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Little Elk, 1829

A version of this lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services as part of the Wisconsin Stories online activity guide for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.

Background Information

Early French accounts indicate that the Ho-Chunk, also known as the Winnebago, lived in large villages in the Green Bay region and along Lake Michigan. They relied heavily on horticulture, cultivating corn, pumpkins, and squash. They also harvested wild rice. The Ho-Chunk population was greatly reduced prior to 1670, the result of intertribal warfare and European-introduced disease. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ho-Chunk villages gradually relocated toward the south and west. By the early nineteenth century, they inhabited lands bordered by the Mississippi River on the west, the Upper Rock River on the east, and the Black River on the north.

During the French and British periods in Wisconsin history (1634-1763 and 1764-1815) traditional Ho-Chunk lifestyles were significantly altered, but not completely recast. For example, the Ho-Chunk incorporated elements from Christianity into existing religious practices. Perhaps more important, the Ho-Chunk participated in the fur trade, hunting and selling pelts in exchange for practical and decorative European-made goods.

This relationship changed rapidly when the U. S. military and white settlers advanced into Wisconsin in the early 1800s. The fur-trade economy, which had depended on Indian hunters, collapsed and was replaced by a permanent white population engaged in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, commerce, and real estate. By the 1820s, the Ho-Chunk were encountering increased pressure as more lead miners moved into their territory and traffic increased on the Mississippi River.

Ho-Chunk orator Little Elk made the following remarks in 1829 at the Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Caleb Atwater, an Ohio lawyer who had been appointed a federal commissioner to negotiate the American acquisition of the lead-mining region, recorded Little Elk's speech. Little Elk eloquently recounts his tribe's relationships with the French, British, and United States settlers. The remarks illustrate how the Ho-Chunk viewed each of the three Euro-American cultures.

Document

Atwater, Caleb. "Speech by Little Elk." In Remarks made on a tour to  Prairie du Chien, thence to Washington City, in 1829. Columbus: Jenkins, Grover, 1831.

Speech by Little Elk, Ho-Chunk Nation

. . . The first white man we knew, was a Frenchman--he lived among us, as we did, he painted himself, he smoked his pipe with us, sung and danced with us, and married one of our squaws, but he wanted to buy no land of us! The "Red coat" came next, he gave us fine coats, knives and guns and traps, blankets and jewels; he seated our chiefs and warriors at his table, with himself; fixed epaulets on their shoulders, put commissions in their pockets, and suspended medals on their breasts, but never asked us to sell our country to him! Next came the "Blue coat," and no sooner had he seen a small portion of our country, than he wished to see a map of THE WHOLE of it; and, having seen it, he wished us to sell it ALL to him. Gov. Cass, last year, at Green Bay, urged us to sell ALL our country to him, and now, you fathers, repeat the request. Why do you wish to add our small country to yours, already so large? When I went to Washington, to see our great father I saw great houses all along the road, and Washington and Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York are great and splendid cities. So large and beautiful was the President's house, the carpets, the tables, the mirrors, the chairs, and every article in it, were so beautiful, that when I entered it, I thought I was in heaven, and the old man there, I thought was the Great Spirit; until he had shaken us by the hand, and kissed our squaws, I found him to be like yourselves, nothing but a man! You ask us to sell all our country, and wander off into the boundless regions of the West. We do not own that country, and the deer, the elk, the beaver, the buffalo and the otter now there, belong not to us, and we have no right to kill them. Our wives and our children now seated behind us, are dear to us, and so is our country, where rest in peace the bones of our ancestors. Fathers! pity a people, few in number, who are poor and helpless. Do you want our country? your's is larger than our's. Do you want our wigwams? you live in palaces. Do you want our horses? your's are larger and better than our's. Do you want our women? your's now sitting behind you, (pointing to Mrs. Rolette and her beautiful daughters, and the ladies belonging to the officers of the Garrison,) are handsomer and dressed better than our's. Look at them, yonder! Why, Fathers, what can be your motive?

Vocabulary

  • "Red Coats"
  • Epaulets
  • "Blue Coats"
  • Great Father
  • Great Spirit

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Little Elk gave this speech?
  2. Identify Little Elk's main argument.
    1. What points does he emphasize in making the argument?
    2. Do you consider this an effective technique? Why or why not?
  3. Why do you think Little Elk visited large cities in the eastern United States?
  4. Of the three Euro-American groups mentioned, which did the speaker seem to respect and admire the most? Explain.
  5. According to Little Elk, what was the most important problem confronting his people?
  6. Drawing both from the letter and from your knowledge of American history, why was the problem cited in question five not a problem prior to the arrival of the white Americans? What did the French and British want from the Indians?

Suggested Activities

  1. Direct students to read the section in their textbooks about the federal government's policies concerning American Indians in the late 1820s and 1830s. Have students prepare a two-page response to Little Elk's speech from the perspective of President Andrew Jackson.
  2. The term squaw is derogatory and offensive, yet for accuracy editors must never delete or alter original text. Review this important issue with your students. Direct students to identify related examples that they may have encountered (for example, the vocabulary in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn). Have other students research related issues on the world wide web, such as the debate over American Indian names and mascots used by schools and athletic teams.
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