Ho-Chunk Nation Culture and History

Tribal Histories: Ho-Chunk History


“By the banks of the Lemonweir River in what for ages had been Ho-Chunk Nation territory, Andy Thundercloud shared the oral tradition of his people. In this 2015 interview, Thundercloud told of a traveling people who migrated across the land to become many different tribes, of the importance of maintaining the traditional language, and of the wonderful way of life he has known.”

Language Apprentice: Bringing Back the Ho-Chunk Language


Arlene Blackdeer, a language apprentice for the Hoocak Waaziija Haci Language Division of the Ho-Chunk Nation, shares her experience and community's effort to bring back and revitalize the Ho-Chunk language. This story is part of The Ways, an ongoing series on culture and language from Native communities around the central Great Lakes.

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“We have always been here” – The Ho-Chunk Nation 

The Hoocąk (Ho-Chunk) occupy the Teejop, Four Lakes, region and have for the past 12,000 years. Hoocąk pass down stories through oral tradition which refer to Mogasuc (Red Banks) near Green Bay, Wisconsin as the Tribe’s origin place. Hoocąk means “People of the Sacred Voice” (Wisconsin First Nations, 2017). The Hoocąk (Ho-Chunk), formerly called the Winnebago, are an indigenous Tribe located in present-day Wisconsin. Ho-Chunk language is an extremely important aspect of Ho-Chunk Culture. Its preservation is vital to the First Nation’s continued existence. Hoocąk is the parent language of more than 15 languages.

The Ho-Chunk Nation’s oral tradition states, “we have always been here,” and the First Nation will always be here (The Ho-Chunk Nation, 2020). The history of the Ho-Chunk Nation, “is not told in history books,” but spans beyond three ice ages (2020).

Ho-Chunk Nation is composed of twelve clans. The clans are grouped into two moieties, “those who are above” and “those who are on earth” (Milwaukee Public Museum, 2020). Those-who-are-above being: Waukanja (Thunder), Caxsep (Eagle), Manape (Hawk), and Recuge (Pigeon). Those-who-are -on-earth being: Huc (Bear), Cexji (Buffalo), Ca (Deer), Sukjak (Wolf), Huwa (Elk), Ho (Fish), Waukau (Snake), and Wakcexi (Water Spirit). The varying clans have different responsibilities and leadership roles in the Ho-Chunk Nation, such as governance, health and safety, and judicial affairs.Traditional village life for Hoocąk includes planting of large gardens to grow corn, beans, and other foods for livelihood. Long before this area became known as Wisconsin, Hoocąk traveled the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers to hunt, using dugout canoes and going far upriver until continuing on foot. The Hoocąk hunt game on nearby lands and fish from rivers close to villages. These harvesting practices continue to be essential for Ho-Chunk people today.

The Hoocąk made first contact with the French in the 1630s near present-day Green Bay and Fox River Valley. The Ho-Chunk people engaged in the trade of goods and fur with European settlers. The Indigenous People mainly sold fur and the colonizers provided manufactured goods and guns to Indigenous Nations. This was followed by a period of intermarriage with members of other indigenous tribes and Europeans. After Wisconsin became part of the United States, the Ho-Chunk Nation fought with the British against the US in the American Revolution. Ho-Chunk people resisted American settlement and continued to fight alongside the British in the War of 1812.

After the United States won the American Revolution and gained control of its new territory, large plots of Ho-Chunk land were ceded to the United States Federal government which was followed by a period of forceful removals starting in the 1820s. A series of treaties and the Black Hawk War of 1832 forced the Ho-Chunk people from their ancestral lands (Wisconsin Historical Society, 2015). Many were forcefully removed to reservations in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. However, the removals did not keep Ho-Chunk People from their land. Small bands of Ho-Chunk continually returned to Wisconsin despite the removals, eventually purchasing land in their ancestral home under the Homestead Act of 1862.

In 1934, the Indian Reorganization was implemented and the Hoocąk people began challenging the government to amend past removals and wrongs (Wisconsin Historical Society, 2015). In 1974 , the Ho-Chunk Nation won compensation for their ancestral lands lost through deceptive treaties with the United States Government (Wisconsin Historical Society, 2015). Despite decades of forced removals by the federal government, the Ho-Chunk Nation has reclaimed more than 2,000 acres of their traditional territorial land in present-day Wisconsin.

Today, Ho-Chunk Nation is a federally recognized sovereign nation. The Ho-Chunk government is comprised of four branches: executive, legislative, judicial, and general council (The Ho-Chunk Nation, 2020). The government system was set up and implemented to communicate with federal, state and local governments in the United States.

Today, the Ho-Chunk do not have a reservation in Wisconsin. Instead, the Hoocąk owns land in 14 counties in Wisconsin and some land in the northern part of Illinois (Wisconsin First Nations, 2017). In the northeastern part of present-day Nebraska, there is a Ho-Chunk reservation known as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. The Ho-Chunk Nation has persisted throughout decades of forceful removals, assimilation, and genocide. Ho-Chunk Nation continues to leverage its sovereignty and advocate for the revitalization of its language and culture.