Ho-Chunk Culture

The Ho-Chunk -- formerly called the Winnebago -- are members of a Siouan-speaking tribe who were established in Wisconsin at the time of French contact in the 1630s. The oral traditions of the tribe, particularly the Thunderbird clan, state that the Ho-Chunk originated at the Red Banks on Green Bay. Other tribal traditions relate how tribes such as the Quapaw, Missouri, Iowa, Oto, Omaha, and Ponca were once part of the Ho-Chunk, but these other tribes continued to move farther west while the Ho-Chunk stayed in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk call themselves Ho-chungra, which means "people of the parent speech," or "people of the Big Voice." Historical and linguistic evidence supports these oral traditions, particularly for the Missouri, Iowa, and Oto tribes. The English name "Winnebago" is derived from an Algonkian word meaning "people of the dirty water," and is thought to refer to Wisconsin's Fox River and Lake Winnebago, which are fouled by the bodies of dead fish in the summer.

There are a number of theories regarding the origins of the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk. One early theory suggests that they migrated into the Midwest from the eastern seaboard. According to this theory, they migrated west along the Ohio River, and the branch that became the Ho-Chunk moved north into Wisconsin between AD 800 and 1200. Other scholars have hypothesized that the tribe migrated from the lower Mississippi River valley and arrived in Wisconsin during the 1500s, shortly before contact with the French. Some have also asserted that the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk built the large, earthen effigy mounds which were common in various parts of Wisconsin, but there is no conclusive evidence for this yet.

Subsistence and Seasonality

In contrast to their Wisconsin neighbors the Menominee and Potawatomi, the Ho-Chunk relied more on agricultural products for subsistence. They planted large gardens and stored dried corn, beans, and other products in fiber bags and in pits dug in the ground for winter use. Using dugout canoes, they also traveled up the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to hunt, caching their canoes as far upriver as possible before proceeding on foot. The Ho-Chunk also crossed the Mississippi to reach the prairies to hunt buffalo. Large and small game were also hunted closer to the villages. Nearby rivers and lakes were also extensively fished.

Settlement Pattern, Social Organization, and Kinship

Traditionally, the Ho-Chunk lived in a single large village or a few large villages in the Lake Winnebago area, building substantial rectangular houses. From these, the people made forays out to other parts of their territory for hunting and gathering specific resources.

At time of contact with Europeans, the Ho-Chunk were said to have been organized in 12 patrilineal clans divided into two moieties, but there is some speculation that the patrilineal system was an outgrowth of the fur trade period and that before contact they were matrilineal. Given their strong dependence on agricultural products and the labor of women in producing those products, matrilineal descent for an earlier period is certainly a possibility. If this is the case, the Ho-Chunk may have adapted local Algonkian patrilineal models of descent once they became more dependent on hunting and fur trapping following contact with Europeans.

The moiety of the sky clans ("those who are above") was comprised of the Thunder, Eagle, Hawk, and Pigeon clans; the earth or ground moiety ("those who are below") included the Bear, Wolf, Water Spirit, Buffalo, Deer, Elk, Fish, and Snake clans. Both clans and moieties were exogamous, and different leadership roles and functions were in some sense dictated by the moieties. For some roles, the Thunder and Bear clans were especially important. The clans also provided names from a set of names considered appropriate for that clan, and structured specific types of obligations and behaviors, taboos, and duties to the tribe. For instance, the Hawk clan was important in warfare and determined whether captives taken in war would be put to death or adopted, while members of the Buffalo clan acted as town criers.

Kin relations demanded respect between those called brothers and sisters (including parallel cousins -- father's brother's children and mother's sister's children) and in-laws of the opposite sex. Joking relationships existed between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. Strong relationships existed between children and their mother's brother. When punishment was required, this uncle was called upon, but he was also the person designated to take a boy on his first war raid. As adults, a warm relationship existed between nieces and nephews and uncles on the mother's side, usually accompanied by the exchange of gifts and services. A good deal of teasing and humor was part of this relationship. The strength of this relationship through the mother's line is part of the evidence which suggests that the Ho-Chunk were originally matrilineal, since this type of relationship is characteristic of matrilineal societies.

Leadership and Government

Within both villages and the entire tribe, leadership was dual. The civil or peace chief resolved problems by peaceful means and took the advice of elders and other family leaders in reaching consensus. It was also part of the civil chief's duties to carefully scrutinize planned raids or attacks and try to dissuade others from using aggression or warfare as a means to solve problems. Instead, he urged payments of retribution to avoid revenge and violence. The symbol of his authority as peace chief was the peace pipe. The civil chief was drawn from a clan of the "upper" moiety, but not necessarily that of any particular clan.

