Local projects build awareness of tribes as Madison’s first inhabitants
Many efforts work to highlight history
Omar Poler’s slender frame is easy to follow as he leads people up Bascom Hill on a historical tour. The sea of students rushing downhill makes participants aware they are on a college campus. Amid this commotion, Poler, a Sokaogon Chippewa and interim coordinator of American Indian Curriculum Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shares stories of the ancient effigy mounds that can be found around campus and in the Madison area. He tells some of the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation, their ancestors the moundbuilders and why these stories matter to the university and the entire Madison community.
UW-Madison has shared these kinds of stories through efforts like the First Nations Cultural Landscape Tour and the American Indian Studies program, and has hosted numerous events and activities tied to contemporary Native American life and culture. But in the larger community outside of campus, Native people for years have pushed for greater recognition of indigenous cultures, both past and present, and their place in Wisconsin as the first stakeholders of the land. Even with the passage of Wisconsin Act 31 in 1989, which mandates that curricula on tribes be taught to all public school children, implementation of that law has been inconsistent, according to a book, “The Story of Act 31,” published this year by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor JP Leary. While progress has been slow in creating public awareness of Native Americans, two local projects are underway that could build on the ongoing efforts at UW-Madison.
One of these efforts features a new cultural tour and the other is a heritage center to be developed near Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison on the city’s far east side. Organizers say a desired outcome is for people to gain appreciation for who Native people are today.
In October 2017, Madison Community Foundation awarded a $65,000 grant to create the First Nations Heritage Tour, a “first-of-its-kind, place-based educational initiative” that will feature “interpretive signage and displays highlighting history, culture and tribal sovereignty” within a 15-minute walk of five Madison elementary schools. (According to Title VI Indian Education Program, 165 American Indian students were enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District in the 2017-18 school year, accounting for about 1 percent of the student population.) The grant, given to UW-Madison’s American Indian Curriculum Services in the School of Education, is part of the foundation’s 75th anniversary Year of Giving. Tom Linfield, MCF vice president of community impact, says the foundation wanted to support projects that illustrate “what is unique about Madison.”
MCF held a “community brainstorm” that generated nearly 350 grant ideas, and the First Nations Heritage Tour made the final list of 12. Linfield hopes the tour will help “promote understanding and address some of the major racial equity issues in Madison.” Aaron Bird Bear, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and UW-Madison School of Education assistant dean of student diversity, developed the tour to do just that.
On June 8, 2016, Bird Bear led the MCF staff on a First Nations Landscape Tour. Bird Bear says he was thrilled when MCF later approached him and asked if his office was interested in submitting a grant and developing some interpretative components “so we could better understand the specialness of this deep archeological space.”
The landscape tour was originally tailored for incoming American Indian students acclimating to college life. Bird Bear co-instructed an American Indian studies course in 2003 with former UW-Madison professor Ada Deer, who is a member of the Menominee Nation and a former assistant U.S. secretary of the interior. Daniel Einstein, UW-Madison historic and cultural resources manager, gave the tour in that first year. The following year, Bird Bear redeveloped the tour and incorporated it into the course. The tour “helped students see themselves on campus and see how the university really has embraced collaboration and innovation with Native American nations,” Bird Bear says. In the spring 2018 semester, 394 Native American students attended UW-Madison out of its 41,520 enrollees.
Over the past three years, almost 200 tours have been given to various groups, Bird Bear says. As for the heritage tour, he says that he, Linfield and Poler are working with the Ho-Chunk Nation to create accessible ways for local students to learn about the mounds and the Ho-Chunk Nation at the five sites.
A New Heritage Center
Just east of I-90 and south of Highway 18 on Madison’s east side, a Ho-Chunk Heritage Center is planned near Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison. The Heritage Center will overlook wetlands on a wedge-shaped parcel of the tribe’s land. Daniel Brown, executive manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison and a Ho-Chunk tribal member, says the center’s goal is to educate the Madison community about his people. Brown says the Heritage Center will “tell our history, let people know where we have been, what we have endured and that we are here today.”
In February 2004, Dane County voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed the Ho-Chunk tribe to expand its Madison bingo hall into a full-service casino. Brown says misinformation about the Ho-Chunk Nation, its people and the proposed expansion played a part in the referendum’s defeat. “We try really hard to debunk myths about us,” Brown says. “The only thing people knew about us is that we operated gaming.”
Missy Tracy, municipal relations coordinator of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, says the Heritage Center will serve as a gateway to Madison and provide benefits to the local area and beyond. “Our hope is to enhance the greater Madison tourism market while highlighting the aboriginal people, history of the Ho-Chunk, the long-standing history of the effigy mounds and the beautiful landscape which is Madison.”
Brown says he hopes the project will break ground in mid-2019.
While standing on Observatory Hill near a group of ancient mounds, Poler asks participants in the tour group to consider how they will use the knowledge they just gained about Madison’s deep history. “How do we take part in these stories and this land?” Poler asks them.
But equally important is knowing who Native people are today, says Bird Bear. “Our final question is, who are your tribal neighbors today?”
Lorenzo Gudino is a member of the Fort Sill Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache tribe and lives in Madison.
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