DRIFTLESS - November is National Native American Heritage Month. And so this month, and every day, it is important to remember that we in the Driftless Region live on land that was inhabited by native people. In our area, those people were members of the Ho-Chunk Nation. And so, I bring to you the stories of Janice Rice, a member of the Bear Clan of the Ho-Chunk people.
Almost 30 people gathered to hear Rice’s talk, ‘Among my Homelands – Hear the Echoes of my Ancestors,’ on October 15 at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. The talk was one in the series of Driftless Dialogues this fall.
Rice is the Ho-Chunk Emerita Librarian, and a member of the Ho-Chunk Bear Clan. She worked for 36 years as a librarian on the UW-Madison campus. In her 30-40 years of work, Rice reports learning a lot about Ho-Chuck history through her studies and research. Her focus is on American Indian resources, literature, culture, history and language preservation and revitalization.
“My knowledge is a blend of things I learned from my grandmother, my mother, and other relatives of the clan community, along with things I’ve learned in my studies,” Rice told the group. “The things that have guided me are family and values and research.”
Rice told the group that throughout her talk, she would weave in Ho-Chunk words because their words were widely shared in this territory. This reporter will use the Anglicized versions of words or names in this article.
“If you walk in the valleys, by the rivers, into the trees and up to the cliffs, you probably would hear the echoes of their Ho-Chunk language,” Rice said.
Rice said that the firepit symbolizes for her so many things about her culture, her history and her connection to her family and clan.
“As children, when we gathered around the fire, the women were cooking food, and we would be quiet and learn from our elders,” Rice remembered. “In our culture, as in many cultures, the campfire was a place to gather and learn about who we are and where we’re from.”
Rice explained that the Ho-Chunk people are considered to be ‘the people of the woodlands.’ She said it is believed that the origins of the Ho-Chunk were in the Red Banks area near Green Bay and Door County.
The meaning of the name Ho-Chunk is “people of the big voice.” She said the name came from the longhouses that her people sheltered in during the winter. She said that if someone wanted to be heard by someone at the other end of the longhouse, they had to speak loudly. The name ‘Winnebago’ she said is actually an Algonquian word.
The linguistic group that the Ho-Chunk language belongs to is the Siouxan linguistic group, not to be confused with the Siouxan language. She said the people who spoke languages in this group are widespread across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and there are two major subgroups of the language. Nevertheless, someone who speaks one language can often understand someone who speaks another in the linguistic group.
Names of leaders
Rice said that the names of Ho-Chunk leaders are not often mentioned, and so she wanted to take time to name them in her presentation, and tell a little bit about them.
“Cuugiga and Grey Headed Decorah were the sons of Glory of the Morning, who married a French soldier,” Rice told the group. “When the soldier decided to return to Quebec, he took their daughter, but left the two sons with their mother.”
Rice said that many stories are told of Cuugiga, who was involved in battles in the war with Pontiac, Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet.
His brother, Grey Headed Decorah, had two sons – Waukon Decorah and One Eyed Decorah. Two cities in Iowa are named after Waukon Decorah, who lived just north of Prairie du Chien, when he was travelling for hunting or trade. One Eyed Decorah had villages between Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse.
“The Ho-Chunk people weren’t truly nomadic, but they did travel and move around when they had reason to,” Rice explained. “The territory that they lived in ranged from Green Bay to Dixon, Illinois. Their life was similar to people who own a home, but also a summer cabin up north, and perhaps a condo in Florida.”
Other leaders included Karamaani who was a strong leader, and lived in an area between Baraboo and Dane County and Beloit. In an area south of Beloit, he established a home called Turtle Village.
Another leader was Iron Walker whose name was Mazomanie, and who lived in that area. Little Priest lived near the Rock River and Koshkonong, as did Whirling Thunder. There is a ranch by Tomah named in his honor.
Rice pointed out that there were also many women who served as leaders among the Ho-Chunk people, and speculated that the culture may once have been matrilineal.
Thunder Woman lived near Lake Monona, and led her village. Another female leader was Hinakega (which means fourth born daughter), and she too lived near Lake Monona. When interviewed for the census, she gave her name simply as ‘fourth born daughter,’ and so no Ho-Chunk name or clan can be ascertained for her.
Coonakewiga lived near Lake Waubesa and belonged to the Bear Clan. Waxopiniwiga led her village near Lake Waubesa and was a member of the Waterspirit Clan. Hacacexiwig lived near Lake Kegonsa and was a member of the Bear Clan.
