The physical traces of Indigenous people in Wisconsin are evident in the proliferation of mounds. Those mounds were carefully documented by Increase Lapham, who extensively surveyed the land in the 19th century before Wisconsin became a state. In his notes, he meticulously recorded the ways that Indigenous people were maintaining and cultivating the landscape. His maps and notes represent a layer of the physical history of Wisconsin that has been erased over time. This graphic is intended to demonstrate the relevance of that important physical history. Milwaukee was not only an important meeting place for Indigenous people, it was also a fertile source of wild rice that fed many. – Chris Cornelius
It’s just a couple hours before the calendar flips from 2021 to 2022, and the gymnasium of the Indian Community School in Franklin is full of music, dancing and life.
The grand entrance of the New Year’s Eve Sobriety Pow Wow features dancers dressed in vibrant traditional ceremonial clothing, dancing around a drum circle at half court. But the most beautiful moments of the evening, put on by Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center as a sober holiday alternative for the indigenous community, are the “intertribal” songs in which all are encouraged to join the dance. The gym floor fills with participants, some wearing traditional dance regalia, some wearing jeans and T-shirts. They are of all ages – an elder slowly shuffling in time to the drums, holding hands with his grandson; sisters in step with each other; military vets; college students – all dancing forward together.
“It’s a gathering to ring in the New Year and try to keep people sober and away from drugs, opioids, meth,” says Mark Denning, an educator, lecturer and consultant on Native culture who tonight is one of the emcees of the pow wow. “We want people of peace and happiness to come together, celebrate that joy that maybe this year will be different. We are coming off of the solstice, which is an important time for us.”
The celebration, like its host venue, focuses on Wisconsin’s 12 tribal nations and communities, along with visiting tribes from around the Midwest.
Denning, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, describes this culture as “economically and politically diverse – Republicans, Democrats, independents, everything in between. Our points of view are all over the board, just like other populations, but one thing we have is our culture and ethnicity of being Native. We identify with each other.” Something else Indigenous people identify with, Denning says, is having themselves and their struggles go unseen by society at large. The most recent difficulty: COVID-19, which hit Native communities hard, taking elders at a high rate. Denning says it was only at Native health centers like Ignace where the community’s vulnerability to COVID was treated like the health emergency it was.
“Being invisible in this culture is a very dangerous thing,” Denning says. He feels Indigenous people are ignored in other ways – after 32 years, the Indian Summer Festival was canceled in 2019, for example.
“Nobody sees us. Nobody talks about us, thinks about us. The one place I can think about now is the Milwaukee Public Museum. We’re in there with the dinosaurs,” Denning laughs wryly.
He’s describing something well understood in Native culture: a sense of erasure, of being viewed as some chapter of history that has closed. But that feeling of invisibility has inspired some projects that hope to put indigenous culture, past and present, back on the map.
ONE CLEARING-HOUSE for these projects is at Marquette University, where the relationship to Native culture has a fraught history.
Controversy surrounded the school’s Marquette Warriors sports nickname for decades. In the ’60s, the team had a cartoonishly racist mascot with a papier-mâché head named “Willie Wampum.” In the 1980s, Denning, as a Marquette student, portrayed the team’s mascot as the “First Warrior” – the thought being that moving from a cartoon to a real person would be more dignified. But after stereotypical racism followed him on court and off, Denning became an advocate for replacing Native mascots. Marquette rebranded as the Golden Eagles in the ’90s.
More recently, in October 2020, the Native American Student Association protested with a list of demands that included providing scholarships to Indigenous students, hiring staff for the Race, Ethnic and Indigenous Studies program, and changing Marquette’s seal, which features an image of the university’s namesake missionary leading a Native American paddling a canoe.
It’s in this context that Marquette created the Indigeneity Lab last summer, a faculty-mentored group of projects that focuses on researching and spotlighting Native history and issues. The lab’s purpose is to actively work against “the erasure of Milwaukee’s Indigenous population in the past, present, and for the future,” according to Bryan Rindfleisch, an associate professor at Marquette who teaches early American and Native American history.
Its programs include a study about the possibility of reintroducing wild rice, a sacred and precious food source for local Native residents, to the Menomonee Valley, where industrialization wiped it out. Another lab project is research into the once widespread boarding schools for Indigenous children; a third is the Indigenize Milwaukee interactive map.
For the latter, students in one of Rindfleisch’s honors classes researched the Indigenous roots of various Milwaukee landmarks and wrote essays that were adapted into map entries by undergraduates Cameron Fronczak and Clare Camblin.
The map (above) spans thousands of years of history. An entry on the statue of Solomon Juneau in the park that bears his name describes the importance of his wife, Josette Vieau Juneau, who was of Menominee descent and worked as an interpreter and mediator. A more contemporary entry memorializes the American Indian Movement, which fought for civil rights, honoring of treaties and better living conditions. Activists occupied an abandoned Milwaukee Coast Guard Station in 1971 in protest and established the first version of the Indian Community School there.
