A Wisconsin Idea Adventure: Part 1

I’m a born and bred Minnesotan. I’ve lived there almost my whole life. Sometimes, that can make working for Wisconsin institutions like Sea Grant and the University of Wisconsin-Madison challenging. While I am technically a UW-Madison employee, I live in Duluth, Minnesota, and my office is just across the border in Superior, Wisconsin. Although I’ve worked for Wisconsin Sea Grant 10 years, I’m not as steeped in my workplace’s culture and geography as I am in my home state’s.

Marie Zhuikov. Image credit: John Steffl.

This can lead to some interesting mistakes. One happened a few months ago when a co-worker said they grew up on Wisconsin’s Fox River. I only knew the part of the Fox that connects to Green Bay so, in the story I was writing at the time, I put that person’s birthplace near Green Bay. I was chagrined to learn she actually grew up near Oshkosh on a branch of the river 50 miles away from where I originally placed her.

I hate making mistakes in my stories. Even if it’s just during a draft. So, when I saw an announcement for the Wisconsin Idea Seminar in the UW employee newsletter, I jumped at the chance to apply.

The seminar is an annual five-day immersive study tour of Wisconsin culture and geography for UW-Madison faculty and staff. It’s designed so that participants:

  • Gain a deeper knowledge of the cultural, educational, industrial, social and political realities of Wisconsin
  • Learn firsthand about the social and cultural contexts that shape the lives of many UW students
  • See and experience the university’s connections to the state
  • Understand the public service mission of the university
  • Nurture an increased mutual understanding between the university and the people of Wisconsin

What this looks like in real life is about 40 people on a big red Bucky Badger bus riding around the state, talking to seminar participants and non-participants, diving into activities and drinking in the landscape. The theme this year was Forest + River, which was right up my alley as a water research storyteller who is also a Wisconsin geographically challenged person.

This post focuses on just one of our experiences during the seminar’s first day. I plan to write another post later about the rest of the trip and a visit to the Green Bay Packaging Plant, which makes recycled paper used in boxes. (Read Part 2 here.)

The Wisconsin Idea tour bus. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant


Our experience began on the Madison campus with a walking tour of Ho-Chunk sites. Amid a cacophony of spring birdsong, Bill Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, took us to several effigy mounds. These are ancient burial mounds formed in the shape of animals — birds, in the case of the two that we viewed.

Bill Quackenbush. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

The Madison campus is home to more of these ancient earthen monuments than any other university or college campus anywhere in North America, and probably the world. There are 38 burial mounds. At least 14 others have been lost to development. They are several thousand years old, perhaps as ancient as Egypt’s pyramids.

I learned something new right off the bat, mainly that there is a goose-shaped effigy mound right outside the Sea Grant office in Goodnight Hall. Granted, I don’t work on campus, but you’d think I would have heard something about that during my career here! Quackenbush said a Ho-Chunk village used to be where the office building is now located on the shores of Lake Mendota.

He explained how the Ho-Chunk are working to reclaim their culture. “These earth works are one small example of a portion of our life. We are no different today then we were back then. We humans like to take care of not only our babies and our children, but also our ancestors,” Quackenbush said.

He criticized a stone marker on the mound not only for disturbing the site but for the text on it, which gives the impression that the mound is a thing of the past. “It isn’t a thing of the past at all,” Quackenbush said. “This is ever-present. It’s living and it’s here. Our ancestors are buried in this ground. They’re living, breathing things to us like that tree over there. Their bones have probably returned to the earth by now, but it’s the ground that is sacred to us.

Goodnight Hall, the home of Wisconsin Sea Grant on the UW-Madison campus. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

“However, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. There’s a lot of good things that have come from protecting these mounds,” Quackenbush added.

The mound site was designated on the National Register of Historic Places a few years ago. The University is working to restore an oak savannah that used to exist there.

A short walk took us to the Ho-Chunk Clan Circle, a series of 12 metal sculptures that was dedicated earlier this year. Each depicts a clan symbol. Quackenbush said the circle represents the Ho-Chunk people as a whole.

Fittingly to my Sea Grant employment, I found myself standing near the Water Spirit sculpture. Quackenbush said the tribe was involved in the process of creating the circle and that the sculpture offers opportunities for him to meet and speak with more groups such as the Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants. He explained the various clan roles and how they fit into the tribe’s governmental system.

Next, the group was able to view a dugout canoe that Quackenbush built with the help of Ho-Chunk youth. They built it in much the same style as the ancient canoes that were recently discovered in Lake Mendota.

The Ho-Chunk goose effigy burial mound near the Sea Grant office. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

“This canoe doesn’t look very exciting, but the journey it’s been on is,” Quackenbush said. “When I saw that the historical society discovered the dugout canoes in the lake behind you as I was drinking my cup of coffee, it shot out of my nostrils! It was amazing to me because we had aspirations of putting one of them together.”

Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants tour the Ho-Chunk Clan Circle. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

He worked with Dane County to find a suitable cottonwood tree that was going to be removed for a trail project. The county delivered the tree to a youth education center, which is where Quackenbush and the students worked on it. Everything came together and, like the clan circle, the canoe is a great educational discussion piece.

Amy Rosebrough, interim Wisconsin state archeologist, joined us and described how the historic dugout canoes were found. She also detailed the significance of the new canoe. “These lakes remember. With the canoes, they’re telling the story of the Ho-Chunk presence here.”

Her office’s goal has been to work with Quackenbush and other partners to keep that story alive, “…To let people know that when they’re out there fishing, this isn’t something new. This is something that’s been going on for thousands of thousands of years. It’s not just the mounds, it’s this whole landscape. And to have Bill and his team come through with this new dugout, that was a wonderful thing – to sort of bring that back,” Rosebrough said.

Our visit ended with a Ho-Chunk drum ceremony by the Iron Mound Singers. Listening to them was like hearing the heartbeat of the Earth. That is definitely not something I get to do every day in my job as a science writer. As we walked back to the bus to head to Portage and Appleton, I felt privileged to learn more about Ho-Chunk culture and the history of the land where the university stands.

Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants view a dugout canoe recently made by Quackenbush and Ho-Chunk youth. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

The Iron Mound Singers drum for Wisconsin Idea Seminar participants. Image credit: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant