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Ho-Chunk History


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The Ho-Chunk are a Siouan-speaking people whose presence in present day Wisconsin was known to the French at Quebec as early as 1616. According to oral tradition they originated at Red Banks, generally assumed to be a site on the Door Peninsula on Green Bay, where they were located at the time of French contact in the 17th century. Their language is related to the Chiwere branch of Siouan that includes the Ioway, Oto, and Missouria who acknowledge having broken off from the Ho-Chunk and moved west. Ho-Chunk can be glossed as either Big Voice or Big Fish, Ho being a homonym; the translation big really means ancestral or primordial. They also are closely related linguistically to the Quapaw, Omaha, and Ponca.

At the time of French contact, the Ho-Chunk constituted a Siouan island among Algonkian speaking neighbors such as the Menominee, Ojibwa, Ottawa, and others. Scholarly agreement has not been reached as to their place of origin before entering Wisconsin and their archaeological antecedents in the state, but many traditional cultural attributes point to affiliations with the "Mississippian" cultures of the Southeast. A less tenable claim has sometimes been made that they were affiliated with the effigy mound expression of the "Woodland" archaeological tradition.

First European Contacts

The Ho-Chunk came to French attention as the Winnebago ("ouinepego" – variously spelled), the name by which they were known to their Algonkian speaking neighbors, meaning Stinking Water, because of their residence on Green Bay with foul smelling marshy areas and spring die-offs of fish. The French called them Puan or Puant, that translates into English as Stinkard. Because of their warlike reputation and hostile rejection of trade with the French via Ottawa middlemen, Samuel de Champlain, commandant of New France on the St. Lawrence, sent Jean Nicolet in 1634 to meet with the Puan and bring about peaceful relations between them and the Hurons and their Ottawa and other allies to facilitate French expansion and the fur trade farther west. Nicolet is said to have met with a throng of 3,000 to 5,000 people but while his landfall is popularly believed to have been at a large fortified village at Red Banks on Green Bay this is not established as fact by any means and more than a half-dozen other landfall sites have been proposed by various writers.

The Jesuit account of the meeting, written in 1643, nearly a decade after Nicolet's journey and a year after his death, says Nicolet addressed a number of "tribes." These probably included the Menominee, traditional friends and allies of the Ho-Chunk, who occupied the east side of Green Bay, across from the Ho-Chunk on the Door Peninsula. Although various writers have suggested that Nicolet explored beyond the Ho-Chunk region and might have been away more than a year since his presence back in Quebec is not recorded until late 1635, the skimpy Jesuit account indicates he left shortly after the great meeting and wintered among the Hurons before eventually getting back to Quebec.

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French and English Competition for North America

Nicolet's mission was all but forgotten for some thirty years because Iroquois hostilities prevented the French from following up on his initial overtures to the western tribes. In the late1660s Nicolas Perrot, French trader and emissary, and the Jesuits finally established French secular and religious hegemony in Wisconsin. By this time, the Ho-Chunk had suffered devastating defeats at the hands of their enemies and famine and epidemic diseases that reduced their numbers from an estimated 5,000 people or more to less that 1,000. They had become more tractable and intermarried with their Algonkian neighbors and former enemies. Adapting to the fur trade during the French and British regimes in Wisconsin, their population increased and they began expanding West to Lake Winnebago and along the Fox-Wisconsin and Rock River systems toward the Mississippi. Abandoning the Green Bay area, they established some 30 villages and laid firm claim to a large portion of southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. They accepted the British as allies after the defeat of the French in North America and allied with them in the American Revolution and, particularly, the War of 1812 when they responded to message of the Shawnee Prophet and his brother, Tecumseh, to unite against the Americans.