There were also chiefs in the lower moiety, often from the Bear clan. Members of the Bear clan often functioned as policemen of the village and of the hunt. Transgressors could be whipped, have their possessions destroyed, or be banished from the tribe. For chiefs of either moiety were those who seemed best suited to the duties of that office who were from the appropriate family backgrounds. In some cases, the moiety chiefs might work together, for instance in warding off the threat of illness to the community. The civil chief would hold a feast to muster spiritual support against the threat and, if this did not work, the Bear clan chief led his followers against the "invader" in a in mock battle. Bear clan leaders were also particularly important in matters that dealt with the land, including land cession treaties.

Religious Life, Medicine, and Healing

Earthmaker was the central figure in Ho-Chunk cosmology. The Sun was also an important figure and was primarily appealed to for war pursuits. Female deities included the Earth and the Moon. Animals were also represented by grand supernatural forces, and these were mainly those seen during vision quests. Other figures assisted Earthmaker and could take human and animal form to assist humans: Trickster, Hare, the Twins of Flesh and Spirit, Red Horn, and Turtle. Battles between good and evil were common in Ho-Chunk oral tradition and, depending on the story, the good Thunders and the bad Water Spirits (like the Underwater serpents or panthers of Algonkian oral traditions) could represent those sides.

Ho-Chunk religious belief was largely an individual matter, and "correct ways of living" included specific personal and group rituals and taboos which were related to clan membership, personal vision quests, and life events such as birth and death. Specific groups also held rituals for those spirits they felt linked to, such as the Night Spirit, which was appealed to for success in war. Within traditional Ho-Chunk culture, warfare and status as a warrior were important, as attested to by war medicines and vision quests for protective spirits.

Transgressions of taboos or other incorrect behavior could lead to illness, which then required the services of a shaman. Ho-Chunk shamans relied on both herbal medicines and spiritual means to bring about cures. Shamans were always elderly and drew upon their years of experience and knowledge. They were also called upon to provide protection to warriors, and men who controlled warrior medicine were highly respected. In other circumstances, shamanistic power could be good or evil. Good power could be used for hunting or war or could also be turned and combined with bad medicines to promote witchcraft where greed and jealousy existed.

European Contact, the Fur Trade, and Changes

The Ho-Chunk first made contact with Europeans in 1634 when they met the French explorer Jean Nicolet. At that time, they were living in the Green Bay region and Fox River valley along with their Algonkian-speaking neighbors the Menominee. French traders with whom they made contact described them as powerful and skilled warriors who frequently made war with other tribes. In the years after Nicolet's visit, refugees from Algonkian-speaking tribes in southern Michigan fled to Wisconsin to escape the onslaught of the League of the Iroquois who fought with tribes as far away as Minnesota to monopolize rich Midwestern beaver lands. The refugee Indians and the Ho-Chunk both suffered from starvation, disease, and intertribal warfare. During this period, the tribe declined from about 4,000 or 5,000 tribal members to about 600 or 700 as a result of introduced European diseases and warfare.

Following this period, the Ho-Chunk intermarried with members of other tribes to help recover their population losses. As a result, they became more like the Algonkian neighbors they married, borrowing a number of customs and traditions. With their pursuit of the fur trade, they also reorganized their ways of life to depend more on valuable fur species. Their territory also changed as refugee tribes moved into Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk settled on a territory between Lake Winnebago almost to the Mississippi River and south of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers down to the Rock River. Instead of the large villages they had previously had, they created smaller settlements (as many as 40 of them) dispersed over a wider area, switching to domed wigwams from their earlier rectangular house forms. They continued to have gardens, but relied more on hunting and trapping. When fur trapping was poor, they relied on stored corn reserves from their gardens but traded with Whites for traps, tools, guns, cloth, and ornaments. Increasingly, trading centers at Portage and Prairie du Chien drew them away from their earlier territory in the Green Bay region.

During the French and British regimes, the Ho-Chunk slowly recovered and grew in numbers. Like other Wisconsin tribes, they engaged in the fur trade with French and later British traders. During the 1600s and 1700s, the tribe spread west and south and eventually established villages throughout the Fox River valley and Lake Winnebago regions, the Wisconsin River valley below Portage, the upper tributaries of the Rock River valley, and the upper Mississippi River valley. After Wisconsin became part of the United States in 1783, the Ho-Chunk, like other Wisconsin tribes, retained a strong attachment to the British. The Ho-Chunk fought against the United States during the American Revolution and, after 1805, almost every tribal member became an adherent of Tenskwatawa, or the Shawnee Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh. These Shawnee Indians from Ohio preached resistance to American settlement and, with the War of 1812, the Ho-Chunk became even more anti-American. They fought alongside the British in the War of 1812, and although the British lost the war, the Ho-Chunk retained their dislike for the United States.

