Ho-Chunk / Winnebago

The Ho-chunk Indians, formerly called the Winnebago, are members of a Siouan-speaking tribe who were established in Wisconsin at the time of French contact in the 1630s.

The oral traditions of the tribe, particularly the Thunderbird clan, state that the Ho-chunk originated at the Red Banks on Green Bay.

Native Name: Bāwa’tigōwininiwŭg, means ‘people of the big voice’

Common Name: Winnebago, an Algonkin word meaning “People of the Bad Water” or “People of the Filthy Water.”

Home Territories: Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and eventually Nebraska

Language: Siouan-Catawban => Chiwere-Winnebago => Winnebago  (a.k.a. Hocák, Hochunk, Hochank, Hocangara, Hotcangara, Hochangara)

Alliances: Chippewa, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Kickapoo and Mascoutens

Enemies: Fox and Potawatomi

Other tribal traditions relate how tribes such as the Quapaw, Missouri, Iowa, Oto, Omaha, and Ponca were once part of the Ho-chunk, but these other tribes continued to move farther west while the Ho-chunk stayed in Wisconsin.

The Ho-chunk call themselves “Ho-chungra,” which means “people of the parent speech,” or “people of the Big Voice.”

There are two federally recognized Ho-Chunk tribes, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

A quarter of their population was wiped out due to Smallpox in 1836.

The Ho-chunk signed a total of six treaties with the United States.

Historical and linguistic evidence supports these oral traditions, particularly for the Missouri, Iowa, and Oto tribes.

The English name “Winnebago” is derived from an Algonkian word meaning “people of the dirty water,” and is thought to refer to Wisconsin’s Fox River and Lake Winnebago, which are fouled by the bodies of dead fish in the summer.

There are a number of theories regarding the origins of the ancestors of the Ho-chunk.

One early theory suggests that they migrated into the Midwest from the eastern seaboard. According to this theory, they migrated west along the Ohio River, and the branch that became the Ho-chunk moved north into Wisconsin between A.D. 800 and 1200.

Other scholars have hypothesized that the tribe migrated from the lower Mississippi River valley and arrived in Wisconsin during the 1500s, shortly before contact with the French.

Some have also asserted that the ancestors of the Ho-chunk built the large, earthen effigy mounds which were common in various parts of Wisconsin, but there is no conclusive evidence for this yet.

Hochunk Subsistence and Seasonality

In contrast to their Wisconsin neighbors the Menominee and Potawatomi, the Ho-chunk relied more on agricultural products for subsistence.

They planted large gardens and stored dried corn, beans, and other products in fiber bags and in pits dug in the ground for winter use.

Using dugout canoes, they also travelled up the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to hunt, caching their canoes as far upriver as possible before proceeding on foot. The Ho-chunk also crossed the Mississippi to reach the prairies to hunt buffalo. Large and small game were also hunted closer to the villages.

Nearby rivers and lakes were also extensively fished.

Ho-Chunk Settlement Pattern, Social Organization, and Kinship

Traditionally, the Ho-chunk lived in a single large village or a few large villages in the Lake Winnebago area, building substantial rectangular houses.

From these, the people made forays out to other parts of their territory for hunting and gathering specific resources.

At time of contact with Europeans, the Ho-chunk were said to have been organized in twelve patrilineal clans divided into two moieties, but there is some speculation that the patrilineal system was an outgrowth of the fur trade period and that before contact they were matrilineal.

Given their strong dependence on agricultural products and the labor of women in producing those products, matrilineal descent for an earlier period is certainly a possibility.

If this is the case, the Ho-chunk may have adapted local Algonkian patrilineal models of descent once they became more dependent on hunting and fur trapping following contact with Europeans.

The moiety of the sky clans (“those who are above”) was comprised of the Thunder, Eagle, Hawk, and Pigeon clans; the earth or ground moiety (“those who are below”) included the Bear, Wolf, Water Spirit, Buffalo, Deer, Elk, Fish, and Snake clans.

