Wisconsin officially celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day this week on the day of the federal holiday of Christopher Columbus Day, thanks to an executive order from Gov. Tony Evers. This comes a couple of weeks after a bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators introduced a proposal to grant in-state tuition rates to any University of Wisconsin System school for all registered native tribal members members nationwide, and four months after the introduction of the “Our Shared Future” plaque on the UW campus.
On the surface, it appears the university, its system and the state as a whole are all making dedicated progress to rectifying their tumultuous history with Wisconsin’s First Nations.
Oh, if only it were that simple.
To understand Wisconsin’s complex relationship with its twelve First Nations, one must turn their history book back to at least 10,000 B.C.E. These cultures have populated the land we now know as “Wisconsin” for thousands of years, yet by and large these cultures are now shreds of what they were prior to 1832.
Of particular importance to UW is the Ho-Chunk Nation. At that time, “Teejop” was the spiritual and cultural center for the Ho-Chunk Nation, which was so closely tied to its spiritual culture that the name “Ho-Chunk” refers to the peoples’ sacred language.
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Last month, tribal and federal Ho-Chunk lawyer Samantha Skenandore presented a lecture on the connection between UW and the ancient, sacred grounds it lies on. Skenandore’s talk highlighted the ways the university’s history continually overwrites that of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and how this pattern of “colonial domination” continues to this day. Skenandore urged members of the UW community to “absorb the energy” of the Ho-Chunk people embedded into the campus as one of the most effective pathways to understanding.
A couple of days after Skenandore’s talk, I visited the mounds, or what’s left of them, on Observatory Hill. These two mounds appear to many as the lone survivors of what were likely once thousands in Dane County alone.
The university prides itself on saving these sacred sites, but ignores the implicated erasure of Ho-Chunk heritage. In fact, the “Our Shared Future” plaque is carefully worded (it took ten drafts, after all) in such a way so the university is not tied to the ethnic and cultural cleansing of the Ho-Chunk Nation. By not accepting blame for literally occupying this space — by some accounts among the most sacred sites in North America — the university lessens the urgency of reparations on campus and neglects to apologize for its repeated abuse and neglect of Ho-Chunk culture.
Of course, the university would like to say it is actively combating this with the four-pronged educational action plan introduced alongside the “Our Shared Future” plaque, specifically as it offers a Native history campus walking tour, programming in the Our Wisconsin experience for first-year students in university housing, in the new Public History Project and “in different ways across the curriculum.”
Unless a student is a SOAR adviser or took a class specifically dealing with Native histories, it is unlikely they have gone on the walking tour. Why? Only one person on staff, the American Indian Curriculum Services coordinator, is currently assigned to lead these First Nations Cultural Landscape tours, and presenting these tours is just one of their many duties.
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Given the estimated 45,319 students currently enrolled at UW, the inadequacy of this program’s size is evident, as it is impossible for one person, in addition to their other duties, to also educate the entire student body about these sacred lands.
Secondly, using Our Wisconsin as a means of rectifying the university’s heritage is hardly encompassing. The 90 minute workshops required for all first-year residents in on-campus housing are designed to cover all facets of diversity and inclusion, including race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. Yes, in 90 minutes.
Even with the intentional inclusion of Ho-Chunk heritage in this programming, Our Wisconsin misses graduate students, transfer students and freshmen living off-campus. These groups make up at least a third of the campus population.
The Public History Project, born out of an April 2018 task force to address separate historical issues of racial intolerance at UW, is again equipped with addressing every narrative of oppression and suppression at the university. Yet again, only one staff member is charged with this entire project, and the vast majority of contributors to this project are history students using it as their capstone in the major.
Since it is a mostly student-driven project for the time being, students chose the narratives which the project will explore. Through this, there is hope — not a guarantee — that Native histories and heritage will receive a greater place in the university’s memory.
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Disregarding the extremely vague “in different ways across the curriculum” point of the plan, it is evident that UW still isn’t doing enough to explore and mend the relationship with Ho-Chunk Nation.
It would be easy to single out UW’s painful history and incomplete response as a outlier in a generally progressive historical movement, but inaction on confronting histories like these span across universities nationwide.
At Georgetown, despite a majority vote last April to include a $27.20 reparations fund fee on top of tuition in order to benefit descendants of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to keep the university afloat, the Board of Regents has yet to dedicate such a fund. In 2017, Brown University only agreed to preserve Pokanoket lands the university purchased in the 1950s when the tribe staged a month-long occupation of the lands. These stories are just a few examples.
At the dedication ceremony for the “Our Shared Future” plaque, Chancellor Blank said the plaque will “start a conversation that moves us from ignorance to awareness.” Almost 200 years after the university’s land was forcibly taken from its natives, just being aware of Ho-Chunk history is not enough.
Angela Peterson ([email protected]) is a senior studying history and music.