By Daniel Dumas
In May 2019, a group of staff, doctoral candidates, and Environmental Studies Certificate Program students from the Rachel Carson Center traveled to Wisconsin in order to take part in a place-based workshop organized by the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The RCC’s participation in CHE’s place-based workshop has become an annual tradition, strengthening ties between the two environmental humanities centers. This year, Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies, Larry Nesper, organized the workshop, which sought to explore the changing landscapes of Indigeneity within present-day Wisconsin. Over the course of four days, the workshop’s 40 participants learned from and met with three Indigenous Nations: the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida Nations.
We kicked off the workshop with an initial meeting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s campus. Larry Nesper provided an in-depth history of the region known as Teejop where the campus and the city of Madison are currently located. A particular emphasis was placed on the overwhelming presence of effigy mounds throughout the state. Robert Birmingham explained the significance of these earth mounds, often in the form of animals, supernatural creatures, and even humans. The mounds acted as burial grounds and symbolized the cycle of death and rebirth. An estimated 15,000 effigy mounds were created within a period of 500 years between 700 and 1200 CE.
Bill Quackenbush, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Ho-Chunk Nation introduced us to the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation—People of the Big Voice—and discussed contemporary issues facing tribal governments. We concluded our on-campus portion of the workshop with a walking tour around the grounds led by Omar Poler, who shared the Indigenous history of the area and pointed out several Indigenous archaeological sites on campus, included an effigy mound.
In the afternoon, we traveled to Aztalan State Park in order to visit the site of an Indigenous settlement that dates back to 900 CE. Sissel Schroeder and Robert Birmingham led the tour of the settlement, which features several effigy mounds. Aztalan consisted of a hinterland city built by Mississippians who traveled north from the Indigenous metropolis of Cahokia—located near present-day St. Louis—sometime around the tenth century CE. Today the site is covered by tall grass and occupies an idyllic location adjacent to the Craw Fish River. With a history that stretches back over a thousand years into the past, the site enabled us to catch a glimpse of a pre-European contact site, which constituted a significant Indigenous center of life. Before wrapping up, we traveled to the Man Mound, located in Sauk County. This particular effigy mound is 65 meters long and is one of only a few mounds in the shape of a human.
Our second day was spent almost entirely at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area and the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. The area spans six hundred hectares (approximately six square kilometers) and today, several important organizations co-operate in managing the land. Randy Poelma, John Greendeer, Bill Quakenbush, Curt Meine, and Alison Duff led the tour, which consisted of an exploration of the area’s history. The land originally belonged to the Ho-Chunk Nation but was then ceded during the treaty-making process in the nineteenth century and became home to pioneer farms and households. However, when the US entered World War II, the area was selected as the site of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant, which displaced hundreds of farmers and families. Following heavy production during World War II and again during the Korean War, the site was decommissioned.
Today, the site has taken on a whole other role. A portion of the land was returned to the Ho-Chunk Nation, while the Badger Army Ammunition Museum, the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, and the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center now occupy other portions. Spending the day at various locations on the site enabled us to gain an appreciation for its checkered history, which saw the displacement of Indigenous peoples, the displacement of settler farmers, heavy ammunition production, a partial return to the Ho-Chunk nation, and now an attempt to re-naturalize the area, promoting the return of tallgrass prairie.
We traveled a few hours north in order to visit the Menominee Nation. Our third day began with learning about the Nation and its history at the Menominee Indian Tribe Cultural Museum and the Logging Museum. David Grignon shared the rich history of the Menominee Nation—People of the Wild Rice—and their connection to the land and the nonhuman species that inhabit it. Tribal Chairman, Douglas Cox, spoke about issues of Indigenous sovereignty and explained how the Nation was “terminated” in 1954 because it was doing so well economically, thus effectively ending protection of the Menominee reservation. The Nation was later restored in 1973, but issues surrounding governance and consultation continue to be important today especially in light of potential extractive projects such as the Back Forty Mine, which may threaten the environmental integrity of Menominee territory.
After a traditional Menominee meal, which included freshly harvested wild rice, we spent the afternoon familiarizing ourselves with the land. Guy Reiter and Jeff Grignon led us to Keshena Falls, a sacred Menominee place where the last treaty was signed, and took us on a walk through the pristine Menominee Forest. The Nation’s logging activities—emphasizing traditional sustainable forestry practices—have preserved the health and vitality of the forest. If viewed from Google Earth, for example, the Menominee Nation’s current reservation is visible as a dark, forest-green patch among a landscape of otherwise cleared and segmented land. The walk allowed participants to learn directly on the land, and represented a true privilege, as the area is usually restricted to the public.
The place-based workshop concluded with a visit to the Oneida Nation, near present-day Green Bay. We started the day with a guided tour of the Oneida Nation Museum, learning about the Nation’s history and how many of its members moved to Wisconsin, several hundred kilometers away from their traditional territory south of Lake Ontario in present-day New York State. The Oneida Nation—People of the Standing Stone—belong to the Haudenosaunee or Six Nation Confederacy, and were displaced from their lands in the early nineteenth century in order to make way for settlers. Forced to move west, the Menominee Nation offered a large tract of land to the Oneida, which today constitutes the Oneida Nation’s reservation. Today, Oneida members are located in Wisconsin, in southern Ontario, and in upstate New York.
The Oneida Nation historically practiced various forms of agriculture, an activity that continues to this day. The Nation cultivates various crops including white corn and operates a bison farm. However, due to the Dawes Act of 1887, which made way for allotment, much of the Oneida land base has been divided amongst various landowners. Allotment essentially made it possible for settlers to purchase tracts of Indigenous territories as the government deemed Indigenous tribal members needed no more than 40 hectares per head of family.
Today, this has translated into a tenuous relationship between the Oneida Nation and the town of Hobart, a settler space, which continues to challenge Oneida sovereignty. The Oneida Nation has however thrived through a variety of business ventures including agriculture, tourism, and a casino and hotel complex, which partners with the Green Bay Packers NFL team.
During our stay at the Oneida Nation, we were also able to visit a replica of a Haudenosaunee longhouse and took part in a traditional smoke dance performance. After a busy week, traveling across the state, this was a great way to conclude the workshop.
This year’s participation CHE place-based workshop brought several members of the RCC community to Wisconsin to explore the changing landscapes of Indigeneity. We were privileged to meet with and learn from members of three distinct Indigenous Nations, the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida Nations, who shared their rich histories and innovative ways of asserting their Indigenous sovereignty and rights, despite all the adversities they have faced due to settler colonial policies such as termination and allotment. By connecting the environmental humanities with Indigenous worldviews and practices, we learned how people experience and fulfill their role as caretakers of the land both individually and collectively. Thank you to all three Nations who welcomed us and to CHE for organizing the workshop and including us on this great learning journey.