12,000 Years and Counting: Honoring what occupied the Madison area

By Jenna Mytton

As students walk around campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s hard to miss the beautiful architecture and scenery. The institution often speaks about its rich history as a flagship university or a land grant institution. Too often though, the history of the area that campus occupies is forgotten.

People have been occupying the area of “Madison” for 12,000 years. Before European settlement, the Ho-Chunk tribe called the Madison area “Teejóp” or “four lakes.” Members of this nation were forced out in the mid-1800s, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison was founded shortly thereafter.

Currently, there are 12 American Indian nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin. Members of this campus community are working to ensure that the history of the Madison area is preserved. However, not only is Madison rich in cultural history, the state of Wisconsin is as well.

At the local and statewide level, there are efforts to recognize and respect the history of the landscape, to mend relationships with those who identify as American Indians or Native people.

Recognizing history

Rebecca Comfort is the interim American Indian Curriculum Services Consultant for Student Diversity Programs in the School of Education. Comfort graduated from UW-Madison in 2014, and has worked for the School of Education since August 2015. In her position, Comfort works with Wisconsin Act 31 and pre-service teachers who are planning on teaching in the state of Wisconsin.

Act 31 educates students in Wisconsin’s public schools about the 12 American Indian Nations in Wisconsin. **courtesy of the University of Wisconsin School of Education**

Wisconsin Act 31 is “shorthand for the five expectations for teachers, media specialists, teacher education programs and educational leaders.” The act, which is made up of state statutes from 1989 and 1991, requires that American Indian Studies be integrated into instruction into public education at least three times during K-12, twice in elementary school grades and once in high school grades.

“It’s important because we believe this is good learning for all students, even if they’re not native. There’s a common misunderstanding that Act 31 is only for native students, and if we look back into the history of why this law exists, we’d have to go back to the 1980s,” Comfort said.

Between 1987 and 1991, the northern part of Wisconsin, specifically Ojibwe tribes, was entrenched in a violent conflict between the Native people and non-natives.

Act 31 emerged after two brothers, both members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, were studying at a university in Minnesota in the 1970s. In their political science class, they came across a treaty that allowed them to fish and hunt in perpetuity in Wisconsin, but for their entire lives, they were under the impression that they were only allowed to hunt and fish on their reservation. They tried their rights, and were arrested.

The case went up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Court of Chicago, and in 1983 it was recognized that members of the Ojibwe tribe could hunt and fish off of their reservation in return for ceding their lands.

Act 31 requires teachers to incorporate studies that discuss the treaty-based, off-reservation rights to hunt, fish and gather; human relations and understanding of different value systems and cultures; and the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of the federally-recognized American Indian tribes located in the state of Wisconsin.

According to Comfort, the UW campus and what was happening in Madison was a microcosm for what was happening in the state of Wisconsin. For years, there has been a vast misunderstanding of not only the rights of Native people, but also of their culture and belief systems.

“I think we, as Americans, have a fundamental understanding about what our history entails. We have a tendency in the state of Wisconsin to only talk about our history from 1848 forward,” Comfort said. “But looking at that on the scope of the timeline really only captures about one percent. We’ve neglected 99 percent of what’s happened here.”

According to Comfort, if the university doesn’t fully reconcile with it’s history, students, faculty and staff can’t appreciate the place that it is today.

Respecting the landscape

Madison is rich in history that predates UW-Madison’s inception in 1848, and there is evidence of that scattered across campus.

According to Daniel Einstein, the Historic and Cultural Resources Manager for Campus Planning and Landscape Architecture, we must understand history in order to appreciate the current landscape.

“History is often described as something in the past, but what it really is, is a series of ‘presents,’” Einstein said. “We are living history — we are the accumulation of the present. The way we behave, the way we interact and the buildings we build are the accumulated effect of those who preceded us.”

Most of the history surrounding UW-Madison starts in 1848, but the rich cultural and archeological history is important to recognize, according to Einstein, because it’s what makes this campus unique.

Einstein is responsible for managing campus historic buildings and landscapes. In his position, he focuses on historic structures and the spaces in between, which includes archeological sites and public art pieces.

He arrived on campus in 1990 as a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. While here, he worked on the first environmental assessment of campus.

When Einstein first started his position, he worked with the grounds crew at the Physical Plant to protect the [effigy] mounds. In the course of that work, he also got involved in doing an archeological assessment of the campus in 2005.

Einstein received a grant to take a look at all of the cultural landscapes on this campus. Traditionally, historic preservation has focused on the building, but not the broader context, so Einstein works to ensure that the spaces between structures are cared for as well.

A plaque identifies the bird effigy on Observatory Hill, one of the mound groups preserved at UW-Madison.

The earthworks, which are raised features, are all known as “Indian burial mounds.” A particular subset of those earthworks are called effigy mounds. Effigies take the shape of animals and sometimes people, but on campus specifically, there are water spirits and birds. Aside from effigies, other traditional burial sites are in linear or conical form, and the UW campus has both types of earthwork features.

“The UW-Madison campus is unique in that it has more archeological sites and more effigy mounds that any other university, that we know of, in the world,” Einstein said.

