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Native to Wisconsin

With Podcast

Jul. 8, 2009
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There are two sides to every story. That adage couldn’t be truer than in a place like Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Both the city and the state’s names reflect the indigenous people who first called this land home. The history of American Indians in this area relies heavily on the written words of early European visitors to the Great Lakes. Many of these accounts contain a significant Eurocentric bias and are often inaccurate from the perspective of the tribal people. Patty Loew, member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and author of Native People of Wisconsin, explains that Native people recount history through storytelling, songs, beadwork, dance and cave paintings, mediums that nonnatives have found hard to translate.

According to Prehistoric Indians of Wisconsinby R.E. Ritzenthaler, the Menominee tribal people called the area Wiscooseh, “a good place in which to live.” As the land warmed after the glaciers melted and the lakes filled, the Native people began to shape copper and grow crops. Vegetable gardens were a dependable source of food and enabled Wisconsin Indians to stay in one place for a longer period of time. Larger, more permanent villages were built and the people began to live together in more populated, governed communities.

The land remained an aboriginal homeland until the summer of 1634, when the Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Potawatomi near present-day Green Bay saw a light-skinned visitor carrying gifts and “thunder sticks,” a Ho-Chunk description of a gun. According to Loew, Jean Nicolet first arrived as a representative of the French government on a mission to find a northwest passage to China and to stifle the fighting between the Ho-Chunk and the Odawa Nations, a conflict that was hampering French fur trade expansion into the western Great Lakes region.

The French objective in North America fell under the same colonial zeitgeist that had bewitched the likes of Britain, Portugal and Spain: the greater glory of said monarch and the pride of said nation, with the spirit of human adventure in the post-Renaissance world and, of course, a mercantilist philosophy. By the mid- 17th-century, Europeans had already begun to substantially change the lives of American Indians in North America. But that was just the beginning...

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