UW-Madison PhD student maps ‘multiple lives’ of Ho-Chunk travel routes

Travel routes used by the Ho-Chunk Nation wind their way through the Dejope or Four Lakes region, which includes Wisconsin. Though in some cases they have morphed into modern roads and walking paths, many of the original paths exist only in scattered historical records and living memory. 

Combining investigation and historical work and in collaboration with the Ho-Chunk Nation, University of Wisconsin-Madison PhD student Megan Binkley will continue to work with Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush, other Ho-Chunk Nation Community Advisors, and Nelson Institute Faculty Associate Jessie Conaway to combine historical records, oral histories, and archaeological data into a map of Ho-Chunk travel routes and trails throughout time. 

“There’s just so many different interpretive avenues to gather to try to understand the past that can’t be accessed through textual records,” Binkley said.   

Binkley is pursuing a PhD in anthropology with an emphasis on archaeology and minors in community engaged scholarship and geography. This work began as a collaborative, interdepartmental project based in Conaway’s environmental studies capstone course and Dr. Holly Gibbs’ land use class. It later developed into an internship with UniverCity Alliance. 

Binkley said Gibbs and Conaway demonstrated how to incorporate community engagement into academic research. 

“Working with Dr. Conaway and Dr. Gibbs showed me that there really are so many potential avenues for blending archaeology, community engagement, and collaborative work with the First Nations while approaching the situation as a student and from the standpoint of, ‘I still have so much to learn about the landscape in which I spent my entire life living,’” Binkley said. 

Conaway said she appreciates Binkley working with an Indigenous nation for her PhD work and engaging in community-based research. 

“Working close to home is efficient, effective and also it has a huge impact with relationship building with Tribal partners and tribal neighbors here,” Conaway said. 

Megan Binkley created a map of Ho-Chunk History, Language & Culture covering the Village of Waunakee and Westport. A PDF version of hte map is available here.

 For her undergraduate project, Binkley created a map of Ho-Chunk History, Language & Culture covering the Village of Waunakee and Westport. This project was a result of Waunakee’s partnership with UniverCity Alliance through the three-year UniverCity Year program

The evolution of this project, which was financially supported with a community-based learning grant from the Morgridge Center, is also an example of how UniverCity Alliance can be a connector across campus and in communities. Throughout the partnership, Waunakee wanted to do more work with the Ho-Chunk Nation. Meanwhile, Binkley was enrolled in two related classes, which provided a platform for pursuing her PhD work. 

UniverCity Alliance served as a connecting thread between these efforts. 

“Megan’s experience serves as just one more example of how UW structures–from courses to internal grant programs to internships–can be leveraged to advance community priorities, such as building Ho-Chunk Nation relationships with local governments,” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said.  

Binkley was also working closely with Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush on the map. He encouraged Binkley to pursue digitizing Ho-Chunk Nation travel routes. 

“The importance of that trail still exists today to show the presence of humans utilizing that small portion that transfers across our ancestral footprints,” Quackenbush said. 

Quackenbush said documenting these trails is important for demonstrating their cultural importance to, for example, state and federal government officials working on road projects throughout the state.

Conaway echoed the importance of maps in asserting cultural significance. They can affect stewardship, policy, and regional planning. 

“Maps have authority, especially when they’re well done, well researched and go through the appropriate cultural channels for design and approval,” Conaway said. “Maps are powerful tools for teaching both Tribal and non-tribal publics.” 

Binkley’s undergraduate project developed into an internship opportunity with UniverCity Alliance during the summer of 2021. Quackenbush gave Binkley older maps from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s that show hand-drawn segments of Ho-Chunk travel routes, and Binkley used software platforms to turn them into digital files showing the routes in a geographically accurate way. 

“Many of these travel routes have had multiple lives. They started out as First Nations and Ho-Chunk travel routes, and then they became colonial military trails, and now they’re modern roads or modern walking paths,” Binkley said. “I was struck by the fact that I probably walked on some of these places and had no idea of the depth of the history of them.”  

For some, that history is ever present. Quackenbush’s mother prefers to drive on Highway 12 because it was a former Indian trail. 

“That’s where the people of old used to travel,” Quackenbush said. “Some people enjoy reflecting on the deep heritage of an area and how many people walked down a route and how our environment has changed throughout our lifetimes.” 

Now, Binkley will be expanding the map she started by bringing together written records, spoken histories, hand-drawn maps and archaeological excavation notes from a variety of places, including the Wisconsin Historical Society, UW-Madison’s Department of Anthropology and small museums across the Midwest. 

Binkley also hopes to secure grant funding to compensate her community advisors for their time and expertise and to create paid research opportunities for additional members of the Ho-Chunk Nation interested in participating in aspects of this project. 

“Learning together is more fun,” Binkley said. “By bringing all of these different perspectives together, we’re going to learn so much more when we have multiple people working on this project.”

—By Abigail Becker