This tour of cultural landscapes on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was led by Aaron Bird Bear, Assistant Dean for Student Diversity Programs in the School of Education. Aaron Bird Bear has ancestry among the Diné and is an enrolled citizen of the three affiliated tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara).
The walk began at the Memorial Union, at the second floor foyer of the main lounge, the original main entrance to the building. Fourteen of us listened as Aaron Bird Bear began with an introduction to the over 12,000 years of human occupation of the lands of UW-Madison, which is located on the traditional homelands of the Ho-Chunk Nation. At the entrance to the Memorial Union we learned about a part of UW-Madison history that is still little known even to long-term members of the community: the “pipe of peace” rituals that accompanied graduation ceremonies from l89l to l940. In these peace pipe events, large groups of European-American students pretended to be Native Americans, using stereotypes of rituals, regalia, and dialect. The Memorial Union was built in the middle of the early 20THCentury period of dominance of these ceremonies, and the peace pipe was featured in the official seal of the Union. In addition to hearing about these strange and nearly forgotten peace pipe rituals we also looked up at the ceiling of the foyer at the paintings of a dozen Indian warriors with feather headdresses, yet another stereotypical example of how Indigenous peoples were depicted at the time the Memorial Union was built.
We learned that Picnic Point includes the oldest evidence of human occupation in the local area (Dejope, name meaning “four lakes” in the Ho-Chunk language). Picnic Point includes evidence of human occupation at least l2,000 years ago, when the four lakes were a connected into one larger lake.
We made stops at two of the historical markers on campus, beside North Hall and Social Sciences. At each of these we discussed how these markers depict local and regional history through the point of view of white settlers, not of Indigenous peoples. The emphasis of these plaques is on the settlers’ "hard experience of colonizing the rugged west" and that Black Hawk “retreated” while being “pursued” by militia through the area in 1832, both plaques ignoring the long occupation of the area by the Ho-Chunk nation.
Aaron summarized the history of the forced treaties from 1829 to 1837 that were intended to remove the Ho-Chunk people from Wisconsin. White settlers first wanted the lead mines of the Ho-Chunk, and later their agricultural land as well. Despite several forced marches of Ho-Chunk people to different areas west of the Mississippi, many of them kept resisting by coming back to their ancestral homelands in Wisconsin, where Ho-Chunk people continue to live today.
Overlooking Lake Mendota on Observatory Hill, we learned that the current forested areas along the shore are a recent change. Previously the area was much more open, as it was maintained by Indigenous people as a bur oak savanna by fire ecology. A number of bur oaks exist on campus that are old enough to have begun their lives while the Ho-Chunk were maintaining the land as savanna.
We ended the tour at the effigy mounds at the western end of Observatory hill. These are a couple of the extant mounds on the lands of UW-Madison; many of the mounds having been destroyed in the construction of campus buildings. Although marred by sidewalks, the two effigy mounds can easily be seen on observatory hill, a large bird effigy and a unique two-tailed water spirit (previously labeled a two-tailed turtle in some sources). Here we learned more about the history of mound building over more than 2000 years in Wisconsin, and the destruction of most of the mounds in the few centuries since the arrival of European Americans in the area. We came away with a much better understanding of the history of campus lands.
Images of the Observatory Hill mound group, including historical images of the two-tailed water spirit can be found here: http://www.wisconsinmounds.com/ObservatoryHillMounds.html. More information about >12,000 years of Indigenous history at the preserve can be found here: https://lakeshorepreserve.wisc.edu/native-americans-and-the-preserve/. Summary prepared by the Friends host Eve Emshwiller.
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