The Nineteenth Century

In the 1830s, many Ho-Chunk moved to the region north of the Wisconsin River. The Ho-Chunk ceded more land in southern Wisconsin to the federal government in 1832, and those living on the ceded lands were supposed to remove to a portion of eastern Iowa called the Neutral Ground. However, most simply moved north of the Wisconsin River. Even then, they often went back to their old residences in the ceded lands for short periods. The Ho-Chunk and the United States made another treaty in 1837 that ceded all their lands in Wisconsin. The treaty itself was made under suspicious conditions, and the Ho-Chunk do not appear to have been aware of all of its provisions, particularly the one that gave them only eight months to leave their ceded lands. By this time, large numbers of White settlers poured into the region, and federal officials wanted to remove the Ho-Chunk as quickly as possible. The army attempted to remove the tribe to the Neutral Ground in 1841, but many Ho-Chunk simply came back to Wisconsin.

The Ho-Chunk faction that did remove to the Neutral Ground later went to Minnesota, then South Dakota, and finally the government gave them a reservation in Nebraska in 1865. Yet despite the government's best efforts, it could not make the Ho-Chunk leave their homes in northwestern Wisconsin, and many who had gone with the removal faction returned to Wisconsin. Many Whites in Wisconsin wanted the Winnebago removed to the Nebraska reservation, and in 1873-74 the state and the federal government again tried to remove the Ho-Chunk. By this time, many had bought land so they could become citizens and stay in Wisconsin, but the army rounded up almost 900 Ho-Chunk, both landed and landless. Still, about 250 managed to evade the army, and most of those the army removed to Nebraska simply came back to Wisconsin within a year.

This was the last Ho-Chunk removal the federal government attempted, and by the 1880s, the government decided to allow the Ho-Chunk to take up 40-acre farms and remain in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk who took land claims still practiced a seasonal, itinerant economy based on hunting, farming, fishing, and gathering. The Ho-Chunk generally lived in two areas: the Black River Falls region in the western part of the state and near the town of Wittenberg in the east. In 1875, the Ho-Chunk built a schoolhouse at Black River Falls with Christian missionaries of the Evangelical and Reform Church as teachers. Later, the missionaries expanded it into a boarding school and in 1921 transferred it to a new and larger building at Neillsville. Lutheran missionaries established a school at Wittenberg in 1884 that ministered to the Ho-Chunk, Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Menominee. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ho-Chunk tribal members generally worked as migrant agricultural laborers picking blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and cherries, moving to camp along the Mississippi River in fall and winter to hunt and trap. Through this period, they also came together for dances and ceremonies. In summer, they also gathered for tribal lacrosse games. For these gatherings, traditional Bear Clan police maintained order.

Change in the Twentieth Century

Travel back and forth between Wisconsin and Nebraska Ho-Chunks was common, and a number of Wisconsin Ho-Chunk living in Nebraska converted to the Peyote Religion (also called the Native American Church). In 1908, they brought this religion to Wisconsin. In the years which followed, many Ho-Chunk converted, especially in the Wittenberg community, at Black River Falls, and in the Wisconsin Dells region. Religious differences created problems for the Ho-Chunk for many years, disrupting tribal unity.

At about the same time, economic conditions began to change for the Ho-Chunk. Seasonal fruit picking of blueberries declined as ownership of the fields changed hands and state restrictions reduced the crops. At the same time, cranberry production and seasonal labor increased. Some Ho-Chunk traveled to Door County to be hired there for seasonal cherry picking to augment other seasonal harvesting on White-owned farms. Increased automobile ownership made it possible for many Ho-Chunk to increase their income by selling baskets and other crafts at roadside stands.

Beginning in 1913, many Ho-Chunk began to settle at the Wisconsin Dells and developed performance programs and crafts sales to appeal to tourists. This became so profitable for many Ho-Chunk that they moved to the Dells to sell crafts and perform for tourists and alternated this work with seasonal farm labor. Unfortunately, what was a good adaptation for the family economy seldom allowed children to go far in school, which made them poorly suited to moving out of seasonal unskilled labor and into better paying jobs later in life.

During this entire period, the federal government did not recognize the Wisconsin branch of the Ho-Chunk nation as a sovereign Indian tribe. This changed in 1934 when the government passed the Indian Reorganization Act which allowed tribes such as the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk to gain federal recognition and tribal sovereignty. Twelve years later, the government passed the Indian Claims Commission Act, which sought to compensate Indian tribes for claims they had against the United States government. For their grievances to be heard, the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk formed a claims committee in 1949, and this committee became the seed for the current tribal government. In 1961, it was reconstituted as the Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee, which wrote a tribal constitution that tribal members overwhelmingly approved in 1963. The federal government, under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act, extended recognition and sovereignty to the tribe that same year. Since that time, the tribe has acquired about 554 acres of land for tribal housing at Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, and Black River Falls. This is in addition to the 3,673 acres that tribal members acquired as homesteads in the 1870s and 1880s. In November 1994, the tribe adopted "Ho-Chunk" as their official name.