress in their traditional regalia and take part in the city parade around the Capitol Square. 

“They took care of us real well in that thing,” says Walter, who recalls getting invited home for supper with a white family after one year’s parade; it was the first time he ever had pie. “It was great, great memories.”

There were always cooking pots bubbling over open fires, always dozens of families camped around their smoky bounty, so many guests who passed through the area cyclically, following the seasons and the hunt.

Annie, although primarily self-taught because of the times, was especially big on education, and every last one of her children went to high school, and many of them also went to college. Several became teachers, including Alberta. 

“I taught school for several years and I did a lot of lecturing, try to tell people how the Indians really lived,” says Alberta. “We weren’t always shooting bows and arrows. Weren’t always fighting.”

Helen interrupts her sister here.

“I’d tell them just the opposite,” she grins.

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Truman Lowe can smell the loamy sweetness of the land near his hometown, Black River Falls, from one hundred miles out. He didn’t know it until he left home, first for the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, then his master’s of fine arts at UW–Madison, and then a brief teaching stint in Kansas. Driving home to Wisconsin, he realized “I really was a Woodland Indian,” says seventy-one-year-old Lowe, professor emeritus at UW–Madison and an internationally renowned artist whose work has been shown in the White House garden. “There’s a certain aroma about the water and the land.” 

Lowe’s family farmed near the banks of the Black River, settled there like sediment pushed by the waves of European migration from the East. When Lowe moved to Madison, he started his own family here, raising children and teaching at the university. For Lowe, who is Ho-Chunk, Four Lakes was not only a sacred space for his ancestors. Its university was a mecca of knowledge, art and research—not to mention a trove of historical treasure cataloging his own people. 

“What Ho-Chunks don’t know is that there is a really long history. That we lived here, we’ve been living here, for a long, long time,” says Lowe, telling of several communities of Ho-Chunk people living throughout the Four Lakes, like the Whitehorses and the Greengrasses. “I think of Madison as basically the center of my physical universe, and also my intellectual universe. You go out from that center to get more information so you can continue to grow as a human being. That’s why it’s called university. It’s the universe of information.”

Perhaps more than that, Lowe appreciates Madison’s proximity to wide, open spaces, his favorite of which is Blue Mound State Park. 

“I climb those towers and look out and just enjoy all of that landscape and see it,” he says. “It gives me a boost. An intellectual boost, a relaxing boost. Then I feel I’m on this land. Then I can come back in Madison.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Lowe’s former project assistant, Janice Rice, a Ho-Chunk who retired in 2015 from her longtime position as an outreach librarian at UW–Madison. 

“We can’t stay in the city very long, most of us, because it’s too rectangular. Too many little apartment buildings and too many neighbors and landlords,” says Rice, who worked all those years in Madison every day, and for the past fourteen years drove home to Lake Kegonsa every night—and to her childhood home, in Tomah, many weekends. “I love Madison because the lakes are here and this is where my ancestors were. They walked here. They were by the springs, by the rivers, the Yahara weaving in between the lakes. I enjoy knowing this is where they were.”
Early in her career, at Lowe’s request, Rice began studying and collecting writing, iconography and artifacts for him. On one hand, it was enlightening; on the other, confusing because history was always told from an outsider’s perspective, such as a military general. Of course she’d been told her own family’s stories, but she says her elders didn’t speak much of the painful parts, “I think out of preservation and sanity of the younger ones.” Learning the cold facts of her ancestral history was a double-edged sword for Rice, one side a glittering reflection of her own proud people, the other a sharp, painful slice to the heart.

“For a long time in college I was angry, I was shocked,” she says. “But I knew I had no one to turn to to ask questions about it and so I had to keep digging deeper into the research. The relatives who have already passed away cannot tell you, and so I had to keep looking into documents to see what was the environment like, who was here, what happened during those times.”

On top of that, Rice often felt “invisible” in Madison as a minority not often recognized, or casually dismissed, or inadvertently insulted. More nuanced than that, perhaps, just having a pride and a love for her culture that couldn’t be explained in a lifetime of water cooler conversations. So she waited instead for those opportunities to go back to the softer spaces of her home, the familiar drumming and dancing of her people. Besides, adversity does wondrous things for the spirit, and that’s the message she always took from her elders ultimately, anyway: be grateful, loving, spiritual. Pass on the traditions, revel in the survivorship. 

