The rededication of Harry Whitehorse’s Effigy Tree
Madison’s Heritage
By Jonathan Gramling

      Imagine standing on the bluffs overlooking Lake Monona a thousand or more
years ago. Imagine the pristine beauty of a lake that reflected the bluest blue of the
sky, the pine scent from the thousands of pine trees that grew in the area and
perhaps the cry of a hawk. How could that feeling and the wisdom that the world
taught those who gazed upon the land be preserved when the imprint of humankind
can easily be blown away like the grains of sand on a beach? Perhaps the effigy
mounds can tell the story …
      On September 28, another group of people gazed on Lake Mendota from the
bluffs in Hudson Park on Madison’s east side. Gordon Thunder, a Ho-Chunk elder
and scholar, spoke about the people from long ago. “There are stories of our own
that put us here from time memorial when the first human being, a Ho-Chunk, in the
tradition was created,” Thunder said to the group. “And we were here through the
generations. In those times, the population of the tribe began to expand and they
inhabited a lot of the land that is called Wisconsin and many of the neighboring
states also. But we are here today at DeJope, the four lakes. There is a big city all
around these four lakes. It always was a big city. There were many villages that
were built around these four lakes. In our generation, many of the stories were
never recorded because it was an oral tradition. They were passed down by word
of mouth. For myself and the years that I have spent, there are many stories that I was told and heard. But yet at my young age and time, many
of those stories seem to fade. But to acknowledge all of these generations of my relatives that inhabited the area around these four lakes
within the community here for as long as they have and I don’t know how long that was. But they left a lot of good things here for us. And we
celebrate those as we are here today.”
      The celebration was the rededication of the Effigy Tree, a sculpture that was carved by Ho-Chunk artist Harry Whitehorse in 1991 out of
what remained after a bolt of lightning destroyed a hackberry tree in Hudson Park. Whitehorse carved a spectacular wooden sculpture that
depicted the figures of a wolf, a bear and cub, a thunderbird and an eagle, symbols of Ho-Chunk clans. At the top, according to Whitehorse, is
“the very Indian face which looks out over the lake, a tribute to those who consecrated this ground and built its mounds so many, many
generations ago.”
      Over the ensuing 16 years, the wooden effigy deteriorated to the point where it had to be removed. A group of neighborhood residents,
spurred on by Karin Wolf of the Madison Arts Committee, formed the Effigy Tree Committee and raised over $60,000 in funds and in-kind
services to cast the Effigy Tree in bronze so that it could stand for another 500 years. The Effigy Tree again stands overlooking Lake Mendota
and the bear, lynx and panther or water spirit effigy mounds that were built so long ago.
Thunder looked back on the past to reflect on the present. “So in looking back, enjoying, I know there were many days like today when they
enjoyed their time around here and the places where they raised their children and grandchildren, passed on the stories, traditions and
customs,” Thunder said.
      And, according to Jay Toth, a Ho-Chunk Nation archeologist, there are lessons at this place for generations to come. “When you look back
here, there are folks who may be buried here and there,” Toth said. “They do not have headstones. That is important because you as an
individual are not important. You come into this world as an equal. You leave as an equal. It is the group that is important. It is the tribe that is
important. It is the nation that is important. So in 1752 when the woodland folks met with the Founding Fathers of the United States, they sat
down and the Founding Fathers said ‘Tell us how your nations are so strong, government-wise.’ And they recall places like this where
everyone is equal. These are the oldest democracies in the world, not Greece or Rome. It is these places here. And they say we are the
people of the panthers and we are the people of the bears and the people of the bird. And a few years later, the Founding Fathers of the United
States sat down and they took out a piece of paper and they wrote ‘We the People.’ Those customs and traditions that are a thousand years old
are in your customs and traditions of today. And very few people take the time to think of that. Again bring your children here for they are the
next generations that must carry on these types of things.”
      Now, like the effigy mounds, the Effigy Tree will stand on the bluffs overlooking Lake Mendota, a lasting reminder of the people who
originally dwelled in the area called DeJope and the impact they had on Madison and America for generations to come.