On Listening: A Reflection on the Challenges and Opportunities of Writing Native Histories of UW–Madison

By Zada Ballew

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The multi-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2022, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

“What advice would you give non-Native administrators at UW, or coming to UW in the future, about what it was like to be a Native student at UW during your time?”

“…We need non-Natives to be our ally…listening is the best advice I could give.”[1] [emphasis added].

As anyone who has ever attended a pow-wow, scrolled through Native TikTok, binge-watched Reservation Dogs, or lived near an Indigenous community will tell you: Native people are not silent. We never have been, and I think it’s safe to assume that we never will be. We are storytellers, sharing our experiences and passing on our wisdom to those who we trust and who we believe will benefit from our knowledge. We also know that giving and receiving wisdom and guidance from others is an honor, privilege, but, more importantly, an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for someone who is willing to listen to learn from our shared history in order to ensure that our shared future is an equitable one.

As an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, I grew up listening to and sharing stories with my relatives. I’ll never forget the visits to my grandmother’s home on our tribal homelands in southwestern Michigan. Whenever there was a gathering, my family and nearly all of my dad’s eleven siblings and their kids would pack into a house that could barely hold less than half of us. Within minutes of our arrival, my dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandma would immediately begin doing what we do best: telling stories about times both recent and long gone. The good, the bad, the hilarious, and the tragic: nothing was off-limits. I remember often thinking about how lucky I was to be able to listen to these stories, to learn from my relatives’ mistakes and successes, and to hopefully have the chance to pass on similar stories to others who might need them.

I brought my love of storytelling and listening with me to graduate school at UW–Madison. During my second year in the history department, I learned that the Public History Project was looking for someone to research and write about the Native history of UW. Though I had been at UW for nearly two years, I still had very little knowledge about the Native people who had called, and continue to call, this land “home.” Knowing that this was an opportunity to learn from and share stories of our ancestors’ experiences at UW, I immediately applied for the job and was hired to begin finding and documenting these stories. Although the Director of the Public History Project, Kacie Lucchini Butcher, expressed confidence in my ability to do this work, she also made one thing clear: Native people and their histories at UW are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. I didn’t fully understand what she meant by this phrase until I began looking for these stories myself.

I started my journey where many history students and researchers typically begin: with the documents. When I went into the annals of the UW Archives and the Wisconsin Historical Society, however, Butcher’s words finally became clear. A people, who I am certain have been sharing and listening to stories since long before UW–Madison became a university in 1848, was suddenly nowhere to be found at UW. I combed through hundreds of issues of the Daily Cardinal, strategized with archivists, and Googled every combination of “Native American + UW–Madison” that I could think of. After weeks of digging into our shared history, all I had to show for my work were pieces, fragments, and whispers of Native voices, none of which could tell us a full story about our past.

What had happened? How could a university that occupies Ho-Chunk land, with nearly two hundred years of history and thousands of confirmed Native students, faculty, and staff,[2] have only significantly documented and archived its Native students’, faculty, alumni, and staffs’ experiences a handful of times since it was founded? Why had Native peoples’ voices been silenced in our archives?

From History 101 to 901, students who take UW history courses quickly become familiar with one of the central challenges of writing history: archival silence. Though this term can be defined innumerable ways, archival silence simply refers to the gaps in documented and archived information about the past. As Kacie Lucchini Butcher explained in a recent Public History Project blog post, archival silences are inevitable. It’s impossible to adequately or accurately document and preserve every written, published, or spoken statement made throughout history because “the past is infinite.”[3]

And yet, the vast majority of oral histories that are preserved in the UW Archives assist those non-BIPOC students, administrators, staff, faculty, and alumni who look like the narrators themselves. As Butcher explained in her blog post, in order to create and maintain a more diverse telling of the history of this university, “We need the campus community. We need people who were here, who are now here, and who will be here to tell us their stories. Not only so that as a project, we can bring these stories to light, but also so that as a campus community, this history will be preserved.”[4]

Realizing that the histories that I wanted to write couldn’t be found in our State’s and University’s archives, I changed my approach to this work. Instead of relying mostly on UW–Madison records and documents to help me write Native histories of UW, I set out to see if Indigenous activists, leaders, students, faculty, staff, and alumni would be willing to share their stories with me. Knowing Native peoples’ fraught history with academic researchers from the last century, who mined and altered Indigenous history to suit their own publication goals, I knew that not every Native person who attended UW would want a representative from the University digging into their past if they weren’t in charge of co-writing their own narratives. I braced myself for what I thought would be a community that had been silenced for so long that they no longer wished to speak to those who finally wanted to hear their voices.

