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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Community of Refugees


The Gulf Cost residents displaced by hurricane Katrina this week are the latest in a long tradition of people who came to Wisconsin to start new lives. With a few exceptions, we are a community of immigrants transplanted here under dire circumstances.

The earliest immigrants recorded in Wisconsin historical texts came 350 years ago, when wars in the Northeast drove the Potawatomi, Huron, Ottawa and other tribes into Wisconsin. From one of these refugee nations, the Mascouten, Jacques Marquette apparently first heard the name "Wisconsin." Despite the violence and turmoil of those years, the earliest French settlers were welcomed with generosity and hospitality by the Ho-Chunk and Menominee residents who greeted them.

A century and a half later, the earliest Norwegian and German settlers arrived in search of better lives. After them followed a steady stream of new arrivals, from Eastern Europeans, through the Great Migration of African-Americans after the two World Wars, to more recent Hispanic and Hmong immigrants.

Most of these people had left their homes because of severe suffering, and their misery was often compounded by fear, racism, and intolerance on the part of many Wisconsin residents who were already here. Each new wave of immigrants nevertheless managed to carve new homes and make new communities in the Badger State.

This weekend the most recent newcomers to our state are sleeping in temporary shelters at State Fair Park and elsewhere around Wisconsin, reduced in many cases to poverty and homelessness by the arbitrary forces of nature. May they experience less hardship and more kindness from us than many of their predecessors did from our forebears. May all of us already blessed with homes and jobs recall the struggles of our immigrant ancestors, welcome Katrina's victims with respect and generosity, and help them start over in the state that we love.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on September 8, 2005

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