Ho-Chunk Nation launches its first annual dugout canoe journey in Wisconsin
An unusual flotilla journeyed down waterways last week starting in Madison and ending 40 nautical miles away in the Rock River in Beloit.
It featured a hand-hewn dugout canoe, fashioned after those used by long-ago ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation, it marked the Nation's 1st Annual Dugout Canoe Journey.
The idea was born last November when a very old, very soggy dugout canoe was discovered in Lake Mendota in Madison.
It’s 1,200 years old and was crafted by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
Arvina Martin, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was a City of Madison alderperson at the time.
“I was an alder when they found the dugout canoe and was invited to come when they raised it, but had to work at another job during that time, and I was really, really disappointed to have missed it,” Martin says.
Martin was determined she would not miss last week’s paddle. Its centerpiece was a replica of the ancient canoe.
The Ho-Chunk’s Cultural Resources Division coordinated the creation of the three-foot-wide, 20-foot-long vessel made of cottonwood.
Its maiden voyage set off from where the ancient dugout was discovered. Martin lives close to the site.
"Seeing how close it was to my house and where I grew up, it was just really powerful and set off a lot emotions that I had not anticipated," Martin says.
Martin felt her ancestors and their legacy resonating in the space as never before.
Artist Chloris Lowe was there as a helper. “I was just on a kayak off to the side. We wanted as many people in and out of the canoe as we could during the weeklong canoe trip,” Lowe says.
The dugout holds up to five people at a time depending on their size.
Lowe says it was exciting to see people paddling and talking with clusters of onlookers who gathered along the route to find out what they were doing.
“It was wonderful to have them just asking questions about the Ho-Chunk Nation and just Native Americans in general,” Lowe says.
Lowe says his grandfather, now 94-years-old, has been his teacher.
“My grandfather is one of the first language speakers, and what that is, it's if you’re born with the language, and then you learn English as your second language,” Lowe explains.
Although Lowe’s grandfather’s life began with his native language, he was sent off to boarding school.
“He came back to the language until 25 or 30 years ago because he realized how important it was to try to carry it on,” Lowe adds. “He did not teach his children the language, so it was not passed on. So in that sense, sadly, the boarding schools that tried to eradicate the language worked pretty well. And so the Ho-Chunk Nation has made efforts into trying to reverse that.”
Lowe recently began teaching Ho-Chunk at UW-Madison.
“Last semester, we did our first real sort of on the books Ho-Chunk language class. And that went really well, and so that’s what started up this past semester and we’ll be continuing in the semesters to come, hopefully,” Lowe says.
Arvina Martin calls the five-day paddle a part of a larger reclamation of Ho-Chunk culture and a demonstration that it does not mean, for example, casinos.
“The government has tried over the years, over the centuries tried to eliminate us and we’re still here. An event like this is a powerful statement both for ourselves that we’re still here, and that we care about our culture and our origins and those that came before us,” Martin says.
Martin says descendants are doing their best to preserve Ho-Chunk ways. “We have this historical presence here, and it’s all over and it’s a part of the landscape,” she says.
The connection isn’t lost on Demetria Abangan-Browneagle. “I’m part of the Eagle Clan and I’m Ho-Chunk.
Her family used to live in Wisconsin, now they live in Oklahoma.
Last year Abangan-Browneagle started taking Ho-Chunk traditions classes online, “Plants that they used to eat and food, and stuff like that,” she explains.
Abangan-Browneagle also learned about the dugout canoe tribal members were crafting back in Wisconsin and about the paddle they were planning. “[They] talked about this dugout canoe that hey were working on; filled us in every single class that we had,” Abangan-Browneagle says.
Her dad wasn’t able to join in the flotilla, so her mom drove her all the way from Oklahoma so Abangan-Browneagle could.
“I mean, this is kind of what I’ve been telling everybody, but I’m telling this to everybody because it’s true. I mean, I feel like being Ho-Chunk is like special and it makes me feel special,” she says.
Abangan-Browneagle says she’ll be back for the second annual paddle next summer.
Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.