Story and interviews by Teresa Nguyen
Long before Wisconsin became a state, for thousands of years, the dugout canoe was an important means of water transportation for the Indigenous people who called this very land “home”.
A few years ago, the Ho-Chunk Nation received two felled cottonwood trees from Dane County. Tribal leaders brought their youth together to help create a hand-hewn dugout canoe, fashioned after those used by long-ago ancestors.
After its completion, organizers planned their first annual, week-long canoe journey to teach the culture and history of the Ho-Chunk Nation to future generations and to the rest of the local community.
In a stroke of serendipity, as the canoe was being made, a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was uncovered at the bottom of Lake Mendota.
It was found by Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen, while on a recreational dive in June of 2021.
The Wisconsin Historical Society recovered the well-preserved wooden vessel, along with Ho-Chunk leaders. The canoe was likely made by the Effigy Mound builders, the ancestors of the modern Ho-Chunk Nation.
Read a Smithsonian article about this discovery:
Watch a Wisconsin Historical Society video about the Lake Mendota 1,200-year-old canoe:
In June of 2022, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s dugout canoe journey started out on the shores of Lake Mendota at the location of where the ancient dugout canoe was found. The journey continued through various areas of Dane County, the “Four Waters” then down the Rock River all the way to Beloit.
Ho-Chunk Nation Public Information Officer Casey Brown said that this type of journey may seem unique, but it was not a unique journey at all pre-colonialism. It is important for all folks of the Native community because, as Casey noted, “We are all of this area, we are all Madison, we are all Dejope, we are all Rock River.”
Janesville Area Stories writer, Teresa Nguyen, and local photographer, Kim Hoholek, met up with the canoeing team as they reached the shores of Preservation Park in Beloit, nearing the end of their journey down the Rock River. Tess interviewed Casey Brown, as well as participating Native, Sunshine Bear and her children, who were learning the ways of their ancestors through this experience. The interviews give us a behind the scenes look at what went into the trip and what it meant to those taking the journey.
Ho-Chunk Public Relations Officer
As far as my background goes, I’m from Black River Falls, Wisconsin and my father grew up there, as well. It is our tribal capital. He was the head of our Department of Natural Resources for a long time.
Bill Quackenbush, our Ho-Chunk Tribal Heritage Preservation Division Manager, had worked in that department, so I’ve known him a long time, as well.
I attended school in Black River Falls, Kindergarten through12th grade. Unknowingly, I grew up in out in nature, out in the woods with my dad. He had always been interested in mounds, did surveys of the mounds, mapped them and researched them with ground penetrating radar to see what was underneath. It took me until I was in college to realize that I grew up surrounded by this culture and nature and that not everyone grew up like this, so involved.
My first real job was with the Ho-Chunk Nation as a youth worker, doing work for the tribe. It’s been a part of my life since I was a kid and now, here I am, the Public Relations Officer. When people ask, though, about my position, I can literally say I’ve been with the organization since birth!
The Ho Chunk were all throughout Wisconsin to south of Chicago, up to the Twin Cities area and up to Green Bay, which was our place of origin in Wisconsin. Waterways were the initial highways. We’ve had village sites up and down the states along these rivers.
All the mounds that you see around these river communities were there way before our time. In order to make a mound, you have to not be wanting for food, shelter, water…they take a long time to build. The rivers were our lifeblood.
The Dugout Canoe
The idea started because Dane County had two cottonwood trees to cut down. They asked Bill Quackenbush, with our Ho-Chunk Nation Heritage Preservation Department, if he would want the trees to use for whatever he wished. He said, “Sure”, and then we decided to create the dugout canoe.
It took a couple of years, all through COVID. But we had a lot of help from Ho-Chunk youth and Ho-Chunk members and gradually completed the canoe. We carved and burned the wood in the traditional Native way, as much as possible. Bill was very involved in that. Traditionally, pitch is put on the wood to preserve it, as well. It was challenging hand labor to carve it all out.
We decided we should take it back to the Four Waters. We had a week-long journey in the canoe, five days, starting out in Madison at Lake Mendota. We hit all Four Waters (four lakes), as the Dejope call it, and have been making our way all the way down here on the Rock River. We will end today, the last leg of our trip, at Ke-Chunk Village (The Native name for the village of Turtle). At that site we will have a program to end the journey and celebrate.
The canoe is limited in space, but the trip had been open the entire time to those wishing to participate, so anyone and everyone was welcome to join in the journey. We found opportunities for people to come and experience the canoe ride, even for short distances, if they wanted to.
