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UW-Madison flies Ho-Chunk flag atop Bascom Hall while grappling with its 'land-grab' history
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UW-Madison flies Ho-Chunk flag atop Bascom Hall while grappling with its 'land-grab' history

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Friday felt historic to UW-Madison senior Paige Skenandore. It also felt long overdue.

A little after 10:30 a.m., UW-Madison raised the Ho-Chunk Nation flag above Bascom Hall, marking the first time that the university flew another nation’s flag with the U.S. flag and state flag.

“I think this is a great first step,” said Skenandore, who grew up on a reservation in northern Wisconsin and is one of roughly 100 Native American students on campus. “It’s been a long time coming. It’s kind of shocking that it hasn’t happened before.”

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Members of the Sanford WhiteEagle Legion Post 556 color guard display the flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation during a flag-raising ceremony on Bascom Hill Friday. It's the first time another nation's flag has been flown atop the central administration building of UW-Madison.

Brenda Neff, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who attended the flag-raising, never imagined such a welcoming event from the university whose land is the ancestral home of her tribe. She said she’d like to see the flag flying atop Bascom every day.

Ho-Chunk Nation Chief Clayton Winneshiek told attendees the flag-raising was “a start.”

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Members of the Sanford WhiteEagle Legion Post 556 hold the flags during Friday's ceremony.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the flag-raising is more than a symbolic gesture but part of an ongoing commitment to educate and acknowledge the state’s tribes and their sovereignty.

“For many years, UW–Madison was not mindful of this history, and we paid little attention to our relationship with the descendants of those who were here long before us,” she told a crowd of at least a couple hundred. “But we are working to change that.”

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The flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation is displayed with the U.S. flag and state flag atop Bascom Hall.

Ignorance to awareness

Almost 190 years ago, the U.S. government and Ho-Chunk Nation signed the Treaty of 1832, which forced the tribe to cede, or give up, territory that includes the UW-Madison campus. The Ho-Chunk had lived in this area for some 12,000 years.

The treaty arose after the Black Hawk War, a conflict that came about when the Sauk, another tribe, attempted to reoccupy their homelands that were near Ho-Chunk land. The U.S. won the war, which had spilled over into Ho-Chunk territory and even though the Ho-Chunk were largely decentralized and did not take part in the conflict, the government forced the tribe to cede some of its land, according to UW-Madison history Professor Stephen Kantrowitz.

“If there is significant bloodshed on (the Ho-Chunk’s) territory, the U.S. will use that to extract concessions in the form of land, and that’s exactly what happens,” said Kantrowitz, who teaches in the Afro-American Studies and American Indian Studies departments. “They terrorized that treaty out of the delegation.”

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Ho-Chunk Nation vice president Karena Thundercloud prepares to deliver remarks during a flag-raising ceremony on Bascom Hill. She told the crowd that the beginning of the animal and fur trading era led to the occupation of the Ho-Chunk territory. "Treaties, bound in blood but negotiated in bad faith."

The 1832 treaty was supposed to provide the Ho-Chunk with $10,000 a year for 27 years, but Kantrowitz said the government used the threat of withholding yearly payments to coerce the tribe into signing more treaties, including the Treaty of 1837, which ceded all remaining Ho-Chunk land.

In 2019, UW-Madison dedicated a new sign on Bascom Hill that recognizes the campus as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk tribe. Blank said the marker would begin to move the campus “from ignorance to awareness.”

‘Land-grab university’

UW-Madison’s ties to Native American land go beyond the Ho-Chunk nation.

President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 signed the Morrill Act, which gave states public land on the condition that the land be sold or used for profit and the proceeds be used to establish at least one agricultural college.

High Country News, a media outlet that covers the American West, drew attention to this arrangement and specifically to how land taken from tribal nations was turned into a source of funding for 52 land-grant universities, including UW-Madison.

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Ho-Chunk Nation member Joseph WhiteEagle carries an eagle staff.

Titled “Land-grab universities,” the story that was published last year traced more than 99% of the Morrill Act acres to its original Indigenous inhabitants and found the U.S. took almost 11 million acres of land from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities, often through coercion or violence, and turned it into endowments for universities that continue to generate profits.

