Garman Nature Preserve unveils interpretative panels by Ho-Chunk artist

By Paul Arentz,

     The Dr. J.S. Garman Nature Preserve located in the Northwest corner of Jefferson County, Wisconsin, is yet another unique park in that it has a deep-rooted connection with the indigenous people of Wisconsin.

     The preserve has 22 Native American conical mounds that are thousands of years old. Built by the ancestors of the Hocak (Ho-Chunk) tribe, conical mounds are round, dome-shaped and usually about 10 to 20 feet across and two to eight feet high constructed from dirt.

Mounds are not unique to the preserve, as Jefferson County also manages 11 effigy mounds along the shores of Lake Koshkonong at Indian Mounds Park. It also has a turtle effigy mound at Dorothy Carnes County Park and Rose Lake State Natural Area.

     Originally, the Garmans purchased the property planning to build their retirement home, but the Garmans soon found the conical mounds on the property. Plans changed. Eventually, The Dr. J.S. Garman Nature Preserve was gifted to Jefferson County in 2003 by Dr. Garman’s wife Theo, wishing to preserve this 40-acre wooded as a memorial in her late husband’s honor.

     Before Jefferson County took over ownership, some damage had been done to the mounds that led Jefferson County Parks to work with a coach from the Wisconsin Historical Society to fix some of that damage and restore the mounds to a place where they would be free from potential pitfalls. “We utilized the Ho-Chunk, (Wisconsin) DNR, and the National Park Service guidelines and mountain management to try and make those mounds as stable as possible for their long-term stability so that they can be there forever,” said Operations Supervisor for Jefferson County Parks, Kevin Wiesmann.

     The interpretive and wayfinding signage is an important addition to the park Wiesmann acknowledged. “You know people see how stunning they are, how beautiful they are, and always want to know about the history. I think it's hard to go to one of these sites and not want to know more, not want to know more about the peoples who built them, when they were built, why they were built. So, it's kind of been that long term desire for us to do more at those sites to help guide people's understanding, their knowledge. We're, you know, for now, we're the caretakers of the sites and we take that very seriously.” 

     The Park was gifted some funds through donations, and discussions were held at length about what would be done with those funds. Some money was used for ecological restoration at the Garman nature preserve removing and controlling invasive plants. Going a step further, Weismann said the question was asked, what can we do to create a better, more educational experience while adding a more holistic experience for park users?

     “So that was when we started to go through the process of deciding what and how and this might look like. We reached out to a bunch of firms, and ended up finding the 106 Group. I think one of the things that really stood out with the 106 Group, when we were doing those interviews for a firm, we were going to work with, was their previous experience and previous projects and interpreting Native American cultural sites. We knew what we wanted to do but we're not the designers, we're not necessarily educators. They have staff members who are educators that design curriculum, they have graphic artists, they have all these people on board,” Weismann shared.

     As work progressed on the project, the 106 Group reached out to Hocak tribal member Bill Quackenbush who works in the tribe’s Heritage Preservation Department. Quackenbush, who has extensive dealings with mounds across the state and country, helped explain the history of his tribe concerning the mounds.

     Weismann said that he, along with Joani Crave who was on a committee that helped guide and help the parks department through the design process, held a strong desire to have original artwork be a part of this project. “We wanted to have something that was unique. So, we talked through that process, I mean, we all really liked the idea that this would be filtered through the lens of someone who lives the experience of being Native American, being a Hocak,” he said.

     The project was put in touch with Hocak artist Christopher Sweet who did some draft drawings for planned interpretative panels at the entrance to the preserve and at the mound group. Weismann said that from the first draft that he did, everyone loved the way Sweet incorporated color and texture into his art. “His artwork is just, it's really fantastic!", exclaimed Weismann.

