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A Closer Look

Indigenous Peoples Day

Remembering Our Past to Change the Future

Story by Teresa Nguyen

October, 2020

"Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle, praised the governor’s declaration saying that he appreciated Evers’ acknowledgment of the historical trauma that Native Americans have endured, as well as his call for student engagement. 

 Black Hawk - sketch by Teresa Nguyen
Long before we were here, long before Mr. Holmes, Mr. Janes and other first pioneers ventured up the Rock River to settle the town of Janesville, this meandering section of the beautiful Rock River, with its scenic overlooks, rocky bluffs, rolling hills and fertile land was an important Native American community.

The various tribes of this area once included the Menominee, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). They had been here for centuries, dating back almost 10,000 years. Many native artifacts, arrowheads and spearheads have been found in the Riverside Park area. Later the area would be home to other tribes, including the Sauk (sometimes Sac) and Meskwaki (Fox).
A Peaceful Existence on This Land

The Sauk tribe, originally a northern Great Lakes people, had good relations with the English and French through trading. Eventually they moved southwest into the Wisconsin and northern Illinois areas. The Sauk successfully farmed the area and would travel in winter, camping further south and across the Mississippi collecting fur-bearing animals. 
Peaceful Existence
1763 - The Sauk hunters sold their skinned catches and peltry to fur traders from the Great Lakes. These traders were mostly British.

In the spring, the Sauk gathered in sugar camps for maple sugaring, before returning to the village (left empty since the fall) to plant crops and bury their dead.

1767 - Black Hawk, whose native name was Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, meaning "be a large black hawk", was born in Saukenuk, Illinois (present-day Rock Island).

1780s - Most of the traders the Sauk made trade deals with were employees or contractors of the Canada-based North West Company.

This is how Black Hawk described his village of Saukenuk:
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The Rock River - photo by Pat Sparling Photography

“Our village was situated on the north side of Rock river, at the foot of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock river and the Mississippi. The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with blue-grass, which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out of the bluff, nearby, from which we were supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock river furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes. We always had plenty – our children never cried with hunger, nor our people were never in want. Here our village had stood for more than a hundred years.”

White Settlers and Enemy Tribes - Two Fronts of Aggression

1804 - In the Treaty of St. Louis, a group of Sauk and Meskwaki leaders sold their lands east of the Mississippi, from western/central Illinois northward into Wisconsin. But they discovered years later that they were tricked, through language in the treaty, into giving away more area than they believed they had agreed upon. The native leaders also did not have the authorization by their tribal councils to cede the lands, so the treaty became very controversial and eventually led to the initial 1831 conflicts of the Black Hawk War.

Two Front Aggression

By this time, the life and death struggles of the indigenous people were two-fold, with aggression from other native tribes as well as from the European settlers. Internal troubles came to a boil in the early 1800’s when the Sauk joined a loose coalition of tribes including Dakota, Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Meskwaki (Fox), along with the Shawnee, Cherokee and Choctaw from the Southeast. They attacked the tribes of the Illinois Confederation, invading their tribal areas. The "Illinois/Inoca" became their worst common enemies. 

1825 - The Treaty of Prairie du Chien established a treaty of peace among the tribes and demarcated boundaries between white settlers and the tribes.

1826 – By this time, only about 500 members of the Illinois Confederation remained. The tribal coalition warred for years until they destroyed the Illinois Confederation.

1830 - Though the French fur traders had traveled around the area and New England settlers began to trickle in, the Native tribes still lived peacefully in this Rock River valley territory. 

The United States Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Native American peoples to be uprooted, forced out of their homelands to make room for the new, white settlers.

Many tribes east of the Mississippi were forced onto reservations out in the wild plains, far from the woodland life and culture they knew.
The Black Hawk War

1832 - As more white settlers encroached on their land, The Black Hawk War soon followed. Black Hawk stated that his people were "forced into war by being deceived". Led by Black Hawk in 1832, the mainly Sauk band resisted the continued loss of lands (in western Illinois, this time.)