“Chances are you have heard land acknowledgements recited at many of these universities, formal statements that recognize the Indigenous peoples who formerly possessed the lands those colleges now stand on,” the story said. “What many of these statements miss is that land-grant universities were built not just on Indigenous land, but with Indigenous land.”

Wisconsin received 235,530 acres from the Morrill Act, all of which was located in the northern half of the state and obtained through treaties with the Menominee and the Ojibwe, according to the report’s findings. The U.S. government paid a total of $12,449 for the land and Wisconsin was able to sell all but 40 acres for $303,439 by 1912.

Tribal map

Documents from the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, the state agency responsible for managing revenue from the Morrill Act lands, largely confirm the numbers cited in the report. The board’s executive secretary, Tom German, said money from the land sales was put into a fund to benefit the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. Over the past five years, the fund has paid out an average of $10,811 annually, documents show.

After the Wisconsin State Journal this summer began asking UW-Madison questions about how the college spends this money, university officials did their own research and found the money has been held in a University of Wisconsin System fund for more than two decades, UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said. Staff were unable to determine why that change occurred.

UW-Madison invests far more than $10,811 annually in supporting Native students, McGlone said, but the university recognizes the symbolic and practical value of the money and is open to ideas on how it could be allocated.

Unheard, unwelcome

For decades, thousands of UW-Madison students navigated the campus with little awareness of the state’s Indigenous history — an omission UW-Madison tribal relations director Aaron Bird Bear said was intentional.

“The organizing principle and goal of all settler colonial societies is replacement,” he said. “The settler colonial education model is one that does its best to obscure the Indigeneity of any place.”

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Ho-Chunk Nation member Joseph WhiteEagle carries an eagle staff during the flag-raising ceremony.

On a campus as large as UW-Madison, where Native students number in the dozens, they can often feel unsafe, unheard and unwelcome.

“A lot of Native students have a lot of trauma both from home and from campus and it makes navigating classroom spaces 1,000 times more difficult,” said fifth-year senior Giselle Monette, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa from North Dakota.

A freshman orientation exercise, for example, was deeply unsettling for Monette when the question of whether it was appropriate to dress as a Native American for Halloween came up. Most students said they had no issue with it. She tried explaining to the group why it was problematic but said a staff member shut down the discussion instead of helping her educate students about cultural competency.

“A lot of time it’s me alone or me with a few other Native students advocating and defending to a much larger group of people,” she said. “It’s never an equal fight.”

Skenandore has felt the same way, remembering a class exercise one day when someone in her group asked when she had become a U.S. citizen. Congress extended U.S. citizenship to all Native people including those born on reservations almost a century ago.

“That was a hard one,” she said. “That will live with me forever.”

Education efforts

UW-Madison is attempting to engage in a course correction, trying to educate students about the uncomfortable truths behind the state and university’s history.

James Flores, an Oneida tribal nation member who works as a UW-Madison admissions counselor, appreciates the push to promote awareness.

“When it comes to the Indigenous presence in this country, I think the United States is in a perpetual state of historical amnesia,” he said. “We have to continuously reassert ourselves into the historical narrative. If we are acknowledging this historical narrative, there has to be a commitment to action.”

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The flags of the United States and the Ho-Chunk Nation are displayed during the flag-raising ceremony.

Recent efforts to educate the campus about its past include the formation of an Indigenous language revitalization group, the creation of a series of classes for incoming freshmen that focus on Native land use and food systems and the launch of a working group called “Native Nations UW” that has held listening sessions with tribes across Wisconsin. The university hired a full-time tribal relations director, a part-time Indigenous education coordinator and two positions directly serving Indigenous students.

More initiatives are underway, such as an Indigenous research center and a public history project.

“I do think the university is taking good first steps, whether it may be a few decades or century late,” Skenandore, a member of the Oneida Nation, said. “These are all small baby steps. It’s good but considering the history and everything Indigenous people have experienced, it’s hard to close that gap.”

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison executive director Dan Brown struck a slightly more optimistic note. He saw the flag-raising as a “fantastic step” for the community to understand Ho-Chunk people as the original inhabitants of the region.

“It’s been a long time with us being invisible,” he said.

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