Acknowledging Wisconsin’s Native Histories

Portrait of Omar Poler

Some may not know that the University of Wisconsin-Madison sits on native Ho-Chunk land. The Ho-Chunk Nation is one of 11 federally recognized American Indian Nations in the state of Wisconsin. For millennia the area which is now the city of Madison was called Dejope and was a significant cultural and governmental center for Ho-Chunk people.  Today, individuals like Omar Poler are working to bring Madison’s American Indian history in higher relief, encouraging all to reckon with a painful history. Poler works as an Outreach Specialist for the Information School and as an American Indian Curriculum Services Coordinator for the School of Education. Between these two jobs Poler works on teaching, researching, archiving, and communicating Native American history.

You participated in the 2015 Wisconsin Idea Seminar, not only as a participant, but as a speaker as well. What has stuck with you from that experience?  The Wisconsin Idea Seminar was maybe my best learning experience at UW-Madison. Over our week together, it was amazing––and humbling––to be generously welcomed into communities across the state to learn about their success, challenges, and priorities. I came away feeling even more connected to Wisconsin. But, for me, it also raised questions of our personal and institutional responsibilities. If we can agree that we haven’t perfected the Wisconsin Idea, how can we more completely incorporate it into our work and institutional structure? The Seminar wasn’t just a learning opportunity with wonderful colleagues from across campus, it was a challenge to be more meaningfully engaged with the world around us.A poster in a library describing children's literacy is in Ojibwe

The 2018 Wisconsin Idea Seminar is heading north to the shores of Lake Superior. We understand that your family roots are in the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, near Mole Lake, and that northern Wisconsin has special meaning for you. Are there aspects of northern Wisconsin that our 2018 Seminar participants should be particularly attentive to? Yes, I have family in Mole Lake and near Rhinelander, although I grew up mostly in La Crosse. And I have connections to communities across northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, and northern Minnesota. My hope is that the 2018 participants see the beauty and complexity of northern Wisconsin––that they come away seeing a complicated, rich, culturally diverse place with many different communities and histories. For instance, there are six sovereign Ojibwe nations in northern Wisconsin alone, not to mention the Forest County Potawatomi, Menominee Nation, and Stockbridge-Munsee Community. By more fully recognizing the knowledges, histories, struggles, successes, and dreams of the communities of northern Wisconsin, both Native and non-Native, we all grow.

Tell us a little bit about your work with Convening Culture Keepers. As an Outreach Specialist at the Information School, I’ve been working with regional tribal librarians, archivists, and museum curators for about 10 years. We’ve partnered with many First Nations communities in Wisconsin through a service-learning class I teach and a series of professional development gatherings called Convening Great Lakes Culture Keepers. We went from only supporting the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s effort to open a new cultural center to regularly bringing together Culture Keepers together from across the region. It’s been amazing.

A fire pit outside Dejope Hall is dedicated to the sovereign American Indian Nations in Wisconsin. Photo by Mara Matovich.

How has archiving in Native communities changed over the years and where do you envision it going in the future? My dad was involved in a tribal archives project for our community in the late-1970s. When I was an undergrad at UW, I used that archive to research our history. Today, Native communities are still in the process of recovering their histories from non-tribal archives and government repositories. Along with recovery, there’s important work being done to reconceptualize archives so they better reflect Indigenous epistemologies. Indigenous knowledge has just begun to complicate and enrich archival theory and practice.

What is the current status and hope for the new educational Native American heritage sites across Madison? I have a part-time position as American Indian Curriculum Services Coordinator at the School of Education. In that role, I’m helping develop campus and city signage so that our community can better understand the deep human history here at Dejope [meaning Four Lakes, the Ho-Chunk name for the Madison area]. People have lived here for at least 12,000 years! The Committee on Native American Campus Signage has drafted a plaque that attempts to succinctly acknowledge the challenging history of our campus. Ho-Chunk people have lived here since time immemorial, but, following the Treaty of 1832, were forcibly removed by our state and federal governments. Ethnic cleansing took place here. The Ho-Chunk story of resistance and love for land is perhaps our state’s most powerful story, but almost nobody knows it. As a community, we still have some hard truths to acknowledge. Our hope is that by sharing some of these stories, we can move toward a better future.

How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work? For me, to be meaningful, learning must meet a community need. In my Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums class, for instance, we structure our learning around service-learning partnerships with tribal cultural institutions. For our Convening Great Lakes Culture Keepers continuing education project, learning is tied to the actual development of a co-curated traveling exhibition. Our project-based learning hopes to, in small ways, change the world for the better while providing more transformative learning experience for our students.  To me, that’s the Wisconsin Idea. It’s a responsibility to use education’s power to make the world better. That’s inspiring.

Who or what inspires you? I’m inspired by the intelligence, humor, humility, generosity, patience, compassion, wisdom, and commitment of my family, friends, students, and colleagues. I’ve had many great teachers.

Omar Poler earned his B.A. in History and M.A. in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.