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: