Published on April 23, 2012 by Amy
The Ho-Chunk, also known as Winnebago, are a tribe of Native Americans, native to what is now Wisconsin and Illinois. There are two federally recognized Ho-Chunk tribes, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
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The term “Winnebago” originally came from an exonym, that is, a name given to the people by the neighboring Algonquian-speaking tribes, such as the Fox, Sauk, and Ojibway (Ojibwe/Chippewa). Various spellings exist, reflecting the French and English colonists’ attempts to record transliterations of the Algonquian words. These include: “Winnebago, Wiinibiigoo, Wuinebagoes, Ouinepegi, Ouinipegouek, and Winipeg”. This name has been variously translated as, “people of the stinking water,” “people of the filthy water” “people of the stagnant water” and “people of the smelly waters.”
The Algonquian words do not have the negative overtones attached to the French word puant and the English word “stinky.” The French translated and shortened the name to simply les puants (or les puans), which was translated into English as “the Stinkards.” Many researchers believe that the waters referred to were either stagnant waters of Green Bay or the aromatic, algae-filled waters of the rivers or lakes where the Winnebago were living in the mid-17th century. The earliest reports indicate that both the French explorers and the First Nations people understood the name to refer to their place of origin, not where they were living at the time of European encounter. They had migrated from earlier territories. While the names Lac des Puans (for Lake Michigan on a map from 1650) and Le Baye des Puans (on later maps) led some historians to conclude these referred to the condition of the waters, early records of both bodies reported them as clear and fresh. The waters were named after the American Indian people then living on their shores.
Historians say the Algonquian terms referred to salt-water seas, which do have a distinctive aroma compared with fresh-water lakes. An early Jesuit record says that the name refers to Le Puans origin near the salt water seas to the north. Algonquians also called them “the people of the sea.” (A Native people who lived on the shores of Hudson Bay were called by the same name.) When Jean Nicolet and Samuel de Champlain learned of the “sea” connection to the tribe’s name, they were optimistic that it meant Le puans were from or had lived near the Pacific Ocean, and that there was a nearby possible connection to China.
In recent studies, ethnologists say that the Winnebago, like the other Siouan-speaking peoples, originated or coalesced on the east coast of North America. The early 20th-century researcher H.R. Holand said they originated in Mexico, where they had contact with the Spanish and gained a knowledge of horses. He cites the records of Jonathan Carver, who lived with the Winnebago in 1766-1768. But, contact with the Spanish could have occurred along the Gulf of Mexico or the south Atlantic coast. Others suggested that the Winnebago originated in salt water areas, to explain how mid-western tribes had a knowledge of the Pacific Ocean, where the earth ends and the sun “sets into the sea.” The Ho-Chunk say that their people have always lived in what is now the north central United States. Linguistic and ethnographic studies have generated other deep histories of the various American Indian peoples.
Ho-Chunk is the tribe’s name for itself, or autonym. It also has had numerous spelling variations, Hocak, Hotanke, Houchugarra, Hotcangara, Ochungaraw, Ochungarah, Hochungra Hochungara, and Ochangara. Translations include: “the fish eaters,” “the trout people,” “the big fish people”, “the big speech people,” “the people of the big voice,” “the people of the parent speech”, and “the people of the original language.” Current elders say it means, “the people of the big voice” or “the people of the sacred language.”
The written history of the Ho-Chunk begins with the records made from the reports of Jean Nicolet, who in 1634 was the first European to establish contact with this people. At that time the Winnebago/Ho-Chunk occupied the area around Green Bay in Wisconsin, reaching beyond Lake Winnebago to the Wisconsin River and to the Rock River in Illinois. The tribe traditionally practiced corn agriculture in addition to hunting. They were not advanced in agriculture. Living on Green Bay, they fished, collected wild rice, gathered sugar from maple trees, and hunted game.
Although their Siouan language indicates either contact or common origin with the other peoples of this language group, the oral traditions of the Ho-Chunk speak of no other homeland other than what is now large portions of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. These traditions suggest that they were a very populous people and the dominant group in Wisconsin in the century before Nicolet’s visit. While their language was Siouan, their culture was similar to the Algonquian peoples. Current elders suggest that their pre-history is connected to the mound builders of the region. The oral history also indicates that in the mid-16th century, the influx of Ojibwa peoples in the northern portion of their range caused some movement to the south. They had some friction with the Illiniwek, as well as a division of the people: the Chiwere group (Iowa, Missouri, Ponca, and Oto tribes) moved west because the reduced range made it difficult for such a large population to be sustained.
Nicolet reported a gathering of approximately 5,000 warriors as the Ho-Chunk entertained him. Historians estimate that the population in 1634 may have ranged from 8,000 to more than 20,000. Between that time and the first return of French trappers and traders in the late 1650s, the population was reduced drastically, with some reporting it dropped below a total of only 500 people. The result was the Ho-Chunk’s loss of dominance in the region. Numerous Algonquian tribes migrated west to escape the problems caused by the powerful Iroquois tribes’ aggressiveness in the Beaver Wars.
The reasons given by historians for the reduction in population vary, but they agree on three major causes: the loss of several hundred warriors in a storm on a lake in the course of a military effort. One account says this took place on Lake Michigan after the warriors had repulsed the first attack by Potawatomi from what is now Door County, Wisconsin. Another says the number was 600. Another says it was 500 lost in a storm on Lake Winnebago during a failed campaign against the Meskwaki, while still another says it was in a battle against the Sauk. Even with such a serious loss of warriors, the historian R. David Edmunds notes that it was not enough to cause the near decimation of the whole people; he suggests two additional causes. The Winnebago apparently suffered from a widespread disease, perhaps an epidemic of one of the European infectious diseases, such as smallpox. (Ho-Chunk accounts said the victims turned yellow, which is not a trait of smallpox). Historians have rated disease as the major reason for the losses in American Indian populations. Historic accounts say that many of the Ho-Chunk’s traditional enemies, the Illinois, came to help the tribe at their time of suffering and famine, aggravated by the loss of so many hunters. The Winnebago reportedly attacked the Illinois and ate the dead. Enraged, Illinois warriors retaliated and killed nearly all the Winnebago.
After peace was established between the French and Iroquois in 1701, many of the Algonquian peoples returned to their homelands. The Ho-Chunk were relieved of the pressure on their territory. After 1741, while some remained in the Green Bay area, most returned inland. From a low of perhaps less than 500, the population of the people gradually recovered, aided by intermarriage with neighboring tribes and with some of the French traders and trappers. A count from 1736 gives a population of 700. In 1806, they numbered 2,900 or more. A census in 1846 reported 4,400, but in 1848 the number given is only 2,500. Like other American Indian tribes, the Ho-Chunk suffered great losses during the smallpox epidemics of 1757-58 and 1836; in the 19th-century epidemic, they lost nearly one-quarter of their population. Today the total population of the Ho-Chunk people is about 12,000.
Through a series of forced moves imposed by the U.S. government in the 19th century, the tribe was relocated to reservations increasingly further west: in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and finally Nebraska. Through the period of forced relocations, many tribe members returned to previous homes, especially in Wisconsin, despite the US Army’s repeated roundups and removals. The U.S. government finally allowed the Wisconsin Winnebago to homestead land in the state, where they have achieved federal recognition as a tribe. The Ho-Chunk in Nebraska have gained independent federal recognition as a tribe and have a reservation in Thurston County.
Waukon and Decorah, county seats of Allamakee and Winneshiek County, Iowa, respectively, were named after the 19th-century Ho-Chunk chief Waukon Decorah.