A nod to the past, an education for the future
By Kris Leonhardt
AMHERST JUNCTION — A sculpture installed Oct. 22 at Lake Emily County Park, nods to the park’s legendary Indigenous heritage while providing an educational moment for those who visit the site.
In the 1880s, 24 Native American burial mounds were mapped around the lake. Wisconsin is also home to more burial mounds than any state in the country. These sites are made up of intentional landscape features that are not fully understood by archaeologists.
“So what’s fascinating is understanding that there’s art created by indigenous people that goes back thousands of years and is in the landscape, and today we’re here to see this wonderful new piece to add to this wonderful story of Native American artwork on the landscape itself,” Rob Nurre, president of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society
“About 100 years ago, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society placed many brass plaques on effigy mounds and other native sites, and they help people understand that those places were important. There’s something inappropriate today; I sort of derisively called them the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for Native American sites. And we’re actually working on replacing a lot of them with things like this that tell the story so much better, and that I will certainly use in my work with our organization as an example of what we should be doing today.
UWSP Professor Emeritus of Archeology Ray Reser and Karen Ann Hoffman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin were instrumental in helping the Portage County Park Commission present the educational piece,
“I served on the park commission and Karen Ann and I participated in burials at UWSP. Then we researched where else in the county we could do something that would recognize or acknowledge the Native American presence and deep past .The whole lake here at Lake Emily is completely lined with village sites and burial mounds.There are dance circles to the west on private land…” Reser explained.
“We thought, if we were going to do something on county land and county park, where is the most accessible place to do it. So we sort of settled on Lake Emily, because the road to the lake goes through here. It’s easy to install something here; it is easy to see it from the road. It’s right in the middle of a Native American site, but it also doesn’t encroach on any Native American burial mounds, which are protected by state law.
“It also sends the message that Native Americans are still there in the landscape and that it was a truly sacred place, just as it is for all of us who use it as a park.
“Karen Ann worked hard and raised a lot of the money; CREATE Portage County donated money for this. Thus, we were able to move forward with the project; it doesn’t cost the county much. They bought a rock and had it placed. So a number of different partners. It came together and it came together in a great way.
Karen Ann Hoffman explained the importance of the sculpture and its creator.
“My elders always say: ‘Be attentive and grateful to the teachers who come to us.’ You know, these teachers come in many forms. We say sometimes the teacher is just a worm or a blade of grass because you can learn,” she said.
“Today I am aware and I am grateful that there are teachers in the world who are artists, artists who take their hearts, take their history, their cultures, take their craft and create things for us and help us to be aware and grateful and aware, and remember our responsibilities in our original instructions.We are caring and grateful to the artists and all the teachings they leave behind.
The artist and the sculpture
Mark Fisher has been a celebrated artist for over two decades and a member of Green Bay’s Oneida Nation, Turtle Clan.
Fisher worked in Native American education at the administrative level and was instrumental in establishing several Native American scholarships.
He says many of his designs are “inspired by ancient woodland petroglyphs and pictographs celebrating nature, gender, and Indigenous art and culture.”
“Sculpture is ‘The Sustainers’, a very important part of our culture. The Sustainers are the ‘Three Sisters’, that’s what they’re called. And the way we teach about them in our school system is that the names of the Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash,” Fisher explained.
“The corn comes up, big strong corn – she’s a strong girl – then the beans wrap around the corn and grow taller. And then the squash covers the ground with giant leaves and protects the ground from moisture loss. So the Three Sisters are part of our group all the time.
“And then on our three sisters, there are no faces. And, the reason there are no faces, our community – Oneida Nation of Green Bay – believes that we all have a job to do. Don’t stand in front of a mirror. And it used to be to stand above the water and look at yourself.
“And do, no face on any of our dolls, on any of our cornhusk dolls and none of our play toys have faces on them. And that’s just to represent, we’re hard workers and we get the job done. I’m very proud of that.
“I am so honored that the parks system had this sculpture built by a Native American. The sculpture was blessed several times during its construction, which is fitting, to carry a spirit of its own and hopefully be able to protect itself.
Lake Emily Park, a 143-acre park adjacent to the 96-acre Lake Emily, is located just west of Amherst Junction.