The war against the white military covered the disputed lands from the Quad City area of Illinois up through the Rock River valley into central Wisconsin and over to the Mississippi. Black Hawk and his followers became known as the "British Band" because they sometimes flew a British flag to defy claims of U.S. sovereignty.
The Black Hawk War

​In Black Hawk’s best seller biography, written posthumously at his dictation by Editor Patterson, he claimed that he did not intend bloodshed or war, but simply the use of physical force. The whites, however, understood his order as threatening their lives and so did the governor.

A mounted force of white soldiers, about 1,600 volunteers and ten companies of regulars under General E. P. Gaines responded and a number of battles broke out over that summer. Pursued by General Henry Atkinson's troops, Black Hawk continued northward. 


The last major battle occurred at Wisconsin Heights, what is now Sauk City. Outnumbered and sustaining heavy casualties, Black Hawk's warriors managed to delay the combined government forces long enough to allow the majority of the Sauk and Fox civilians in the group to escape across the Wisconsin River. 

The reprieve was temporary. The U.S. militia finally caught up with the fleeing band and massacred the escaping native tribes at the Bad Axe River where it meets the Mississippi.

On August 2nd, 1832, that final Battle of Bad Axe was fought at the mouth of the Bad Axe River where the larger part of Black Hawk's party, including many women and children, were ruthlessly destroyed or drowned. Of the 400–500 Sauk and Fox at Bad Axe, most were killed at the scene, others escaped across the river into enemy Sioux territory.

Forced Westward

In September of 1832 and again in 1833, the native tribes ceded all their lands in the Rock River valley areas. The United States forced the local, Native American tribes west and north onto reservations. 

Later they moved out on the prairie along the Mississippi and adopted the semi-sedentary lifestyle of Plains tribes. In addition to hunting buffalo, they lived in villages, raised crops, and actively traded with other tribes. The Sauk and allied eastern tribes had to compete with tribes who already occupied this territory. 

News of the Black Hawk War “victory” interested hundreds of eastern settlers who decided to move west and find land in Rock County. The new Janesville settlers of 1835 discovered remains of Indian tent poles and campfires, along what is now called Spring Brook, and named the area Black Hawk's Grove.
Forced Westward
Black Hawk's Grove in Janesville, WI
Indigenous Peoples Day
In the years that followed, one group of Sauk moved into Missouri, and later to Kansas and Nebraska. 

1869 - after the Civil War, the United States forced the larger group of Sauk to move onto a reservation in Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma). They merged with the Meskwaki as the federally recognized Sauk and Fox Nation.

Before his death, Black Hawk was quoted as saying, "I loved that Rock River valley, I loved my corn fields; I fought for them."

Indigenous Peoples Day

1990 - The controversy over celebrating Columbus Day became a political hot topic.

That year, the International Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, began to discuss replacing Columbus Day in the United States with a celebration to be known as Indigenous Peoples Day.

Over the years, the movement grew to celebrate indigenous people, rather than a white explorer’s mission to gain land and conquer the native people, claiming the land as suddenly “discovered”. An ever-growing number of states do not celebrate Columbus Day, many have proclamations celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day and South Dakota officially celebrates Native American Day instead. Various tribal governments in Oklahoma designate the day as "Native American Day".

2019 - Wisconsin's Governor Tony Evers unveiled and signed a new directive at Indian Community School in Franklin declaring the second Monday of each October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Wisconsin.

In the order, the governor recommits the state to promoting “the well-being and growth” of the state’s Native American communities, and encourages Wisconsin schools to use the day “as an opportunity to engage students across the state on the importance of Native American history, culture and tribal sovereignty.”

It did not specifically disavow Columbus Day, which has been a federal holiday in the U.S. since 1934. Evers said that the purpose of the order was to “recognize and appreciate” tribal nations.

Governor Evers stated, “Native Americans in Wisconsin and throughout our country have suffered unjust treatment - often at the hands of our government.
Indian Community School in Franklin, WI
And today is about recognizing that Wisconsin would not be all that it is without Indigenous people.” 

Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle, praised the governor’s declaration saying that he appreciated Evers’ acknowledgment of the historical trauma that Native Americans have endured, as well as his call for student engagement. WhiteEagle said he hopes the new day could help with “correcting the falsehood that Columbus discovered America,” and raise awareness of tribal history.

