Art Collection Curatorial Exhibitions Photography and Media Arts

Curating Ho-Chunk Objects in Mrs. M.—’s Cabinet at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Ho-Chunk presence and their arts contributed to the development of Wisconsin Dells tourism—and to the material and aesthetic culture of the state.

Painting of a brown, woven basket
Egg basket (circa 1900).
Egg basket (circa 1900).
Egg basket (circa 1900).

Ho-Chunk presence and their arts contributed to the development of Wisconsin Dells tourism—and to the material and aesthetic culture of the state. While Ho-Chunk representation is not always considered by tourists beyond stereotypical art for the trade, there is still a long and well-documented history of Ho-Chunk material life in the Wisconsin Dells area. The Ho-Chunk objects currently on exhibition in Mrs. M—’s Cabinet, are not the expected souvenirs of the Wisconsin Dells trade, but give a glimpse into the unfamiliar Ho-Chunk objects made and used in the Dells in the late 19th century.

In the exhibition Photographing Nature’s Cathedrals: Carleton E. Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and H.H. Bennett, an image by Henry Hamilton Bennett illustrates the acknowledgement of the unseen Native American presence within the Wisconsin Dells landscape. Looking out from Black Hawk’s Cave is one example of Bennett labeling his photographs with fictional place names and after real historical figures. Bennett used the Sauk Chief’s name in an effort to sell a romanticized American Indian legend to tourists. 

Henry Hamilton Bennett, Looking out from Black Hawk’s Cave, no. 1121 from the series In and About the Dells of the Wisconsin River, 1870/1907. Albumen prints. Gift of H. H. Bennett Studio Foundation, Inc. M1993.284. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

A well-known photograph of Bennett’s that is not part of the exhibition, Lone Rock with Canoe, Wisconsin Dells, further narrates a long history of non-Native artists suggesting Native American people through symbolism of objects or landscapes.

Henry Hamilton Bennett (American, 1843–1908), Lone Rock with Canoe, Wisconsin Dells, ca. 1890s–1908. Gelatin silver printing-out paper print. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of H. H. Bennett Studio Foundation, Inc. M1993.118. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Bennett’s use of a birchbark canoe in this image was a visual generalization for American Indian culture. The Ho-Chunk, who would have used a dugout canoe, have also had other Native American stereotypes placed on them because of American visual and material constructions of what Native American and wild land is supposed to look like.

The objects on loan from a Ho-Chunk-run organization, the Little Eagle Arts Foundation (LEAF), are examples of long-established local materials. One of the objects on view includes a Ho-Chunk Kasu dice game set. This game would have been played by women in a social setting. Placing it within Mrs. M.—’s Cabinet underlines female-centered art and social life in a space meant to highlight women’s contributions at a time when women did not receive recognition.

The woven fiber bag contains the various carved bone dice, some round discs and others in the shapes of birds, a turtle, and a horse.

Left: Woven bag with carved antler dice (circa 1880); Right: Reverse view of woven bag with carved antler dice.

On one side the carved pieces are their natural color while the other is painted black. The small bag composed of natural and commercial fibers features a water panther design on one side and the opposite side with two thunderbird designs. A bag of this size and material is an unusual survival—something that may be a result of other containers being produced and gaining more popularity.

One of the baskets, the egg basket (see image at top), was donated to the current LEAF collection in 1976 and was 70 years old at the time of its donation. This basket is an example of a purposeful materials-focused Ho-Chunk art, before colored and decorated baskets became a staple of the Wisconsin Dells souvenir trade.

Like many female artisans, those who made these baskets are unknown. These objects—their work—remains even though these arts are no longer made within the community, like the woven fiber bag. They remain an important testament to the past and present lives of Native people in the United States and Wisconsin. This exhibition is the first display of Ho-Chunk art at the Milwaukee Art Museum in decades. It aims to both expand visitors’ understandings of Photographing Nature’s Cathedrals and renew conversations about the history, presence and continued importance of Ho-Chunk objects in Wisconsin’s material and aesthetic life. While Native American—and especially Ho-Chunk—people were not included in most of Bennett’s photographs, objects like these remind us of their important material legacy.

Ho-Chunk objects are currently on display in Mrs. M.—’s Cabinet (gallery K225) through August 26, 2018. The installation was organized by The Chipstone Foundation and the Little Eagle Arts Foundation.

—Kendra Greendeer, Collections Manager at the Little Eagle Arts Foundation and UW-Madison Student

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