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American Succession

Part of the tribe signed their first treaty with the Americans in 1816 pledging loyalty and peace. In 1825 a great inter-tribal treaty at Prairie du Chien began describing the various tribes' boundaries, laying the groundwork for treaties of cession-land sales, that soon followed. By this time American settlers were pouring into Wisconsin, largely attracted by the lead mines in the southwestern corner of the state, giving rise to hostile encounters such as the Red Bird incident of 1827 near Prairie du Chien. In 1829 the Winnebago, as they were then designated by the government, ceded about a third of their land, mostly in the lead region in Illinois. In spring of 1832 when the Black Hawk War broke out with the Sauk leader endeavoring to reclaim land along the east bank of the Mississippi in Illinois, the Winnebago were divided in their loyalty. Those closest to and intermarried with the Sauk sided with Black Hawk while those north of the Wisconsin River were allied with the Sauks' enemy, the Santee Sioux, and helped bring Black Hawk in to surrender at Prairie du Chien. The bands in the Madison-Portage area tried to remain neutral. The tribe was unable to hold out against the pressure of white settlement and ceded their remaining Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin land in the fall of 1832. As partial payment they received new land on which to settle in eastern Iowa, the Turkey River or Neutral Ground Reservation.

The bands living in the northwest portion of their homeland, bounded roughly by the Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Black Rivers, tried to keep their land and in 1837 agreed to send a delegation (that explicitly had no authority to sell land) to Washington to talk about the matter. They were forced into a treaty of cession and the terms were misrepresented to them. They thought they were buying time to renegotiate, that they had 8 years before they had to move; the treaty reads "eight months." The people resisted the treaty and hid out.

Meanwhile the Neutral Ground was unlivable as the Ho-Chunk were caught in the cross-fire of the Sioux and Sauk contesting for the land. The Ho-Chunk were moved to two locations in Minnesota and then to South Dakota by Executive Order after the Sioux uprising in Minnesota of 1862 (in which the Ho-Chunk took no part). Some rejoined the Wisconsin hold-outs but most found their way to the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska where a reservation was created for them in 1865. The government periodically rounded up the "dissidents" in Wisconsin and moved them to wherever the "treaty abiding faction" happened to be located. In 1874, after the government extended the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862 to Indians, the Ho-Chunk were able to claim homesteads up to 80 acres in their homeland and were designated a separate tribe with their own roll, continuing under federal jurisdiction like the Nebraska branch. In 1875, the Evangelical and Reform Church responded to Ho-Chunk requests for teachers and began a school and mission about 7 miles from Black River Falls, WI. The boarding school operation was moved to a new, larger building in Neillsville, WI in 1921. Lutherans established a mission and school at Wittenberg, WI in 1884 and ministered to the local Ho-Chunk as well as Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Menominee. Ho-Chunk children also attended the government boarding school at Tomah, WI.

The Wisconsin people developed an itinerant economy. Putting in gardens at their homesteads, they harvested strawberries, cherries, potatoes, beans, etc. and cranberries for white growers, returning home at intervals to care for and harvest their own gardens. In the fall and winter many men trapped fur bearing animals for sale. They sold handcrafts, primarily black ash splint baskets at roadside stands or through retailers and about 1913 many found summer employment as dancers at Wisconsin Dells that also offered a major outlet for craft sales.

After WWII, crop work was increasingly mechanized and many people found it hard to get employment; federal Indian policy in the 1950s, dedicated to destroying the federal-Indian relationship, made it increasingly difficult to get educational and other assistance. The American Indian Chicago Conference of 1961 attracted Indians across the country to work for a change in policy. The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk were inspired to organize under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to better their now impoverished circumstances. The Nebraska branch had been organized since the1930s but at that time the IRA seemed irrelevant to the then self-sufficient Wisconsin Ho-Chunk although as a federally recognized tribe they were qualified adopt it. A volunteer group formed the Wisconsin Winnebago Acting Business Committee and developed a constitution and framework for elective government but then encountered unexpected federal resistance to organizing under the IRA. Overcoming enormous obstacles the tribe voted overwhelmingly in favor of their constitution in 1963. Since then the tribe has acquired 100s of acres of tribal trust land for new housing in the communities at Black River Falls, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, Wisconsin Rapids and Wittenberg, has launched a half dozen successful gaming operations and other enterprises, and supports programs regarding tribal health, welfare, and cultural and language concerns. They also support non-Indian causes and are actively involved in ecological and historical site protection. The Constitution has been revised to meet new challenges and in 1994 the tribe officially changed its old, Algonkian bestowed name to be known by their own name the Ho-Chunk Nation.

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