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A lithograph of Ho-Chunk chief Hairy Bear for a cigarette ad, 1888. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

How the Ho-Chunk Nation Beat the Odds and Made a Comeback

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After contact with Europeans in the 17 th century, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin was reduced from thousands of people to hundreds by disease, starvation and war, including inter-tribal warfare among natives.

The Ho-Chunk, formerly known by the pejorative name Winnebago, were farmers, hunters, gatherers and anglers. They spoke a Siouan language, as did the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people who were their neighbors until they were forced west and south.

Before everything changed, the Ho-Chunk hunted in Wisconsin but also went to the prairie west of the Mississippi River to hunt buffalo. They also took their canoes up the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to fish and hunt small and large game.

Before European contact they lived in square homes but later adopted the circular, domed wigwam.

Ho-Chunk history: First contact with Europeans

The Milwaukee Public Museum page on the Ho-Chunk states:

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.

Nicolet was the among first Frenchmen to visit Wisconsin. Not long after he came, Algonquian speakers from southern Michigan were forced west to Wisconsin by warring Iroquois Indians, who were trying to secure beaver pelts for the fur trade.

It was during this period of the early to mid-1600s that the tribes of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were torn by upheaval instigated by the French seeking furs. There was even a series of wars called the Beaver Wars.

In 1840 Charles Deas painted this image of a Ho-Chunk warrior with a bear-claw necklace and a gun-stock club. (Public Domain)

In 1840 Charles Deas painted this image of a Ho-Chunk warrior with a bear-claw necklace and a gun-stock club. (Public Domain)

Algonquian speakers such as the Kickapoo were forced west from Michigan to Wisconsin, and Siouan speakers such as the Dakota were forced from Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Great Plains. The Ho-Chunk themselves moved around and were displaced. Life would never be the same for many of these people.

The natives suffered from disease, starvation and war between their own tribes. The museum website states: “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.”

At odds with the United States

The Ho-Chunk were long at odds with the United States. They fought with the British in the American Revolution and again during the War of 1812. During French and British rule, the Ho-Chunk population slowly increased.

Ho-Chunk moccasins, undated (Image: Daderot/ CC0)

Ho-Chunk moccasins, undated (Image: Daderot/ CC0)

The Ho-Chunk themselves entered the fur trade, the museum Web page states:

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.

Ho-Chunk religion

Nearly every member of the Ho-Chunk tribe became adherents of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophets (the Shawnee were another Native American tribe). The two brothers preached resistance to American encroachment on Indian territory.

The U.S. government tried to force the Ho-Chunk to Nebraska and Iowa. The museum states:

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.

Ho-Chunk nation gains sovereignty

The Ho-Chunk were not recognized by the U.S. government as a valid tribe until 1934, when they obtained sovereignty and some more lands. Later the U.S. government formed a commission to compensate Indians for their claims.

The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk formed a committee that became the basis of the tribe’s modern government of today. Writing the constitution in 1963 was the government’s first act. The tribe has about 554 acres (224.2 hectares) in the Wisconsin Dells area and Black River Falls. That’s in addition to the tribe acquiring homesteads totaling 3,573 acres (1,446 hectares) in the 1870s and 1880s.

A Ho-Chunk courting flute (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Ho-Chunk courting flute (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In November 1994, the tribe adopted "Ho-chunk" as their official name. The name they went by formerly, Winnebago, in Algonquian means “people of the dirty water.” It might have been a reference to the waters of Fox River and Lake Winnebago being fouled by dead fish in the summertime.

A beautiful account of the creation as the Ho-Chunk understand it and some other Ho-Chunk myths are at this Web page.

The Ho-Chunk, who now number about 6,500 in Wisconsin, have a Facebook page here.

The site Wisconsin First Nations says there are about 8,000 Ho-Chunk people in the world. The tribe is trying to recover their language and cultural heritage after closing 11 assimilation schools in 1975.

The site says the nation is not on a single contiguous land base in Wisconsin but rather owns land in 14 Wisconsin counties and in Illinois.

There is a Ho-Chunk reservation in Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. This is a result of the failed attempts from 1832-1874 to ethnically cleanse the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin and Illinois into what would be become Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, which the Ho-Chunk thwarted by continuously returning during this process, finally exploiting the 1862 Homestead Act to purchase land in their ancestral home. This amazing strategy and resilience resulted in a new national law, the Indian Homestead Act of 1875. Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is the largest employer in Sauk and Jackson counties.

The Ho-Chunk have five casinos in Wisconsin towns and have some affluence because of this.

Top image: A lithograph of Ho-Chunk chief Hairy Bear for a cigarette ad, 1888. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art (CC0)

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