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New UW-Madison plaque recognizes ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk

A new plaque on UW-Madison's Bascom Hill recognizes the land as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk tribe. University chancellor Rebecca Blank and Ho-Chunk Nation leaders dedicated the marker in a ceremony last week.

Recognition of an often forgotten or glossed-over part of Wisconsin history is at the heart of a new sign on UW-Madison’s campus.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank, surrounded by about three dozen members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, dedicated a new heritage marker on Bascom Hill last week that recognizes the campus as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk tribe.

Bearing both the Great Seal of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the university’s seal, the plaque recounts how the tribe was forced to give up the territory in 1832 and that both the federal and state governments tried unsuccessfully to force the tribe out of Wisconsin. The sign goes on to say that UW-Madison recognizes the Ho-Chunk Nation’s sovereignty as well as the sovereignty of the other 11 tribes that reside in the state.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a university announcement that the marker will “start a conversation that moves us from ignorance to awareness.”

At UW-Madison, seven out of 10 undergraduate students are white, and Native Americans number in the dozens.

Aaron Bird Bear, an assistant dean at the School of Education who previously worked for nearly a decade as the university’s American Indian Student Academic Services Coordinator, said the vast majority of students and faculty know little to nothing about the longtime Native American presence in the Madison area.

The marker, he said, will make the “deep human story of this place more visible to everyone on campus.”

“People know 1848 forward,” he said, referring to the year Wisconsin became a state. “We have evidence of people living on this lakeshore 12,000 years earlier. This sign is trying to illuminate the full depth of humanity of what is arguably the most archaeologically rich campus of any in the United States.”

Bird Bear said he has long been advocating for the type of acknowledgment the plaque provides, and he credits Blank for taking the lead on tribal relations.

While serving on the search committee that led to Blank’s hire, he noticed a long list of people and groups the chancellor is expected to work with, such as lawmakers and business leaders. Absent from the list, he said, were state tribal leaders.

After Blank was selected, Bird Bear said she called search committee members and he remembers her asking him about the state’s tribes in a 2013 phone call.

And in 2015, the university launched a leadership summit that includes representatives from the 12 Nations. It was the first time elected tribal leaders were specifically requested to come to campus and meet with leadership — more than 165 years after the state’s founding, Bird Bear said.

Campus climate

Just three years ago, people shouted stereotypical “war cry sounds” from a dorm room at a Ho-Chunk elder for a campus healing ceremony.

Bird Bear said the university periodically has episodes, such as the one in 2016, because prejudice is a learned and shared behavior.

Acknowledgments like the new marker will help make campus more inviting, Bird Bear said.

Research also suggests recognition of tribal sovereignty leads to higher retention rates among Native American students, he said.

Officials point to a variety of initiatives in place to improve the campus climate for Native Americans, including:

  • An Elders-in-Residence program bringing tribal leaders and educators to campus;
  • A cultural responsiveness training held for faculty, staff and administrators with more trainings planned;
  • Four new Native American faculty members with three more in the works;
  • Admissions staff regularly visiting high schools with large Native American populations in Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota;
  • Precollege programs for tribal youth.
  • The plaque will be incorporated into campus tours and into the “Our Wisconsin” inclusion program, which is offered to all students living in residence halls to inform them about cultural differences.

Different units across campus will display the new marker titled “Our Shared Future” over the next academic year. The marker will return to its permanent spot on Bascom Hill in the fall of 2020.

“A plaque is a nice gesture, but it’s really just a support for the actions that need to happen,” Ho-Chunk Nation President Wilfrid Cleveland said in the university announcement. “The past cannot be changed, so the important part is how we continue our relationship in the future.”

The university’s first director of tribal relations will be tasked with maintaining those relationships. Officials intend for the employee to start work sometime this fall.

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Kelly Meyerhofer covers higher education for the Wisconsin State Journal. She can be reached at 608-252-6106 or kmeyerhofer@madison.com.