     Sweet quickly found himself a part of the team and integrated all the conversations and information into his artwork. Eventually, all the content for the panels was developed. The creation of the panels took an extended amount of time to complete. Weismann shared, “It was a back-and-forth process coordinating all these different people from different places to not only read the information, but come out and read the information and actually walk those sites to make sure that the everything we're talking about is relating to the story we're trying to tell. It's been a wonderful process, it's one of those things, it's probably once in my career that I'll get an opportunity to do something like this, but it was certainly something we wanted to make sure we did right and took our time, and included all the right people so that we could get it true and accurate, and I think the group did that for sure.”

     Weismann acknowledged some of the other people present for the unveiling saying, “We do have some of our board members who are here. Steve Nass is the Jefferson County Board Chair. He's also a long-term member of the Jefferson County Parks Committee. Dick Jones, who is a representative from Waterloo, on Jefferson County County's board, Jeff Johns who is our current Park's Committee Chair for Jefferson County Board. Dick is the guy you gotta be nice to because he's Chair of the Finance Committee,” Weismann said with a chuckle.

     Kennedy Regine, 106 Group’s Planning & Engagement Manager felt that the tribe’s involvement was also important saying, “We had the Hocak Nation involved and a native artist involved from the very beginning of the project, it was important that they be involved to tell their story on this place which is their place. Bill Quackenbush was out here. He and Kevin walked the site together; they talked about the restoration, and Kevin and Bill talked about the care of the mounds, how to care for the mounds, the condition and all of that, so it was really powerful. He (Quackenbush) talked about bringing elders out here to the site as well once the signs are in and kind of everything is set, so we'll be in touch with him to make arrangements to do that.”

     “The 106 Group approached me with this was a while back,” Hocak artist Christopher Sweet said with a smile. He recalled, “It was last year, and they needed someone, they wanted a Hocak artist to do some illustrations for some signage in this park. I was honored to be asked. So, I jumped at the opportunity. So here I am, almost like a year later, and we're finally doing an unveiling. I haven't seen the completed signs yet, so I'm pretty excited to see how they turned out. I believe the original artwork is on display at a building on the property. It's a really beautiful park, and it's a great place to get out and hike and see the trails, and see the conical mounds. When you walk up there by the by the mounds, it really brings real good feelings, spiritually. This day is incredible, I mean it's a perfect, beautiful day, the sun is shining, I think down on this whole project and this beautiful site. So, it really represents a lot of work coming together and I just feel like the ancestors are really happy to be with us here today.”

     Sweet had two of his biggest fans with him supporting his efforts, his Nanis (mothers), Lenore Sweet and Connie Lonetree. Lonetree said though she usually attends church on Saturdays, Lenore said she wanted to have some company with her to see this art show her son Chris was putting on in Waterloo, Wisconsin. “I never heard of Waterloo before, and I said this is where Napoleon Bonaparte, had his battle,” she said jokingly. “Well anyway, I'm very happy to be here. It's beautiful up here, I can see why the Hocak wanted to live up here, because it's very peaceful. I guess, the mounds used to face east, but now the trees have grown up and kind of covered it up, but anyway it's a beautiful day, and I'm very happy to be here. And I'm thankful to all the relatives that are here that showed up today. Lenore and I were wondering if they actually did a ceremony too when they first opened this up, because part of our Ho-Chunk culture is that you have to sing four songs, four sacred songs, flag songs, and stuff like that. We were wondering if they laid down waksik tani (Native American tobacco) and stuff like that, because these are sacred sites that we're on right now. And whenever you see mounds, a lot of the people that live around them even hear singing and hear all kinds of activity around these because they're very sacred. So those are spirits in there.”

     Lenore shook her head in agreement adding, “I'm truly amazed with this beautiful, beautiful place. You can just feel how the people used to live in the old days, you know, real living off the land and living in a very nice countryside without it being spoiled. That's how the natives used to live, you know, they moved from place to place, depending on the resources, but I don't think I would leave this place, this is just beautiful. Well, I've always liked living in the country because I guess that's how we were brought up but, unfortunately, I live in town. But this would be ideal, you would never have to go any place,” she said with a wide smile.