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Four Lakes' Indigenous Burial Mounds

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

“Some day I hope when my grandchildren ask their mother to show my grave, she will not have to show them a shopping mall or condominium.”

There was absolute silence after these words rang from Bernadine Tallmadge, a Winnebago woman, mother, elder, and owner of the Winnebago Indian Museum in the Wisconsin Dells. It was 1986 and Bernadine was in Madison to testify against revoking legal protections for Indian Mounds. These heritage sites consist of raised earth in geometric or animal shapes that can be up to 18ft tall and 100ft long. They are the mark of the Winnebago, now known as the Hoocąk or Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. Their ancestors created Indian Mounds to bury their dead and conduct spiritual ceremonies; now politicians were debating whether they should keep the recently won protections that prevented their destruction.

Indian Mounds can take many different forms, each with their own spiritual and ceremonial significance. Mounds range in size but can be up to 18ft high and 100ft in length. Image drawn by Julia Buskirk based on illustrations in Native American Mounds in Madison and Dane County.

“You put our rights on paper and call yourself honorable,” said Alberta Day, another Ho-Chunk woman at the hearing. “You make treaties with people around the world, and keep none with us. You stand for human rights before the world and deny us our ways, our religion, even our graves.”

In the early 1800s, white settlers began using a series of exploitive policy and violence against indigenous Ho-Chunk people around the Four Lakes Area, Dejope. With the attempted forced removal of indigenous people and expansion of white colonial power, it's no surprise that the majority of Indian Mounds were dug up, paved over, or developed on. Today, only an estimated 20% of Indian Mounds in Madison and the surrounding areas remain.

For some, like Charles E. Brown, an archeologist and director of the Wisconsin Historical Society at the start of the 20th century, this marked a great loss of archeological history; these mounds, in some cases, are nearly two thousand years old. They hold insight into the way Dejope was lived on, cared for, and first altered by humans. Mounds in the Dejope area also occurred at one of the highest densities in the midwest––before widespread destruction, southern Wisconsin had the most Indian Mounds in the entirety of North America.

But the disregard of Indian Mounds is not simply an irreplaceable loss of archeology. For the Indigenous Ho-Chunk, these earthen legacies are where their ancestors buried their dead and conducted religious ceremonies. The rapid destruction of spiritually significant places at the start of colonization was a message: we do not understand you or your people’s ways. Or worse: we do not care.

Locations of Mounds surrounding Lake Mendota. Image drawn by Julia Buskirk based on a map created by Charles E. Brown.

Some policy, attitudes, and behavior have changed since then. In that 1986 hearing, Bernadine and Alberta’s testimony helped convince State legislatures to maintain the protections that had recently been established for the Indian Mounds. They could not legally be destroyed.

Attitudes and behaviors towards Indian Mounds are evolving too. Omar Poler is an instructor and consultant in UW-Madison’s School of Education, and an enrolled member of the Sokoagan Chippewa tribe. Poler works to implement indigenous history and current day culture into curriculums. He, along with Aaron Bird Bear, the Assistant Dean for Student Diversity Programs in the School of Education, lead the UW First Nations Culture Tours. They take people around the university’s campus, situating the indigenous history into the context of our land and our current place on it.

“Oftentimes when we tell the story of Madison,” Poler says, “It begins in 1848 or 1836. But we have archaeological evidence of people on this campus 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. When we begin in 1836, when we begin in 1848, we’re only telling 1.4% of the human story of this place, right? We’re missing 98% of the human story of this place.”

"You’re sitting in the middle of what should be a world heritage site,” Aaron Bird Bear says to a group of students on one of the tours. “But it’s not, because of the attitudes people had about those who were living here.”

Recently, the University has made strides to begin to acknowledge the violent history of indigenous removal that the University sits on. In 2019, a Heritage Marker was placed on Bascom Hill, the glacial drumlin that the university is built on and around. The plaque reads:

The University of Wisconsin–Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their

nation has called Teejop (day-JOPE) since time immemorial.

In an 1832 treaty, the Ho-Chunk were forced to cede this territory.

Decades of ethnic cleansing followed when both the federal and state government repeatedly,

but unsuccessfully, sought to forcibly remove the Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin.

This history of colonization informs our shared future of collaboration and innovation.

Today, UW–Madison respects the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation, along with

the eleven other First Nations of Wisconsin.

President Wilfrid Cleveland of the Ho-Chunk Nation, spoke at its dedication. “For most non-Native people, the easiest way around these hard truths is to just ignore the real history of Wisconsin and the real history of the people who first lived here,” he said. “My hope is that this plaque will cause them to dig a little deeper, that it will be a spark for them to learn about the Ho-Chunk people and the sacredness we hold for this land.”

A water spirit effigy mound, sometimes referred to as a turtle, located on the top of Observatory Hill on UW-Madison's campus. Image from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Indian Mounds surrounding Lake Mendota and the rest of Dejope are a constant reminder that I walk as a recent guest to land and water that holds thousands of years of relationships with a people whose names, language, and living heritage I was never supposed to know. But the Ho-Chunk people have continued to resist, and I will honor these fights by celebrating indigenous culture, supporting their continued fights for justice, and learning what the first colonizers tried to erase.

There’s a pathway that cuts by the Honors College on Observatory Hill, which overlooks Lake Mendota on the UW-Madison campus. It’s one I walked countless times on my way to and from the dorms during my freshman year. After researching this post I learned that the pavement cuts off the tail of an Effigy Mound, a water spirit. I returned to this spot and finally began acknowledging the changed earth.

About the Author & Project

Julia Buskirk has always loved lakes, but after doing research for the Center for Limnology at Trout Lake Station last summer, she is particularly interested in the stories science tells about them. As a Conservation Biology and English double major, she looks forward to bringing these stories outside of a scientific realm and sharing them with anyone who cares about our water.

Thanks to UW-Madison's Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Fellowship for funding this project, to Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about waterways.


1 Comment

Libby Theune
Libby Theune
Jul 07, 2020

Oh my, what a powerful post! We have much work to do to recognize and learn about the other 98% of the human story. I would love to take one of Aaron Bird Bear's tours! Thank you for this important reminder of our shared lands.

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