“[The map] helps contradict the narrative that Native Americans are disappearing entirely and that their history is disappearing along with it.”
“It’s very much a work in progress,” says Camblin, who is studying digital media and is a member of the Osage Nation Eagle Clan. There are many entries yet to be added, along with audio of interviews to give further context.
Camblin says the most interesting entries she put on the map were the mounds in Forest Home Cemetery and on the Congregation of the Great Spirit, a Catholic church on the South Side that incorporates Native American traditions, established on the winter solstice of 1989.
“We go to school on Native grounds; we’re so close to so many Native populations,” she says. “I know the students know this term ‘Marquette bubble,’ where you don’t know what goes on around you, so I think it’s important for the students to know.
For greater Milwaukee, it’s important to learn about your community and to be aware of the people here and how Milwaukee came to be, and the Indigenous population has a huge role in that.”
Fronczak, a computer science major of Cherokee descent, says working on the project opened his eyes to Native history in his environment. One day, on his daily run through Lake Park, he finally noticed “a little hill with a stone on top” – the Lake Park Mound, believed to have been created sometime between 300 B.C. and 400 A.D. “I had been running by it every day with no idea what it was, and it was an important monument by mound builders I hadn’t thought twice about.”
Camblin and Fronczak both hope to see new students take over and add to the framework that they’ve started. “It helps contradict the narrative that Native Americans are disappearing entirely and that their history is disappearing along with it,” Fronczak says.
Another project of the Indigeneity Lab is assistant professor Samantha Majhor’s research into the boarding schools, where Indigenous children were often sent far from their homes.
Last summer, the story broke that the remains of approximately 200 Indigenous children were found in unmarked, undocumented graves on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, which operated from 1890 to 1978. Survivors of the school say widespread abuse occurred there. Kamloops is just the tip of the iceberg, with hundreds more such graves being discovered at similar schools across Canada. It’s a grim reminder of the history of Indigenous boarding schools that were widespread in Canada and the U.S., including at least 11 in Wisconsin. These were institutional tools of erasure.
“The intention was to create non-Native people, to wipe out Native languages and beliefs,” says Majhor, who works in Marquette’s English department. “There was a loss of language, the insistence on becoming Christian, and the rejection of one’s own culture.”
ONE INSTITUTION working to reverse that erasure is the Indian Community School, which has approximately 370 Indigenous K-8 students, as well as a family resource center. The spectacular 15-year-old facility was designed by renowned architect Antoine Predock and Chris Cornelius, an architect and artist who grew up on the Oneida reservation in northeast Wisconsin. The building is one part of a campus in balanced harmony with nature, surrounded by forests, marsh and fields.
Inside, students are taught the Menominee, Ojibwe, Oneida and (added last year) Ho-Chunk languages to keep Native tongues alive for future generations. Other curriculum includes instruction about Native ceremonies, stories and culture. A recent schoolwide “Rock Your Mocs” art project had students create their own moccasins.
“You think about the things that were taken away [at boarding schools] and at this school we’re trying to bring back what was lost,” explains Cheryl Weber, the school’s dean of students. “We’ve been given an opportunity to teach the young ones, so they can go home and teach some of the things that their parents or grandparents have lost.”
“You don’t get this experience anywhere else,” says Sophia Danforth, an ICS alumna who has returned to the school as an Oneida language apprentice. “You learn about your culture, your heritage and where you come from.”
Weber says the school’s goal is to not just teach students their language and culture but also the balance of skills to find careers and opportunities in society in general. “Our staff members are committed to the goal and mission that this place is to assist the kids in every opportunity to be able to walk in two worlds, to know their cultural identity and spirituality but also to be successful wherever they end up,” Weber says.
The ICS’ board, seeking to expand its impact to those beyond the elementary level and beyond southeastern Wisconsin, created an endowment that in 2010 helped establish the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education at UW-Milwaukee. Named after the Wisconsin territory’s first public school teacher, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, the institute supports teacher training, conducts research and supports art and language revitalization efforts.
“One of the aims is to have more Indigenous people engaged at all levels of education,” says Margaret Noodin, the institute’s director, who studies and teaches lost languages, including the Anishinaabemowin her ancestors spoke. “But the other goal is to educate others … to help people understand [Native] history and cultural issues.”
Understanding not just the past but the present of Native American’s plight is essential, Denning says: “I think humanity needs to grapple with the changing face of our Native community.” It’s something he’s put a lot of thought into.
“I’m a member of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, a grand medicine lodge centered here in Wisconsin. This often comes up in our ceremonies, and I often wonder, when our ancestors look on us and see us – in the diversity of our faces, in our languages, our appearances and our clothes – what is it that they see? Will they recognize themselves?” Denning asks. He admits he’s still working to understand what that answer might be. “We are in a society that doesn’t see us, [but] we are following the teachings they have left us and we are giving them to the people who will carry them into the future. So, they will hear vestiges of the Ojibwe language that they spoke. They’ll hear us singing, they’ll see us, even though we have different clothes and faces.”