Ho-Chunk Nation: The Spirit of Madison

Ho-Chunk entrance
Photo by Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison

Since the hunter-and-gatherer days of our tribe, we of the Ho-Chunk Nation, formerly known as Winnebago, have strongly believed in connection. Our ancestors inhabited the Madison area around 11,000 years ago, holding it for safekeeping as stewards of the land to take from it only as needed. Though the connection we have to the land still very much exists, the connection we have to the people of Madison has grown alongside the city itself.

The Ho-Chunk Nation’s tribal enrollment now numbers over 7,000. Through efforts to keep the tribe strong, we’ve been afforded unique opportunities that put us in a position to strengthen our participation in local communities while representing ourselves as Ho-Chunk. To spur economic growth in Madison, we’ve spent a lot of time and money on expansion and development that stays true to the spiritual and cultural meaning of our hallowed land and the enduring ecofriendly spirit of Madison.

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison is evolving to create and maintain a destination district that connects to the surrounding areas. We see our facility as a way to enhance the cultural relationships between the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Greater Madison area. Our new design will emphasize collaboration and sustainability, green spaces for active and healthy lifestyles, and our heritage as Ho-Chunk.

There are many benefits in developing a facility like this for both Ho-Chunk Nation and the Madison area, not least of which is enhancing cross-cultural connections. Emphasis will be on interactive technology, with artifacts and diverse, constantly changing, hands-on programming becoming a center for the community.

This would be a heritage center versus a museum for the Dejope (Four Lakes) region. The hope is to enhance the Greater Madison tourism market while highlighting the aboriginal people, history of the Ho-Chunk, the long-standing history of the effigy mounds, and the beautiful landscape that is Madison. In fact, the effigy mounds left by our ancestors often overlook major rivers, streams, lakes, and large wetlands. They were built to represent our ancestors’ worldviews and religious beliefs. We want our facility to educate the local and touring public about the origins of the mounds and the region.

Local interest through community outreach and relationship development has identified potential opportunities. Collaboration among public and private entities is critical in making this project successful in maximizing the regional economic benefits anticipated to result from the coordinated effort in developing this district. Feasibility study recommendations include developing a dynamic, interactive space with exhibition area, a flexible Great Room, artist studios, an art gallery, and educational programming spaces in addition to high-quality outdoor programming space.

Ho-Chunk cultural tourism also reflects both historical and physical geography. The Dejope region’s natural environment is an important tourism resource. Ecotourism demand is a result of both interest as well as tourist demand, and is a beneficial and sustainable industry. The effigy mounds are Madison’s niche experience. They along with the four lakes afford an ecotourism opportunity. Its noteworthy draw is appealing for anthropologists and archaeologists, as thousands of years of history is still here to share and interpret. Environmental sustainability, healthy development patterns, multimodal infrastructure, and engagement with the natural world is key. It’s truly an opportunity to educate sustainability through the multifaceted interactions of humans and the natural environments, teaching that a resource can be put to human use without threatening its ability to replenish on its own.

Photograph provided by Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison

Bringing more tourism to Madison is a great start, and we do a lot to help keep that money in the city. We provide 288 good-paying jobs—our annual payroll is over $12 million. We support the buy local movement. Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison donates over $680,000 annually to local organizations. And we support the university, with Ho-Chunk Nation pledging $650,000 annually to support Badger Sports.

And I can’t stress enough how important connection is to us. When we donate to an organization, we dig into it and see how our values align. We want to be a member, and work together to make a difference. Our time and money go to inspirational events, medical research, hospice care facilities, education, downtown enrichment, the arts, farm-to-table initiatives, public health, and other organizations. Sustain Dane is one we’re especially proud to be a part of, as it calls back to how the tribe had survived for thousands of years. Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison Leadership participate in over 26 Madison region boards, committees, and roundtables. We can’t always give to everyone, but when we do, we want to make it count.

Ho-Chunk is a spiritual name meaning “people of the sacred voice.” A lot of effort has gone into making sure Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison accurately reflects Ho-Chunk Nation. We work hard as businesspeople and are experienced in what we’re doing. Every decision, business and otherwise, represents Ho-Chunk and instills the spirit of that voice. We’re very proud of that and insist on being a part of the conversations involving political, environmental, social, and economic decisions. Our extended Madison community means too much to us to allow any voice to be silenced or unheard.

It’s no secret that our history had some dark moments. In 1849, the federal government began a series of forcible removals. The Ho-Chunk were round up and put onto boxcars, moving them from Wisconsin territory to Iowa, then Minnesota, and still later into South Dakota and, finally, Nebraska. The Ho-Chunk continued to return on foot to Wisconsin to live as refugees in their former homelands. In 1875, those in Wisconsin were allowed to settle on lands that were not wanted and are the only tribe in Wisconsin for whom no reservation was ever formally established.

We’re still growing from that past, employing ourselves to bring back a sustainable ecosystem. Having the unique status of a nonreservation Indian Nation, the Ho-Chunk is allowed to purchase land throughout its original homeland and request the Bureau of Indian Affairs put the land in trust status for the purpose of gaming. It’s because of this status we’ve been able to revive and contribute to our communities as the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Through everything we do, we demonstrate the Ho-Chunk way of life, our goodwill, and our sincerity in devotion to social responsibility concerning our homeland and its residents. From the effigy mounds to our traditions, the history of Ho-Chunk is also the history of Madison. It’s heartwarming that we get to welcome all people to our land of origin.

Missy Tracy is the municipal relations coordinator at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison and a tribal member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Missy has served on the board for the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling since 2009 in addition to serving on five local boards in the Madison community.