Imagine Madison as a tourist destination for Ho-Chunk history and culture in the same way America’s Southwest is synonymous with Navajo Nation.
That’s Dan Brown’s big vision, beginning with a history center where visitors could immerse themselves in exhibits and interactives, learn some of the tribe’s ancient language and hear unsanitized stories.
The project is something Brown’s been working on for years with city and state officials. It’s still far from completion, with no funding secured from the tribe and no opening date set. Right now, the work is essentially on hiatus while the state Department of Transportation redesigns the Beltline-Highway AB interchange, which will be key to tourists’ access to the proposed center.
Brown, who is executive manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, can see the project’s potential in sharing unvarnished stories. Like the ones he heard from his mom, who was sent as a young child to an off-reservation Indian boarding school in Wisconsin where she was beaten and hit for speaking Ho-Chunk.
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Some Madison residents may know that the Ho-Chunk were removed from the area four times. But they kept returning home. What was that journey like, Brown asks. How did they cross the Mississippi River? By canoe? Or waiting for the water to freeze over? How many died along the way?
“That is the level of detail I want — to really humanize the experience,” he said. “We want to be open about what’s happened in the past so we can forge a better path going forward. It’s certainly not to shame but to bring about the realities of what yesterday meant to the Ho-Chunk people.”
Tell me about your childhood and how you ended up here in Madison.
I grew up in Newcastle, Indiana. My dad used to say, “It’s not the end of the world but you can see it from there.” He wasn’t Ho-Chunk. My mom is full-blood Ho-Chunk. It wasn’t a huge part of my life but it did sort of give me celebrity status. Being Native was a novelty in Indiana because there’s such a dearth of them there. Only when I moved up to Wisconsin, where more Natives live, did I realize there’s some tension there. I’d never experienced any kind of law enforcement profiling or having suspicious eyes on me when I went into a store until I came here in 1993 to work for the Ho-Chunk tribe, first in Baraboo. I moved to Madison about 10 years later and was elected Ho-Chunk Nation vice president from 2007 to 2011.
You’ve been in charge of the casino since 2011. What have you done here that you’re particularly proud of?
In 2015, we went smoke-free. It was a big decision that I made after reading comment cards every week that said stuff like “Love your facility, your machines, but hate your smoke.” I consulted with my team and the millennials were all for it. Some of my older staff worried it would affect business. But since we’ve done it, business has been fine. We’re the top revenue-generating casino for Ho-Chunk Nation of the six Ho-Chunk casinos.
It was a business decision, first and foremost. But it was also for the health of my employees. They’re reporting fewer upper respiratory infections. I’ve saved on cleaning costs. Instead of changing out air filters monthly, now it’s about every three months. And I get calls from tribes considering making the same move. The Navajo Nation flew me down there to talk about it and I just read that they recently banned it.
Some Native Americans criticized UW-Madison earlier this month when it raised the Ho-Chunk Nation flag for the first time in university history for just a couple of hours, calling it a “PR stunt.“ I’ve heard from others who take issue with land acknowledgements. How do you view these types of gestures?
My response to those criticisms is, “Do you prefer to be invisible?” I understand the resentment. The pain is there. But if you sit in a corner and push back, you’re not going to get any cooperation from people. To me, it’s a start. How do you move the needle in a positive way? You’re definitely not going to get things done if you’re defiant and just pushing back, in my opinion. You don’t do that by insulting people who put themselves out there to do something good. So it’s a start. It’s incremental.
We don’t have the bandwidth to make things where they used to be. It will never happen. There’s only 7,800 people in our tribe. That’s why everything I try to do is based on collaboration and working together. We can’t force-feed these kinds of things. I think the land recognitions are well-meaning. I don’t go to these events thinking, “That it?” I say, “Thank you. We appreciate it.” To me, there’s a cumulative effect. It’s all about being out there, pounding the proverbial drum, telling our history.
How do you tell that history?
Every time I present, I say I don’t want you to feel badly. I never want to hear empathy or shame. I just want there to be a reality check. Everything Madison has built is on our bones. Not in an ugly way but I would like people to acknowledge it. We’re getting there, we’re getting that awareness. We’re opening their eyes through all of our efforts.
I imagine you hear a lot of misconceptions about Native Americans through your work.
I feel like for so long we’ve been an enigma. I don’t want the community to think of us as “that casino out there and I don’t know what they do.” We’re not “rich Indians.” We’re trying to maximize revenue for programs that help the tribe, like education, housing and elder care. It’s so important for us to be part of the larger community and our primary goal is to educate.
I’m used to presenting to adults but a school recently asked me to talk to students. I’ve been hesitant to do that in the past because I don’t want people to think I’m there to talk about casinos and try to “hook them” while they’re young or something. It’s not like that at all. It’s about our history.
How’d that first school presentation go?
I was nervous going into it. Are they going to fall asleep? Are they going to be on their phones? This was at McFarland High School, which has an inaugural Indigenous studies program with about 70 students. How cool is that? The students were amazing. They were so attentive and each of them wrote a thank-you note. Some of the personal messages were so heartwarming. Some said this is something I will never forget. They give me hope for tomorrow.
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