Rice talked about the histories of the treaties that white settlers made with the Ho-Chunk people. The first of those, signed in 1816 in St. Louis, was called ‘The Treaty of Peace.’
“It was not a treaty of peace,” Rice said. “All along, the intention was to take over the Indian’s land.”
Rice said that water was very important in establishing the early centers of the fur trade, and eventually in the location of the forts. She said that initially, the route into the state had been through Michigan and into Green Bay, and also on the Mississippi River. For this reason, the early centers of trade and location of the forts were in Green Bay and Prairie du Chien.
“It was John Kinzie who was appointed as an Indian Agent who established Fort Winnebago in Portage,” Rice said. “He took the first census of the Ho-Chunk between 1829-1832, which served as a means to identify how many Ho-Chunk people were living in the territory and what their names were. In many cases, this was the first time that Ho-Chunk people were given an English last name.”
Initially, a territory was designated for the Ho-Chunk people, with neutral zones in the Decorah, Iowa area. They were encouraged to move there, and used as a buffer between the Sauk-Fox to the south and the Lakota/Dakota to the north. According to Rice, they didn’t like it, so they moved north to Blue Earth near present day Mankato, Minnesota, where many took up farming, built houses, and became bilingual members of the community. But then, they were believed to have become involved in the Sauk-Fox ‘Blackhawk War,’ and were removed to Crow Creek in the Dakotas.
“Not everyone left, and many died along the way, but of those who lived, many began to make their way back by following the Missouri River into Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas,” Rice said. “They missed the water of their home territory and wanted to return.”
When the people returned to what is now Wisconsin, they became farmers and some even acquired land. These people who acquired land, with a deed for their property, were able to serve as a stop for other people on their journeys home.
“Echoes of our relatives can be felt all along the path of the removals,” Rice said. “And those echoes can be felt here, where they returned to their home.”
Another treaty was signed in 1837 in Washington, D.C., whereby the Ho-Chunk sold the last of their Wisconsin lands to the United States.
“People who were multilingual were always instrumental in the negotiations as well as in trade,” Rice said. “They may have been fluent in European languages such as French and English, but also in multiple native languages.”
“Chief Yellow Thunder, who lived in Columbia County, was taken to Washington D.C. to sign the treaty, and the Ho-Chunk people were given eight months to be removed from the lands they had ceded in the treaty.”
Rice said that previously, all treaties with the U.S. government had been negotiated in the territory, so the fact the treaty had been signed in Washington D.C. cast suspicion on its validity.
The next phase in the grand sweep of Ho-Chunk history, according to Rice, was the ‘boarding school phase.’ Rice said that boarding schools, where children of the tribe were taken to learn the English language and be acculturated, were founded in Carlisle and Neillsville, Wisconsin.
“Children were punished at the boarding schools for speaking their native language,” Rice said. “My older sister, who arrived at the school speaking only the Ho-Chunk language, was punished by her teacher for speaking in her native language – the only language she knew.”
Rice said that when her sister would say something in the Ho-Chunk language, her teacher would poke her in the head with a pencil. When their mother arrived to bring the girl home for Thanksgiving, she learned of this, and chose not to bring her back to the school.
“My mother asked the family to speak English to my sister so she would learn,” Rice said. “By 1948, the rural public schools were open to Indian children, and so my sister and I attended the public schools. She never told me about how she had been treated at the boarding school, and so I, like my mother and grandmother, loved school.”
Rice said that they had a teacher in their public school who was wonderful, and wanted to learn the Ho-Chunk language.
“When we would say a word in the Ho-Chunk language, our teacher would ask what it meant rather than punishing us,” Rice remembered. “It was a wonderful experience.”
A patriotic people
Rice explained that the Ho-Chunk people have participated in all the wars that have occurred since before the United States was formed. This includes the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam and every war since.
“We are very patriotic people, and at every Powwow we raise the flag,” Rice pointed out. “We honor our warriors, and the flag is awarded to the widows of veterans who have served.”
Rice told the story of Ho-Chunk code talkers who served in World War II.
“Unlike many other Indian nations, the Ho-Chunk have preserved our language,” Rice pointed out. “So in World War II we were able to speak in a code that the enemy could not break.”
Back to the fire
Rice ended her talk by taking participants back to the campfire that she started her talk with.“The future belongs to young people, and that is why we tell them our stories so that they are part of the echoes of our ancestors,” Rice said. “We continue to cling to our values of offering food and water to people that visit our home to make them stronger on their journeys, and we see the water as a sacred thing. My grandmother taught me to start every day with a prayer of gratitude for what I have, and to be grateful.