Mounds include animals or figures that represent upper, middle or lower earth, which is significant to American Indian belief systems.

“In the past five years, we have developed policies for management of these [effigy] sites. In the previous 100 years, these sites were either not marked, or they were known but not particularly cared for,” Einstein.

Trees were growing on the mounds, grass was sparse, and in the case of the agriculture campus, some of the sites were used as animal grazing areas.

For the past 15 years, Campus Planning has started to map the sites, as well as place post-and-chain to clearly identify where these places are so that trucks don’t drive over them and people don’t run or bike over the mounds.

“We have tried to educate people as to what these places are, but also make efforts to physically define these spaces so that there is no ambiguity about where these sites are located,” Einstein said.

While the earthwork features are raised and visible, there are also sites on campus that can no longer be seen. For many years, “campus” was home to the people of the Ho-Chunk tribe.

“One can comfortably say that all of the land that is currently UW campus, was former habitation areas of native people. Over the 12,000 years of occupation, some of those areas of what we geographically define as ‘campus,’ have been compromised,” he said. “If you build a building, you destroy whatever evidence there is of a previous culture who used that space.”

According to Einstein, numbers don’t always represent reality, but that which people have counted. Some sites were never identified and are not included in the archeological maps.

Currently, there are 35 earthwork features on campus and in the arboretum: eight are visible effigy mounds, and there are an additional 27 mound features that are in linear or conical form. As Einstein mentioned, many were lost during construction on campus. The total could have been as many as 58 mounds on campus alone.

“Big picture — all of it is a cultural landscape. More specifically, there are defined archeological and former habitation sites, but that’s only what we know of.”

Bridging the gap

In 2012, University Housing dedicated its newest residence hall to the people of the First Nations as a remembrance and appreciation of the history of those who occupied Madison for many years.

University Housing worked with leaders of the Ho-Chunk Tribe to name Dejope Residence Hall.

University Housing worked with members and leaders of the Ho-Chunk tribe to dedicate the newest residence hall, now named Dejope, in order to honor the history of ancestral lands.

In 2014, the university hosted the 12 tribal leaders in our state for the first time. Following the Native Nation Summit, a work group was formed to head the Native Nations Engagement Initiative. Members of the initiative went to tribes in the state and conducted listening sessions to hear what the tribes needs were in hopes to develop better relationships.

According to Comfort, a strategic plan is being developed that takes into account the needs of students on this campus and how to better support them.

Relationships between students need improvement too, according to Comfort. A term Comfort uses is “cultural competency.” She also recognized that people will never be fully “competent,” so she embraces “cultural sensitivity” as well.

“When I was a student, I viewed this campus as a not very supportive place. I had a hard time in a lot of my classes with discussions that revolved around American Indian studies,” Comfort said.

Less than one percent of students at the university identify as Native people, and at the individual level, there are resources for them on this campus. In addition to a formal support staff, there are student organizations focused on academics, advising resources, as well as Wunk Sheek, which is the student organization for those who identify as members of indigenous populations and their allies.

Comfort, who is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, was a student on this campus from 2009 to 2014. She mentioned that there are other support groups, that aren’t solely for Native students, such as Center for Educational Opportunity and the PEOPLE Program, among others.

According to Comfort, supporting Native students starts with recruitment.

“There needs to be an investment from the admissions standpoint,” Comfort said.

Without recruitment and promise of support, Native students are seeing their needs better served at other institutions, Comfort said. Comfort also pointed out that only emphasizing the university has a research institution isn’t effective for Native students.

“What’s more important is that you feel important in your student experience both by faculty and staff, but also by other students on campus,” Comfort said. “So students might look at UW-Madison and say that this is not a very diverse campus. What is the university’s investment in helping Native students? Are we the best for them?”

While there has been misunderstanding of Native students, and for all students of color, Comfort said she is hopeful for the future of this campus in understanding and valuing the history.

“Students should seek out knowledge — that’s the best way to be an ally. I wish the university put a little more effort into the Ethnic Studies requirement, because that would be the most supportive way to help and foster better relationships,” Comfort said.

Another way the university is working to mend relationships is through protecting and identifying landmark sites. Both Comfort and Einstein are working on a signage committee to place signs at sites around campus, recognizing cultural history and archeological sites.

The signage committee is working on putting a plaque in Bascom Hall recognizing the history of UW as a land grant institution.

The committee hopes to place a sign at Bascom Hall that recognizes the university as a land grant institution, but also discusses tribal sovereignty and land transfers. They are also planning to put signs near the Willow Creek and Observatory Hill mound groupings in order to educate people about their significance. Finally, they are working with the Ho-Chunk tribe to place a sign at the lookout on Observatory Drive that recognizes their ancestral lands.

After those sites are finished, they hope to continue to add others.

“It’s really hard to condense history into 100 words or less and telling the story of the 12,000 year plus story of this land, through a lens not dominated by Western descendents,” Einstein said.

Through projects like that of Comfort and Einstein, recognizing the history of campus, respecting the landscapes and including Native voices in the story will work to repair relationships.