Standing atop the observation deck that wraps around the Wisconsin State Capitol, visitors gain a sense of the relationship between the landscape and the city. Two lakes, Monona and Mendota, push into the land, creating an isthmus. It seems you can see the whole story of Madison from that view. And you can, if you know how to see it.
Because long before there were outdoor concerts and farmers’ markets, this land was a tapestry of life for the native Ho-Chunk and their ancestors. And their spiritual connection to the land can still be felt today along hiking trails and sacred effigy mounds found throughout Dane County.
What is an Effigy Mound?
Built into shapes of bears, lizards, panthers, deer and water spirits, effigy mounds are earthen sculptures that had deep meaning for the people who built them. Some were burial mounds. Others had a significance that reflected their beliefs and worldviews. But each one that survived the onslaught of agriculture and development serves as a gateway to the stories and the spirits of those who built them.
Today, Wisconsin has 4,000 effigy mounds, the largest concentration in the world, and at one point may have had as many as 20,000. Before Europeans arrived, it’s estimated that Madison, or Teejop, as the Ho-Chunk call it, had more than 1,500 effigy mounds. There are approximately 200 remaining.
Effigy mounds are as sacred to today’s Ho-Chunk residents as they were to their ancestors. The mounds are reminders that they are stewards of the land that sustained their ancestors. And they are a way for all of us to begin to understand the story of this land was created on hilltops, along lakes and beside springs millennia before the State Capitol was constructed.
Finding Effigy Mounds in Madison
Several Madison parks contain effigy mounds including Bear Mound, Burrows, Hudson, Vilas, Edna Taylor Conservation parks, as well as Forest Hill Cemetery. UW-Madison has 38 effigy mounds on campus and at the Arboretum along Lake Wingra.
Elsewhere in Dane County, Indian Mound Conservation Area in McFarland, Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Yahara Heights County Park and Governor Nelson State Park are among the areas with effigy mounds visible from hiking trails.
The largest bird effigy mound in the world is also in Madison, on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute. The mound has a wingspan of 624 feet and a body that is 131 feet long. It is a testament to the importance the builders placed on connecting their beliefs with the land they called home.
How to Experience Effigy Mounds
Visitors and residents are invited to experience the effigy mounds in the area, many of which are in public parks and on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Please remember these sites are sacred to Ho-Chunk. Do not walk or climb on effigy mounds. Instead, use your time at effigy mounds for personal reflection and think about why that location may have been important to those who built them.