Second Ho-Chunk Canoe found in Lake Mendota continues conversations around UW’s shared history

Canoe is oldest recovered in Great Lakes Region, according to UW archeologist

· Oct 12, 2022 Tweet

Lake Mendota
Lauren MacNeil

Archeologists pulled a dugout canoe belonging to the Ho-Chunk Nation from Lake Mendota Sept. 22. Local historians are working with members of the Ho-Chunk Nation to determine how to best honor and preserve this canoe and other artifacts.

This was the second canoe found by archaeologists. In November 2021, they brought up a 1,200-year-old canoe. The most recently recovered canoe was about 300 yards from the first one.

Upon recovering the canoe, leadership from the Wisconsin Historical Society determined the best plan of action by working closely with the Ho-Chunk Nation. Leaders provided the Ho-Chunk Nation with the option to leave the canoe where it was, allowing it to erode over the next few years — or try to bring it up to the surface and preserve it as best as possible, according to Public Relations Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation Casey Brown.

The Ho-Chunk Nation gave the go-ahead, ultimately deciding there was value in bringing up the canoe and trying to preserve it, Brown said.

Brown witnessed the historical canoe resurfacing from the water. Though the Ho-Chunk Nation was aware that artifacts were likely underwater, seeing the canoe resurface was surreal for Brown.

“It’s reinforcing something we already know, but it is a joyful moment,” Brown said. “Our oral history takes us back two ice ages, so it’s not like it’s something the Ho-Chunk people didn’t know.”

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Tamara Thomsen, an archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, found the most recent canoe while teaching scuba diving lessons in May. She and one of her students were killing time underwater when she saw the exposed end of another dugout canoe, Thomsen said.

This is the oldest canoe recovered in the Great Lakes Region by about a thousand years, according to Thomsen. The canoe was made out of a single piece of white oak — about 14.5 feet in length, according to Thomsen.

“One thing I hope this highlights is the Native history of the campus itself,” Brown said. “A lot of students don’t know walking on campus that they are on Ho-Chunk land.”

They were able to spend about two hours underwater, producing a photogrammetry model of the canoe, Thomsen said.

After the canoe was recovered and on the beach, it was in about nine pieces. Though the canoe was in pieces, Thomson viewed this as expected and unavoidable.

“While it was on the bottom it was in about five big pieces, which we thought was really good,” Thomsen said.

The newly found canoe must be handled extremely delicately because it has the consistency of wet cardboard, Thomsen said.

Tribal members and Historical Society staff will care for the canoe before putting it in a preservation vat with the canoe found in November 2021. There, they will both undergo a two-year freeze-drying and preservation process to make sure all water is removed, according to Thomsen.

UW has recently acknowledged its shared history with the Ho-Chunk Nation, including various flag raisings throughout the fall, in an effort to educate campus members about Ho-Chunk culture and history.

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Sept. 28, UW Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin visited the Ho-Chunk capital in Black River Falls and had lunch with President Marlon WhiteEagle of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

“[Mnookin] is working towards connecting with the Indigenous people, and especially the Ho-Chunk people,” Brown said. “It takes a while for things to change, and gradually it is changing for the better.” 

Though the canoes won’t be on display for a few years, Brown finds it important to acknowledge the importance of Ho-Chunk artifacts. The UW campus sits on Ho-Chunk land.

The current priority is to scan and study the recovered canoes. It is going to take a few years before both canoes can even be moved, Brown said. 

“Right now, the focus is on the preservation of the canoes,” Brown said. “What is going to happen with the canoes is definitely going to be jointly between the nation and the Historical Society.”

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This article was published Oct 12, 2022 at 12:00 pm and last updated Oct 11, 2022 at 4:41 pm

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