Both clans and moieties were exogamous, and different leadership roles and functions were in some sense dictated by the moieties.

For some roles, the Thunder and Bear clans were especially important.

The clans also provided names from a set of names considered appropriate for that clan, and structured specific types of obligations and behaviors, taboos, and duties to the tribe.

For instance, the Hawk clan was important in warfare and determined whether captives taken in war would be put to death or adopted, while members of the Buffalo clan acted as town criers.

Kin relations demanded respect between those called brothers and sisters (including parallel cousins-father’s brother’s children and mother’s sister’s children) and in-laws of the opposite sex.

Joking relationships existed between brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law.

Strong relationships existed between children and their mother’s brother.

When punishment was required, this uncle was called upon, but he was also the person designated to take a boy on his first war raid.

As adults, a warm relationship existed between nieces and nephews and uncles on the mother’s side, usually accompanied by the exchange of gifts and services.

A good deal of teasing and humor was part of this relationship. The strength of this relationship through the mother’s line is part of the evidence which suggests that the Ho-chunk were originally matrilineal since this type of relationship is characteristic of matrilineal societies.

Winnebago Leadership and Government

Within both villages and the entire tribe, leadership was dual. The civil or peace chief resolved problems by peaceful means and took the advice of elders and other family leaders in reaching consensus.

It was also part of the civil chief’s duties to carefully scrutinize planned raids or attacks and try to dissuade others from using aggression or warfare as a means to solve problems. Instead, he urged payments of retribution to avoid revenge and violence.

The symbol of his authority as peace chief was the peace pipe. The civil chief was drawn from a clan of the “upper” moiety, but not necessarily that of any particular clan.

There were also chiefs in the lower moiety, often from the Bear clan. Members of the Bear clan often functioned as policemen of the village and of the hunt.

Transgressors could be whipped, have their possessions destroyed, or be banished from the tribe.

For chiefs of either moiety were those who seemed best suited to the duties of that office who were from the appropriate family backgrounds. In some cases, the moiety chiefs might work together, for instance in warding off the threat of illness to the community.

The civil chief would hold a feast to muster spiritual support against the threat and, if this did not work, the Bear clan chief led his followers against the “invader” in a in mock battle.

Bear clan leaders were also particularly important in matters that dealt with the land, including land cession treaties.

Ho-Chunk Religious Life, Medicine, and Healing

Earthmaker was the central figure in Ho-chunk cosmology. The Sun was also an important figure and was primarily appealed to for war pursuits.

Female deities included the Earth and the Moon. Animals were also represented by grand supernatural forces, and these were mainly those seen during vision quests.

Other figures assisted Earthmaker and could take human and animal form to assist humans: Trickster, Hare, the Twins of Flesh and Spirit, Red Horn, and Turtle.

Battles between good and evil were common in Ho-chunk oral tradition and, depending on the story, the good Thunders and the bad Water Spirits (like the Underwater serpents or panthers of Algonkian oral traditions) could represent those sides.

Ho-chunk religious belief was largely an individual matter, and “correct ways of living” included specific personal and group rituals and taboos which were related to clan membership, personal vision quests, and life events such as birth and death.

Specific groups also held rituals for those spirits they felt linked to, such as the Night Spirit, which was appealed to for success in war.

Within traditional Ho-Chunk culture, warfare and status as a warrior were important, as attested to by war medicines and vision quests for protective spirits.

Transgressions of taboos or other incorrect behavior could lead to illness, which then required the services of a shaman.

Ho-chunk shamans relied on both herbal medicines and spiritual means to bring about cures. Shamans were always elderly and drew upon their years of experience and knowledge.

They were also called upon to provide protection to warriors, and men who controlled warrior medicine were highly respected.

In other circumstances, shamanistic power could be good or evil. Good power could be used for hunting or war or could also be turned and combined with bad medicines to promote witchcraft where greed and jealousy existed.

Famous Winnebago
Winnebago Legends
Winnebago Wars

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