Aaron Bird Bear MS’10 says the new Our Shared Future heritage marker on Bascom Hill helps recognize the inherent sovereignty of indigenous nations, what he calls “the big fundamental.”
“It is why Native nations are still here,” says Bird Bear, the UW–Madison assistant dean for student diversity programs. “If our ancestors weren’t as brilliant and resilient as they were to maintain our sovereignty despite the United States’ incredibly violent colonization of this continent, we would not be here as people,” he says.
On June 18, 2019, the University of Wisconsin–Madison added the marker to the Bascom Hill Historic District. The text on the dark-plated plaque, which stands on the south side of Bascom Hill, took 10 drafts and more than a year to create. The 80 words engraved on the marker are a step toward recognizing the truth of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s historical roots and the ethnic cleansing that occurred in southern Wisconsin, says Bird Bear.
“The University of Wisconsin–Madison occupies ancestral Ho-Chunk land, a place their nation has called Teejop (day-JOPE) since time immemorial,” the sign reads. “Today, UW–Madison respects the inherent sovereignty of the Ho-Chunk Nation, along with the eleven other First Nations of Wisconsin.”
“Sovereignty is really the root of our success,” says Bird Bear.
This marker, Bird Bear explains, is meant to interrupt visitors’ knowledge and awareness of this space at UW–Madison, to remind readers of what happened before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and to emphasize that the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk Nation is one of the great harms done by the U.S. government. The Ho-Chunk had cultivated land in the Great Lakes region for 12,000 years. In 1837, the nation signed a treaty ceding the last of its 10 million acres of territory. They resisted removal for 40 years, but eventually the entirety of southern Wisconsin was taken from them.
“Every U.S. citizen who wakes up every day in Madison or Dane County … they are actualizing their treaty rights as U.S. citizens,” says Bird Bear. “The treaty is not a historical document. It is a living and breathing document that we all enjoy as U.S. citizens living here on Ho-Chunk ancestral land.”
The new plaque is one of the first official markers recognizing the people of the Ho-Chunk Nation in and around Madison. Dane County has 1,200 Ho-Chunk cultural reminders in conical, linear, and effigy mounds, several of which are located on campus, including a cultural expression called the double-tailed water spirit on Observatory Hill. This effigy mound is the only one of its kind and is a national registered historical monument. However, there is little to no formal recognition in Madison or on campus of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
Bird Bear explains that Madison has several markers recognizing Chief Blackhawk, a leader of the Sauk People, including Blackhawk Middle School, Blackhawk Country Club, and three Blackhawk markers: one on campus, one at Monona Terrace, and one on King Street. Blackhawk, however, lived much of his life near what’s now Rock Island, Illinois.
“It’s puzzling to me as an Indigenous person why one would focus on a leader a few hundred miles south of us,” says Bird Bear. “We’ve got Blackhawk fever, but we don't explain who the Ho-Chunk are anywhere in town.” Bird Bear is also not Ho-Chunk, but rather a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, a people from the central plains.
Bird Bear and his colleague Omar Poler ’07, MA’10 — who works with the American Indian Curriculum Services at UW–Madison and is a lead on the heritage marker project — collaborated with leaders of the Ho-Chunk Nation in what is called “decolonizing methodologies” to help create the plaque. These methods include three tenets: space for privacy, space for grieving, and opportunity for constant negotiation.
The first draft of the plaque, for instance, was meant to be translated into the Ho-Chunk language. However, after presenting it to the Ho-Chunk language division, Bird Bear was told it couldn’t be done — the language did not work the same as English, and the Ho-Chunk representatives weren’t sure how to translate the chosen words.
“They reminded us that giving your fully formed ideas is not collaboration,” Bird Bear says. “So we asked, how would you do this? Instead of our administrative bureaucratic process, we said we are going to follow your ways of being.”
Today, there is a dedicated research team — the Dejope Community History Project — made up of nine Ho-Chunk members and two non-Ho-Chunk members. The group hopes to find the best ways to move forward with truth and recognition. Its members strive to learn more about how the Ho-Chunk conceptually view water, why the Ho-Chunk have such a strong connection to this land, and the values of love and respect.
Bird Bear stresses the marker is only a first step toward truth; only further actions signify real commitment to the concept of a shared future.
“We want to inform and educate the public about how special this place is from a perspective we’ve never heard before,” he says.