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Who are the Winnebago Indians?

By J.L. Drede
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Winnebago Indians are a tribe of Native Americans originally based is the Wisconsin area. The actual name of the tribe is Ho-Chunk, which translates to Trout Nation. The name Winnebago was given to them by neighboring tribes and means people of the smelly water. Historians of the Winnebago Indians trace their history back thousands of years to 500 BC, when they lived in what is now northwest Kentucky.

Throughout the years they slowly migrated north, and by 500 AD they had made their home in Wisconsin. From there they spread as far as Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota. It is thought by some historians that the Winnebago tribes are responsible for several of the large man-made mounds in the Wisconsin area. These massive effigies in the shape of birds and other animals were built entirely by hand and it is thought that they were used as places of worship as well as burial sites.

Hunting in the area was limited primarily to fish, deer and small game. As such, the people of the Winnebago tribe exceeded at gardening, and were able to plant and raise large crops of corn, roots, berries and squash to sustain their tribes during the harsh and brutal Wisconsin winters. Despite their success, the weather was apparently too much for some tribal Chiefs, thus Native American tribes speaking derivative dialects of the Winnebago were found further down south the Mississippi in warmer climates.

The Winnebago Indians first encountered European settlers in 1634 by French fur trader Jean Nicolet. The relationship was friendly, and trade routes were quickly set up between the Winnebago and the French. Guns and other tools were frequently traded for fur, tools and art made by the people of the tribe. Relations with the French people ended after the French-Indian War. After a period of distrust and hesitance the Winnebago resumed their trade, this time with the English.

The population of the Winnebago Tribe fluctuated wildly during the 1600s onward. While Nicolet reported numbers in the tens of thousands during his visit, in just 30 years various wars with other tribes and disease epidemics slashed their numbers to less than 500. In the 1700s to 1800s, while most tribes were seeing massive population declines of their own, the Winnebago Indians were on the rebound. By 1825, the tribes numbers had surpassed 5,000. Still, these numbers were not great enough to stop the onslaught of miners, farmers and other Europeans who began to move in on their land. The American government shuffled them around the plains, moving them to Iowa and then Minnesota before eventually granting them a reservation in Nebraska.

Today the Winnebago Indians are split into two separate reservations. The original reservation in Nebraska still stands as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, in the city that is named after them. Adopting their original name of Ho-Chunk, the other reservation is located in the tribe's homeland of Wisconsin, near the city of Black River Falls.

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