We have been very accepted on this journey by others and by all of our hosts. We’ve had a couple of events in the Four Lakes area. In Waunakee, we had a wonderful send-off where we had our first ceremony with tribal elders and a traditional prayer for the journey. They had open arms, they gifted us and we gifted them.
A Cultural Education
One key part of this journey was to involve the Ho-Chuck youth and to create an educational experience. It’s a holistic kind of learning as we’re hitting on culture, history, language and geography. It’s very Native-like view because that’s a traditional way of seeing the world. We don’t compartmentalize these things.
When we do this journey and we’re going through these sites, it’s like, “Yeah, your ancestors were here, this is where we come from.” It’s also our resources and taking a look at the land. All of this is intrinsic of who we are as a people.
We’ve had a variety of youth, some who have not even been in a canoe, so that was a big step for them. It’s been interesting for them to learn how this has been happening for thousands of years with our ancestors.
We’ve also been interacting with people in the municipalities along these water ways and those who are trying to preserve lakes and rivers. We’ve been teaching those who are interested in our history, as well, and we have been open to anyone just curious about the canoe.
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer
I am Ho-Chunk, of Nebraska. I live in the village of Winnebago, Nebraska. When the Ho-Chunk Nation’s removal started in 1830, we were moved about 11 times. Our people ended up in Crow Creek, South Dakota. When we escaped Crow Creek to save ourselves, we ended up in Nebraska, on the Omaha Nation’s area. Our numbers, by then, were very low, as the Ho-Chunk Nation. Some of us stayed there, and some returned back east, to the woodland homelands, over the years.
In my work, we keep track of the lands, the waters, cultural preservation, we check who’s digging, and monitor the grave sites. We also offer cultural and heritage tourism, especially to the state's citizens, plus operate tribal museums, archives, and research departments.
I also work on the Native American Graves Repatriation Act - bringing things home from other museums and working through legal loopholes to try and return our belongings to our tribe. Some of the items are then buried appropriately, with Native ceremonies.
Bill Quackenbush was one of my mentors when I took on my job. We had to attend meetings together for land issues, cultural preservation issues and such. He was always someone I could reach out to. We invite each other to various Native events in each of our areas, because our tribe was historically divided, separated by colonization and removals by the US government. Even today, they have us labeled as two separate people, the Ho-Chunk and the Winnebago, even though we are all of the same tribe and one people. We only live in different places.
Teaching the Youth
The invitation to participate in the canoe journey came at short notice, so I was unable to bring my students here. But I brought my children and my grandson, so they have been paddling on this journey.
It was a really healing experience for us, allowing us to reconnect with our ancestors. It is an awesome opportunity and we’re really glad to have done this.
They are learning a lot and that’s what we want. It’s how we are going to preserve our culture. The more they know, the more it stays with our people.
Our cultural preservation will depend on our youth, so it’s important that they learn as much as they can.
The Next Generation
Eva (age 16)
I didn’t have to be convinced to come up here. I wanted to be a part of this journey and to have the opportunity to be in the canoe. I got to canoe across one of the Madison lakes.
It was good to see where we came from before we were moved. I really like it here, it’s really beautiful in Wisconsin.
Jesse (age 17)
The river was calm when I was on it. It was nice and peaceful and pretty fun, actually, being out there.
We had water for us to drink on the boat and rags we could use to cool ourselves off on the hot days.
Malcolm (age 6)
I’m in second grade. I am a little afraid to be out on the water, but I will be trying it soon.
Grandma teaches me about our people and I’m learning our Native language in a class back home.
Watch an NBC 15 News report about this amazing, educational and historic canoe journey:
In September of 2022, another ancient dugout canoe was discovered in Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. It was tested to be around 3,000 years old, the oldest found in the Great Lakes Region! The vessel was carved from a single piece of white oak, measuring 14.5 feet in length.
Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen discovered this canoe, as she did the first one, during a recreational dive in May of 2022. Following the discovery, discussions of removal began with Wisconsin’s Native Nations. Members from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe attended the canoe recovery.
This particular canoe was found in the same area where the first canoe was discovered. Archeologists have suggested that this could reveal that Lake Mendota’s shoreline may have changed over time and perhaps was much lower then.
The 3,000-year-old canoe reveals a more complete story of Native life in Wisconsin, its culture and longevity of the Native people in the Great Lakes region.
Read a Wisconsin Historical Society article about the discovery of the second canoe:
To learn more about the Ho-Chunk Nation, visit: https://ho-chunknation.com/about/
To learn more about the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) of Nebraska: http://www.winnebagotribe.com/