Ancient Clues

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Narrator, Joanne Garrett:
The land lives on, ever on. Peoples appear on it briefly, then they are gone. They leave clues leaving us full of guesses.

Phil Gardner:
After two years of excavation and analysis we know that Native Americans in the Dells were practicing a very sophisticated kind of agriculture nearly 1,000 years ago.

Phil Gardner is a geographer and archaeologist working on his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  His topic: the ancient farmers in the Dells.

The first thing these rich fields do is they provide a better soil. Another reason would be to provide drainage and it also will hold water still near the bottom that the tap root can get at. If you come out in the late spring or the early fall and there’s a frost, the cold air will actually sink and form little clouds in the trenches. The plants are up top here on the top of the mounds. And so that can actually extend the growing season.

Usually researchers must travel to Peru [or] southern Mexico to study these types of garden mounds.

William Denevan:
It’s quite exciting to find such prehistoric fields very close to Madison where I’ve been teaching for over 25 years.

Gardner’s faculty advisor, William Denevan, is a noted authority on prehistoric agriculture.

So we find here probably the best preserved prehistoric raised fields in the Midwest and possibly the largest concentration of them in the Midwest and possibly in all of North America.

The pre-Columbian ancestors of the modern-day Winnebago were most likely cultures that we know of as Oneota and Late Woodlands peoples. Given the presence of Winnebago peoples in the Dells and their agricultural practices, we feel that the garden beds are part of Winnebago history.

To us, garden mound builders are what they left behind, which they didn’t know they were leaving behind. They passed on other elements of their culture down through their descendants, the modern-day Winnebago people.

Lance Tallmadge, Ho-Chunk:
Having been born and raised right in the Dells area and something of this magnitude being right in my backyard kind of amazes and surprises me.

Lance Tallmadge is from a family that is very active in preserving Winnebago traditions.

Occasionally I see you have come across a few items like the arrowheads and such. What will you do with those types of items? From my perspective as a Native person, I’m kind of curious.

In recent years, Native Americans have begun to demand a return of the artifacts obtained by archaeologists. What some regard as the search for clues about earlier peoples others regard as grave robbing.

We try to find out, for example, where the stuff is coming from and how old it is and what they could be using it for. And then eventually what happens is we either return them to the property owners or they go to a museum.

Gardner places high value on maintaining good relations with Winnebago people.  There are even Native Americans on his dig crew.

I’m part Cherokee Indian. I feel it’s very important that we get as much information out of these sites that we possibly can in a scientific manner. And I think archaeology is the best way to go about that.

Gardner says that the 30 acres of mounds that are left are but a remnant of a much larger agricultural site. No doubt this forest saved these mounds from the plow. Gardner’s tests show the soil here is quite poor. So what were these serious gardeners doing in the Dells area?

They were extensive wetlands, prairies and forest that yield many resources these people needed for survival. But we must not lose sight of the spirituality of the area, the rock formations and the river. We cannot forget that Native peoples lived in the Dells for nearly 10,000 years.

So their important places have become our important places.  But we have a different way of emphasizing this importance.

From Ho Chunk Stories
Video courtesy of Ootek Productions, 1997

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