I was wrong. When I went to those whose voices I couldn’t find in our archives and started asking the kinds of questions that I wished my sources had considered, I was introduced to a community of inspirational, determined, and fearless UW Native peoples who had been waiting a long time for someone from the University to listen. Over the course of a few short months, I met a revolutionary from the 1970s American Indian Movement, who worked together with other minority organizations on campus to protest the University’s unjust treatment of Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic students and the Vietnam War. I was introduced to a two-time UW graduate who is now working as a tribal attorney for one of Wisconsin’s twelve Tribal Nations. This individual, who admitted that it was unlikely that they would’ve graduated from UW if not for the community they found in Wunk Sheek, is now using their UW degrees to ensure that Native peoples are guaranteed the rights and opportunities that our ancestors have fought tirelessly to maintain. I learned about William Milton Baine, the first confirmed Native student to attend UW–Madison, who played football and went to class while non-Indigenous UW students and faculty believed and insisted that Native peoples were “vanishing” from the land at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century.[5] I also met Kelly Holmes, an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and former co-President of Wunk Sheek from 2015–2017, who began every Wunk Sheek meeting and public-facing event with an acknowledgment that their gathering was taking place on Ho-Chunk land, even before the “Our Shared Future” initiative and the widespread adoption of land acknowledgments.[6] These are just a few of the thousands of stories that can be learned if we center Native voices and experiences and listen to what needs to be heard.

Many people who I contacted for an interview had the same reactions to my request. Several couldn’t believe that anyone would be interested in learning about the history of UW from their perspective. Others never thought that what they had done while at Madison, be it organizing with Wunk Sheek, dancing in the annual pow-wow, or becoming one of the first in their family to graduate from college, would have any historic value. Regardless of whether they responded one way or the other, one thing remained constant: all of the storytellers were grateful that UW–Madison was willing and ready to listen to Native people share their stories. And, when I asked if those mentioned above knew of any others who also might be interested in sharing their stories of UW, they replied with hundreds of names of current or former students, faculty, and staff who each had profoundly shaped the history of UW during their time in Madison, none of whom I had found documented in our archives. The overwhelmingly positive response from the UW–Madison Native community made me realize that we are at a crucial moment in our shared history when Native students, faculty, alumni, staff, and others are willing and ready to tell their stories of UW to those from the University who are willing and ready to listen and act on behalf of their Native students, faculty, and alumni.

Going back in time and recording the experiences of William Milton Baine, and so many others who have already passed away is impossible. But what is possible is listening to those in our time who are willing, able, and ready to share their difficult histories of UW with us. Identifying the archival silences, listening to Native histories of UW, and ensuring that the gaps in our shared histories are at least partially filled in during our time are just some of the steps we can take to ensure a more equitable, just, and complete telling of the history of UW.

When someone years from now attempts to write the history of UW again, it is my hope that they will have access to more voices, experiences, stories, debates, songs, prayers, ceremonies, and more than we could have ever dreamed to have during our effort to write this history today. I hope that the problem in the future is not “Why have Native peoples’ voices been silenced in our archives?” But, instead, “From the hundreds of Indigenous oral histories of UW, how can we possibly choose which one to listen to first?” I hope that those researchers, whoever they may be, feel not like they’re knocking on a door to a house where no one is home. But, instead, I want them to feel like they’re entering a cramped home that is overflowing with sounds and people, each with a unique voice telling stories that build upon those that have been told and heard before. Native people have never been silent, only silenced. Are we finally ready to listen?


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

     [1] Paige Morningstar Skenandore, “Oral History,” interview with the author, Aug. 26, 2021.

     [2] According to a list of UW Native Alumni assembled by Aaron Bird Bear, between the years 1946 and 2005, at least 822 Native students graduated from UW–Madison. As useful and informative as this list is, it does not include those students who attended UW–Madison but did not graduate, nor does it include any students who graduated after 2005. So, this list is an underestimate of the true number of current and former UW Native students.

     [3] William Cronon, “UW–Madison American Environmental History Town Hall with Bill Cronon,” Sep. 30, 2020.

     [4] Kacie Lucchini Butcher, “Why We Need Oral Histories,” Public History Project, Mar. 9, 2020.

     [5] Tom Benjey, Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs: Jim Thorpe & Pop Warner’s Carlisle Indian School football immortals tackle socialites, bootleggers, students, moguls, prejudice, the government, ghouls, tooth decay and rum (Carlisle, PA: Tuxedo Press, 2008). For more on national attitudes towards Native peoples at the turn-of-the-twentieth century and “playing Indian,” see Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). For more on the history of the UW–Madison Pipe of Peace Ceremony, see Frederick Henry Tennessen, “The Pipe of Peace Ceremony,” History 600: Difference, Exclusion, and Resistance at UW–Madison, Prof. Stephen Kantrowitz, 2020 [unpublished]; Kacie Lucchini Butcher, “UW–Madison’s Public History Project, YouTube video, 3:08, June 13, 2021.

     [6] Kelly Holmes, “Oral History,” interview with the author, Aug. 30, 2021.