“So I think it’s worth it to be here, and to know the history,” says Rice. “But it’s not easy.”

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By the time Kenny Whitehorse was growing up, the stories of his people’s history, equal parts brutal and triumphant, lived and breathed in the Ho-Chunk gatherings that continue to this day. He recalls bonfires and powwows where the Whitehorses gathered regularly with other Ho-Chunk families in the area. The Funmakers, the WhiteEagles, the Whitewings, the Longtails, the Clevelands, the Greengrasses. All of the families were so talented and smart, says Kenny, so distinguished. So athletic, so respectfully competitive, so humble. So many great silversmiths, leatherworkers, beaders and basketmakers. The women wove baskets from bark stripped and sized by the men, dying and stretching them into shape. Each probably took two weeks to make, and the big ones brought in about $30 apiece. Kenny says a footnote line in the Monona Heritage Almanac refers to “some Indians sold goods at the base of Monona Drive,” and that was them, he laughs. His family.
And then there’s his uncle—father in Ho-Chunk tradition—Harry, arguably the most talented artist of them all. For the longest time, the family didn’t know about Harry’s talent because his grade school teachers kept his work for their own walls—and Harry went to the Cole School of Art and became a highly respected and successful artist.

In Harry’s art, the Ho-Chunk culture is everywhere, and the art is infused throughout this home and the Four Lakes. There are so many pieces and installations that it’s hard to keep track of them all. The Ho-Chunk Family Tree carving at Thoreau School. The Fitchburg Veterans Memorial at Gorman Park. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, out in front of the Physicians Plus clinic not even a quarter-mile down the road, peeking from the overgrown brush, arms forever outstretched to the sky. Here in the house, just inside the front door, an exquisite silver crane is perched—but it’s only a model; Harry sold its larger original to a high school. He doesn’t remember which one.?“I get a little emotional when I hear these folks talk about when they were young,” says Kenny, a UW–Madison graduate who taught school here in town for twenty-five years, and at Indian schools before that. He tried to instill in his students the importance of play, or taking things apart and putting them back together, of getting outside and appreciating the land, all it has to offer. Through it all, he couldn’t help thinking of his parents at this age, and all that they endured. True survivors. “I saw little ones grow and I thought how fragile their lives are, and yet how resilient our parents’ generation is,” he says, “under so many uncertainties in life.”

School, after all, is where we’re fed the fabricated story of the first Thanksgiving. Where some get Columbus Day off. Where we still claim Indians as mascots, where we casually drop lines like “hold down the fort” and “lowest man on the totem pole” without stopping for even a second to think about what we’re actually saying. Just as the ancient mounds lie buried, or destroyed, or ever so gently preserved, just like the school that bears the Whitehorse name and the quiet dissemination of Harry’s art so widely across the region, the Ho-Chunk exist here seamlessly: they’re your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends. 

The Whitehorses, the Ho-Chunk, don’t consider themselves victims of their past. They seem to look back with reverence but not bitterness. Their underlying message is to stay true to who you are and where you’ve been, to preserve your culture while looking forward. But like his elders, Kenny is quick to positivity, quick to fairness and humility, careful to acknowledge his mother’s European heritage, too, and the tough times faced by all immigrants of that generation. And although the cold truth of what happened remains, so too does the clear message from the elders.

“Immigrants stood between the cavalry and Blue Wing and said, you’re gonna take us if you’re taking him. It’s a very famous story in Ho-Chunk culture, and whenever I say that same story, all the old-timers say, good for you, Ken, you need to keep saying that.” You need to keep these stories alive, because the stories are the living history, the currency, the treasure to be protected, passed and shared, invested. Just like the creation story of the Four Lakes.

There’s an old Ho-Chunk song, Kenny says, that roughly translated means “Walk in Love.”

“We’re united. As human beings,” he says. “From early on, all the grandparents and great-grandparents, they all said that. We’re all one.” 


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