Awareness in Janesville

Native American, Billy Bob Grahn, grew up on the Bad River Reservation near Lake Superior and eventually settled in Janesville. His inspiring story shows us how one can rise above serious and deep, personal challenges to then help others out of their own problems. Billy Bob became very involved in the community and was elected in 2008 and again in 2012 to the Rock County Board of Supervisors. One of the things the supervisors have to do is to stand up and say a prayer or invocation at the start of the meeting.

Awareness in Janesville
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Billy Bob told the story, "It finally got to be my turn and I had the biggest fight with myself, 'Should I, or shouldn’t I?' So, I stood up and did the prayer and song in Ojibwe. I had explained the meaning of it to the group and felt welcomed. The next three or four times I did the same thing, staying true to myself.”

Billy Bob continues to teach about his culture and raise awareness through his volunteerism. He took time this year on Indigenous Day to visit students of Beloit Fresh Start YouthBuild AmeriCorps to teach them about his heritage and indigenous people.

Billy Bob Grahn
Beloit Fresh Start YouthBuild AmeriCorps
Billy Bob working with students in the Beloit Fresh Start program. Photo from Community Action, Inc.
Another way awareness is expanding in our area is through the Diversity Action Team. Santo and Jeanne Carfora were founding members of the organization and host what are called “Courageous Conversations” cosponsored by Diversity Action Team, YWCA and Community Action, Inc.. These meetings are usually held in Beloit at the Merrill Center or, more recently, via Zoom. 
Jeanne remarked in an interview earlier this year, “It’s a wonderfully diverse group of people, who are very open and honest. There’s a lot of growth to be made there. And Study Circles are also wonderful. DAT used to do these, bringing in a diverse population. It’s good to do this with the local businesses, too. It’s been interesting to me to hear feedback from people about it. They often feel they have woken up.”

Santo Carfora reflected on how these events give people “a chance to reflect on one’s biases, to look at themselves and to look at others through activities.” 
DAT stand against racism.jpg
Awareness through Art
He talked about how we have no control over our privilege, of how we were born. But we do have control over what we’ve been doing in our life. Santo and Jeanne have been working for many years, hoping to see the racial injustices changed. It is up to us to open our eyes to those who are different, to ethnic minorities, including indigenous peoples, to learn from them and to find ways to solve the disparities and injustices.
Awareness through Art

In 2019, artist Jeff Henriquez was brought to Janesville by Nigella Ryan to paint a meaningful mural in our downtown. Henriquez created the Black Hawk mural, honoring the Sauk leader. The colorful and amazing giant mural quickly became a favorite piece of our community’s public art. 

Following Jeff’s completion of the mural, a local, Native American ceremony was held at the site. Billy Bob Grahn led the drum circle as well as a ceremony following the second mural by Jeff Henriquez.
Jeanne and Santo Carfora (on right)
He commented on the Black Hawk mural, “I thought it was a huge breakthrough for Janesville to have this wall, so big and so prominent, without resistance, no one complained. It was a huge moment of faith in my own community.”
2020 - Jeff Henriquez returned to create another mural, depicting women of color, including a Native American woman. Jeff described the meaning behind the mural to Janesville Area Stories writer, Tess, in an interview, 

“I feel that women of color, especially indigenous women, are rarely seen. How many times do you see a portrait of an indigenous woman? They are too often ignored. I want to give them a prominent place, a chance to be recognized, to be respected.
This is a way I can do that, to bring them into the conversation and make the mural thought provoking.”
Janesville, Wisconsin's Black Hawk mural by Jeff Henriquez
Photo by Kim Hoholek
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 Diversity and Women's History mural by Jeff Henriquez - Janesville, WI
Photo by Kim Hoholek
Moving Forward
Although we cannot easily erase the pain of past hostility and aggression against the area’s indigenous peoples with public art, ceremonies and special holidays, each one of these steps is at least a step toward progress in healing and restoring relations. 

Awareness leads to learning and learning leads to empathy. Empathy then leads to action. Each act creates change one step at a time.
May we strive to show respect and honor toward all races and restore dignity to those who lived and roamed this land long before we laid eyes on her beauty.
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