American Indians in Wisconsin
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The American Indian population in Wisconsin dates back centuries. Their
presence in this state predates Wisconsin statehood and the majority of the
population who came during that time. Evidence suggests that the early
peoples of Wisconsin arrived about 10,000 years ago1.
Archaeologists have found many clues of the past lives of the Native peoples
in this region through excavation of sites all across the state. Effigy
mounds, mounds in the shape of animals, have been found as burial sites for
the early Wisconsin inhabitants2. The building of mounds ended
many centuries ago, however, archaeologists believe that the Ho-Chunk tribe
where responsible for building these mounds3. The Mississippian
culture was also a significant era in the history of the early populations in
Wisconsin over 1,000 years ago. In Wisconsin, these people are called Oneota4.
They lived in villages and planted gardens to grow crops such as corn, beans
and squash5. They had a complex trade network which extended to
both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts6. Pre-European contact, the
American Indians lived throughout the area where Wisconsin is today. They
lived off the land, farming, hunting and gathering maintaining strong family
ties and cultural traditions within their respective tribes. They have a rich
cultural heritage that is been passed down from generation to generation by
tribal elders. The presence of European settlers drastically altered their
way of life.
The American Indian population in Wisconsin first saw White settlers with
the arrival of French and English fur traders. The first was French trader
Jean Nicolet and the missionary Marquette near the Red Banks in 16347.
During this time, fur was the main focus and these individuals worked with
the American Indians to achieve their objective for over 150 years8.
However, this changed when settlers came to Wisconsin. The American
government was established and the population continued to increase. They
began to expand west to make room for the incoming settlers, without regard
to the lives of American Indians.
In 1804, the government forced the Sauk and Fox tribes to cede their land
claims in Southern Wisconsin in a treaty they had not agreed to9.
These actions lead to the Black Hawk War of 1832. The largest American Indian
population in Wisconsin, the Menominee, was pressured to sell away 11,600
square miles along the lower Fox River10. The Treaty of Prairie du
Chien of 1825 was significant in the history of American Indians in
Wisconsin, post-European settlement. The treaty was facilitated by the United
States government to end the inter-tribal warfare that was disrupting the fur
trade and creating tensions between settlers and the tribes11. The
tension between tribes was created because the United States government had
used them against each other to gain more lands12. The Treaty of
Prairie du Chien established a treaty of peace among the tribes and
demarcated boundaries between settlers and American Indians13.
By 1971, most of the American Indians had been placed on reservations and
the government discontinued their use of treaties14. The
government moved their focus to de-indianizing this population, creating
schools that attempted to rid this population of their cultural traditions
and way of life by breaking tribal ties and molding them into the image of
white settlers15. However, before this time, between 1887 and
1934, the federal government aimed to mainstream Native Americans through the
policies of assimilation and allotment16. Some of the schools
included, Menominee Boarding School at Keshena, Oneida Boarding School at
Oneida, Lac du Flambeau Boarding School at Lac du Flambeau, and Tomah
Industrial School at Tomah17.
American Indians represent diverse nations of people who flourished in
North America for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. The
Menominee, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) peoples
are among the original inhabitants of Wisconsin. The American Indian
population is heterogeneous and their histories differ based on tribal
affiliation. Contemporarily, these groups have tribal councils, or
governments, which provide leadership to the tribe. American Indians continue
to maintain a strong presence in Wisconsin, and traditional beliefs and
practices remain prominent in American Indian culture. As with all groups,
there are differences in social, economic, and geographic conditions in
American Indian communities that affect health status and access to care.
In their attempt to assimilate the Native population, Congress passed the
General Allotment Act of 1887, or the Dawes Act. The Dawes act changed the
ownership of tribal lands to individual ownership of eighty acre parcels. The
extra land was sold to whites to expose the American Indian population to
mainstream society. Many tribes had lost even more of their land, the Ojibwe,
for example had lost more than forty percent of their homelands to this Act18.
In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA)19.
This reversed the federal government's Dawes Act. The IRA encouraged tribes to
form tribal governments, draft constitutions, and provided political bodies
that could assert their sovereign rights20.
In the 1950s, critics began to gain ground in their opposition to this Act
and argued to dismantle the reservation system and free the government from
the cost of protecting American Indians and their property21. The
House Concurrent Resolution 108 created goals of "termination and
relocation", which was intended to move these populations from rural
reservations to urban areas through job training programs and housing
assistance22. Most Wisconsin Indians who opted for this received one-way bus tickets to Chicago, Milwaukee, or St. Paul23. This
termination policy ended the federal recognition of more than fifty tribal
governments, including the Menominee, who were one of the first tribes to
undergo termination24. Termination brought disastrous effects to
this tribe, but with the help of a grassroots activist group, Determination of
Rights and Unity for Menominee Shareholders (DRUMS), the Menominee were able
to restore their status by 197525.
In 1987, Wisconsin instituted a referendum that approved the
creation of the state lottery and additionally, providing Wisconsin tribes
the right to establish casino gambling26. Many tribes created
casinos as an opportunity to bring economic benefits to reservation
communities, including the Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Mohican, and Potawatomi27.
For more than a century, Wisconsin tribes have fought to maintain their
sovereignty and self-determination in the face of federal policies of
assimilation, allotment, and termination. In the last generation the tribes'
legal status has been clearly defined, their traditional treaty rights
guaranteed, and their economic base boosted by gaming and tourism28.
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Last Revised: May 18, 2012