It’s a well-known fact that Milwaukee is often referred to as “the good land.” The name itself originated from the Native American tribes who originally lived here and who spoke Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Menominee. But how many people know that Kinnickinnic means “to mix things up” in reference to the mixing of the red willow plant to make tobacco and incense for gatherings and ceremonies.
Many of the cities and towns and bodies of water in Wisconsin get their name from the Indigenous people who lived here first, but few know the significance of the names they use daily.
“Anyone who lives in this region is using the language all the time,” said Margaret Noodin, the director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education and a professor of English and American Indian Studies at UW-Milwaukee.
Earlier this week, Noodin held a webinar titled, “Milwaukee’s Long History Along the Lake.” Noodin covered the role Lake Michigan played in shaping Milwaukee and its significant influence on the people, culture and language. The webinar was part of UWM’s alumni Mobile Master Chats series.
Due to its proximity to the lake, Milwaukee played a huge role in the lives of Native Americans, Noodin explained. Milwaukee was seen as a gathering place and its effect on the population is still seen today. According to Noodin, Milwaukee has the highest Native American population per capita east of the Mississippi.
Noodin showed a map of Milwaukee by Increase Lapham. She pointed out that among the three rivers, the Kinnickinnic, the Menominee and the Milwaukee, there were visible dwellings that were inhabited by the Ho Chunk, the Menominee and the Potawatomi. While they no longer live there, archeological evidence of their lives remains such as mounds.
One example of a mound is the Lake Park mound, which has been in existence for about 2,000 years. The mounds were burial sites, Noodin explained. The leaders of the tribe protected the land and its people and “now we must protect it,” she said.
While there are some indicators or markers throughout the city of significant sites, Noodin said work is being done to make historical landmarks significant to Native Americans more visible. Native American culture can be experienced everywhere, she said.
“Anywhere you are there’s history, but you may have to dig a little,” she said.
She advised viewers to look at their own location and dig in the history there, to look at old maps and to research.
“There were certainly people here before us and we would need to know that history,” Noodin said. “It is a part of moving forward in the world and feeling connected to both the past and the future we might be building.”
As part as preserving tribal history, many are working to keep the languages alive. Those languages include Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Menominee, which is the most threatened language.
Noodin also encouraged people to reexamine history. For example, Christopher Columbus was never here so students at the Indian Community School advocated for the park named after him to be changed to the Indigenous People’s Park. She likewise advised people to read the Birchbark House series by Louise Eldrich, which tells the story of settlement through the eyes of an 8-year-old Ojibwe girl.
The series is a counter narrative to the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“I think there are a lot of ways that people can start to rethink and reteach our history in a different way,” she said.
For additional resources on American Indian culture, people can visit the Electa Quinney Institute website at https://uwm.edu/eqi/