Post-Contact Native American
(500 years ago to present)
When European explorers first arrived in Wisconsin they encountered many different Nations. The Ho-Chunk (formerly called the Winnebago) and Menomini lived near Green Bay. Ioway, Oto and Santee populations lived further west, near the Mississippi River. Other groups, including the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Sauk and Mesquakie, had moved to Wisconsin ahead of the Europeans.
This diverse population continued burial traditions passed down by their ancestors. Some tribal members were buried in formal cemeteries, while others were buried in family plots or in isolated graves near cabins. Many Nations added their dead to ancient burial mounds. Sometimes people were buried in sitting positions or reclining positions. Sometimes they were only partly buried, or were not buried at all. Scaffolds continued to be used for many years.
Many post-contact Nations in Wisconsin built ‘Spirit Houses'. Spirit houses are small structures built of logs or planks, built to shelter graves. They took many forms. Some looked like little picket fences or piles of logs. Others looked like small houses, complete with peaked roofs. Some accounts of Spirit House burial suggest that the bodies of the dead were laid directly on the ground surface, making the Spirit House more of a mausoleum rather than a grave covering.
Many ethnographic accounts state that burial ritual varied widely within single Nations. The first Nations of Wisconsin are composed of family lines called ‘clans'. Each clan is usually affiliated with an animal totem, and the clans of a single Nation may be divided into two or more groups linked to the earth or sky.
Among the Ho-Chunk, for example, the Hawk, Pigeon, Eagle and Thunderbird clans were given scaffold burial, while other clans were buried in graves topped by wooden spirit houses.
Among the Ioway, each clan was said to have its own burial preferences. The Ioway are believed to have utilized both scaffold burial and Spirit Houses. When Spirit Houses were used, the dead were placed inside in a sitting position. The Ioway may have also been among the last people to build mounds in Wisconsin. Late Oneota/early Ioway burials are definitely known to have been placed in older mounds, and there are hints that some new mounds were built after European contact.
Santee traditions combined scaffold burial and earth interment, depending on personal preference and season of death. Some bodies were quickly buried, while others were wrapped and left on scaffolds for years. Earth burials were surrounded by wooden picket enclosures similar to spirit houses.
The Prairie Band Potawatomi used scaffold burial for Eagle Clan members. Members of the bear clan were buried in brushy areas. Clans linked to water were buried near water. Members of the Thunder clan were placed on hilltops, in sitting positions inside spirit houses.
Early accounts of Menomini cemeteries describe the use of scaffolds, log spirit houses and burial in older mounds. Ojibwa communities are uniformly described as using Spirit Houses.