Village of Waunakee receives 2022 Salute to Local Government award

The Wisconsin Policy Forum’s 30th annual Salute to Local Government awards recognized the Village of Waunakee’s efforts to pursue social justice, racial equity, inclusion, and community civility.  

Through a multi-year partnership with University of Wisconsin–Madison’s UniverCity Year program (UCY), Waunakee focused on relationship building with the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. 

Village Administrator Todd Schmidt worked closely with representatives from the university and Ho-Chunk Nation throughout the multi-year effort. 

“We are so very thankful for the expertise and resources provided by UCY staff, UW educators, and student participants. They brought their established relationships with the Ho-Chunk Nation to assemble just the right people as we began our work together,” Schmidt said. “It has been a special journey for us from having never collaborated with the Ho-Chunk Nation before to now raising the Ho-Chunk Nation Flag above Village Hall during Native American Heritage Month. 

The flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation dances in the wind following a flag-raising ceremony at the top of Bascom Hill in front of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Sept. 15, 2022. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

“Waunakee treasures its new friendships with the Ho-Chunk Nation and its people,” he said. 

During the partnership that began in 2020, UW­–Madison completed 17 projects over two academic years that addressed local ordinances, Waunakee’s employment practices, housing, education, and mental health. 

Projects that were conducted in partnership with the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin aimed to deepen the Village’s understanding that Waunakee stands on land that is not theirs but that of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. The Hoocagra (Ho-Chunk Nation), People of the Sacred Voice, have been stewards of their ancestral lands and waters, Teejop, since time immemorial.    

“When the Ho-Chunk Nation began to work collaboratively with the Village of Waunakee and other partners toward several culturally related projects, such as their Land Acknowledgement Statement, and HCN Cultural Resources Map, we began to realize there was a sincere effort and desire to right past wrongs towards the Ho-Chunk People,” said Bill Quackenbush, Ho-Chunk Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “From this, we can now confidently state there has been a lasting relationship established that will be enjoyed by many, for many years to come.” 

As a result of the UCY partnership, Waunakee’s Village Board unanimously approved a land acknowledgement statement on Sept. 20, 2021. The statement recognizes that Waunakee is located on land that is part of the ancestral territory of the Ho-Chunk people, cites atrocities imposed on them and pledges that the village will “advocate for a shared future” through “relationship building, education and action.” 

Additional outcomes of the partnership include:

  • Recommendations for physical installations, art exhibits and a speaker series in collaboration with the Waunakee Public Library to educate the community about Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin’s history, language, culture, and ecology (see the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin map of cultural resources). 
  • Community education sessions in March and April 2021 at the library where anyone in the community could learn more about the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.
  • Guidelines and protocols for the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin’s cultural resource management in the Village’s green spaces.
  • Resources and curricula for the Waunakee Community School District to guide and assist in teaching about the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.

The full list of completed projects can be found on UniverCity Alliance’s (UCA) website.

“I give a lot of credit to Waunakee for acknowledging it had work to do on making their community one that’s welcoming of all people. This partnership shows what’s possible when the university listens to what communities need and get them to the right people at UW-Madison,” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said. “So many community partners –  from the Ho-Chunk Nation to the public schools to the Senior Center – were involved in making these projects possible. 

“We’re grateful to Waunakee for trusting us enough to engage in a partnership about this very sensitive and incredibly important topic,” he said. 

Waunakee’s partnership with UCY came after the community began to reflect on how welcoming their community is toward employees and residents following the racially-charged murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.

Waunakee took concrete steps to better understand how race and identity shape the quality of life in the Village, including launching community wide discussions about racial awareness and a campaign to tell individual stories of community members and learn how differences can unite a community. The partnership with UCY was aimed at building on those efforts to realize  transformational change.

Village President Chris Zellner championed the initiative on behalf of the Village and recognizes that the Village’s work in this area is a good start. 

“We in Waunakee thank the Wisconsin Policy Forum for this award, but we also know that we are far from perfect,” Zellner said. “I always say that Waunakee should strive to be a welcoming community to all, and when anyone doesn’t feel that way, we’ve fallen short. 

“While we still fall short, we are striving to do better and be better. This recognition is really confirming that small and medium sized communities like Waunakee can take some first steps, and while small, they are steps in the right direction,” he said. 

Wisconsin Policy Forum’s Salute to Local Government awards recognizes the positive impact that public sector ingenuity and excellence have on taxpayers and communities throughout Wisconsin. 

Award categories showcase local governments and school districts for innovative problem-solving, efforts to advance racial equity, and intergovernmental and public-private cooperation. Individuals in the public sector are also honored for excellence and lifetime achievement. 

Salute to Local Government award recipients will be recognized on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. Click here to learn more about the event and how to participate.  

—Abigail Becker