Director’s Note, January 2021

Photo of Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

A query sent to our info@ email address brought up important issues about the history of the land that now comprises the Arboretum and the way we share that history. The writer asked why we don’t have more information about Indigenous land stewardship or the history of transfer of the land to the University. Because this issue is so important, I am sharing parts of the response to this query.

The history page on our website is a brief history of the Arboretum as an idea and institution, rather than a history of the land or land care. But we agree that this history is insufficient. The Arboretum, like the University and City of Madison, exist because of displacement; we are here because Indigenous people were forced off their ancestral lands. After the forced removal of Ho-Chunk from Teejop (Four Lakes or Madison), most of the land now managed by the Arboretum became non-Indigenous settler farmland before being purchased by or donated to the University.

There is a lot we do not know about Indigenous land stewardship, largely because of this history of displacement. And the Ho-Chunk are understandably protective of their knowledge. But we can do more to make visible the omissions and reasons for them, as well as share information about programs, initiatives, and educational resources that also do that work. We are working to add more information to our website.

Our website does not wholly represent all the work being done at the Arboretum. Staff have been actively dedicated to learning and sharing fuller histories and cultural relationships with the land, including those of Indigenous people. We do this primarily through educational programs and building partnerships with area organizations, groups, and communities. Programs include trainings for staff and volunteers; public education programming like nature walks, classes, and lecture series; school group field trips; and partnerships like restoration work parties with Indigenous youth, the Indigenous research garden, and maple syrup tapping. COVID-19 has halted many programs, but this work is an ongoing priority and will continue. However, we need to be respectful about the stories we tell, as they are not always ours to claim or promote. But we can and will do more to highlight the American Indian nations and communities with whom we work.

Many speakers during our Winter Enrichment lectures series, which will start in February, represent diverse perspectives on conservation and land management. Our 2020 Fall Lecture series, Roots of Resilience, focused on land, culture, and identity from Indigenous, Hmong, and African American perspectives.

Because we are part of the UW–Madison, we feel that it is important to understand how the University, and hence the Arboretum, represents settler colonialism. The University received land grants from acts in 1838 and 1862. There are two efforts under way to acknowledge the historical impact of the creation of the university on tribal nations and guide how it is taught. Our Shared Future is the beginning of a multi-year effort to educate members of the UW–Madison and broader community about the Ho-Chunk Nation and the history it shares with the university. The Public History Project is a multi-year effort to uncover and give voice to those who experienced, challenged and overcame prejudice on campus. Other campus programs include Native Nations Partnerships and Earth Partnership, and the Arboretum is involved with both of them.

We thank the person who wrote to us for the deep concern represented in their letter, and we look forward to sharing resources and stories of cultural relationships, community partnerships, and the complex histories of land. The land acknowledgement that introduces all Arboretum programs reinforces our need to understand the events that led to our presence on the land. “We recognize that the Arboretum land upon which we stand is the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk people. We acknowledge the circumstances that led to their forced removal, and honor the Ho-Chunk Nation’s history of resistance and resilience.”

—Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director