Native Americans have lived here since the retreat of the last ice sheet, and the Ho-Chunk Nation continues to thrive on Maa Wákącąk, or Sacred Earth.
The place name Sauk Prairie draws from the Sauk people, who were present for a comparatively brief half-century between the 1730s and the 1780s. They lived in a large village at the site of Sauk City when a British-American adventurer named Jonathan Carver visited them and placed their name on his map. The name stuck but not much else of the Sauk.
The people who lived on the land named for the Sauk for as long as they can remember and who continue to live here today are the Ho-Chunk. They were preceded by the Woodland people who left their mark on the land in the form of effigy mounds throughout the southern half of Wisconsin, with several hundred in Sauk County.
When French explorers arrived in Wisconsin in the 1600s they called the Ho-Chunk people who met them the Winnebago. The misnomer remained in use until 1993 when the Wisconsin members of the nation chose to return to their traditional name. The Ho-Chunk depended on the resources of their land—its water, earth, plants and animals—to live well. They farmed, fished, gathered, and hunted to meet their needs within sustainable limits
Contact with fur traders upset their traditional culture and occupation by Euro-Americans and new immigrants forced them into exile. The 1837 Treaty of Washington decreed that the Ho-Chunk leave their homes in Wisconsin for reservations west of the Mississippi. Many of them, led by Chief Wakajazi (Yellow Thunder), refused to live in exile. Even though they were hunted, captured and forced to leave their homes at least nine times between 1840 and 1870, they returned, and some managed to never leave. Occupying the least desirable parts of central Wisconsin, they were eventually able to make their way within the dominant White culture. They were present when Badger Ordnance came to the prairie. Some of them helped build it and made propellant there. And many, in the Ho-Chunk warrior tradition, served in the armed forces that were supported by Badger.
When the Army decommissioned the plant, the Ho-Chunk Nation called for the return of a portion of it. After 16 years of delay and a special act of Congress the Nation took control of 1,550 acres of the prairie in 2015, today called Maa Wákącąk (Sacred Earth). It was announced as the first instance where the United State Army returned land to an indigenous people. After 180 years, the United States once again recognized the Nation’s title to land on what should perhaps be called the Ho-Chunk Prairie.
Today the Ho-Chunk are returning Maa Wákącąk to the native state in which they had to leave it in the late 1830s, primarily in the way they had managed it for generations—with fire. They have planted some to native prairie just west of the bike trail, and they monitor the effects of their management on the rare grassland wildlife that benefits. The site is once again a place for tribal cultural events and for renewing connections with this sacred land and its history. It is off limits to the general public without special permission, except on the Great Sauk Trail, which the Nation helped fund.
The plant’s former, brick fire station, serves as the local Ho-Chunk office and home to the Little Eagle Arts Foundation (LEAF), which preserves and promotes American Indian art and culture “by cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit of American Indian/First Nations artists in order to achieve success and promote a cycle of economic security.”
On the remains of a concrete structure associated with a fueling and weighing station of the former Badger railway, hangs a colorful mural of hand-made ceramic tiles titled “Earth, Sky, Water.” Organized and installed by LEAF, the community-created public artwork celebrates this diverse, creative community, to be shared with all who travel the Great Sauk Trail.
For more information, check out these links:
Little Eagle Arts Foundation: