The Indigenous History of the Garden

By ACG History Intern, Samantha Hertel.


Burial Mounds and the University of Wisconsin

Is Allen Centennial Garden a place with Indigenous history? There are no burial mounds located directly on the grounds of Allen Centennial Garden, but there are multiple mound groupings in the greater Lakeshore area that lie adjacent to the Garden. The region that is referred to as DA-1238 on the map below is the closest defined Native American habitation site, or region that was once inhabited by a group of people, to the grounds of the Garden. Although the map draws habitation sites and non-habitation sites with straight lines, it is important to remember that settlement was not as square and carefully delineated in real life. The people that once occupied these habitation sites utilized this land at their discretion without carefully drawn borders, and therefore very likely lived, gardened, and gathered in and around Allen Centennial Garden. A 2005 archeological investigation into the burial mounds and habitation sites on campus concluded the region between Lake Mendota and the Garden was once a mound and habitation site based on flint chips and arrow points that were discovered within the soil. Although archeologist Charles E. Brown had already identified this as a habitation site in 1929, campus leaders have developed it over the past 100 years. Today, roads, residence halls, and other buildings have replaced the three burial mounds that were in this area. Only the areas around large oak trees have been left undisturbed.

Excavation of goose effigy mound from Willow Drive mound group, directed by Charles E. Brown (left), circa 1920s. From the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The state of Wisconsin is home to thousands of burial mounds and there are dozens scattered throughout UW’s campus. Much is still unknown about UW’s burial mounds. There has been debate surrounding what groups constructed them and when, but researchers have come to one definitive conclusion: the University of Wisconsin is home to more mounds in greater variety than any other college campus in the United States, and probably the world. Counting the UW Arboretum, there are 38 burial mounds on campus in six groupings. Five mound groups and fourteen individual mounds are no longer visible or have been destroyed by agricultural practices or the expansion of the university. 

Map of archeological sites found at UW-Madison.

Indian burial mounds are large patches of raised earth that were used for the burial of tribal members by groups of Indigenous people throughout North America. Burial mounds are conical, ovular, or linear, but the largest and most spectacular, called effigy mounds, take on the shapes of birds, deer, bears, turtles, or even people. Archaeologists believe that effigy mounds were shaped into the likeness of animals to signify clan membership or to denote the spiritual beliefs of their builders. The thousands of burial mounds found throughout North America vary in age as well as shape and size. Archeologists believe the oldest burial mounds in North America to be 2,800 years old while the youngest were completed around the time of the initial contact between Indigenous groups and European settlers roughly 350 years ago. Although burial mounds have been studied for nearly 200 years by archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists, little is definitively known about their purposes, construction, or traditional significance. 

Indigenous Plants and Allen Centennial Garden

Allen Centennial Garden is not a native landscape, rather, it contains a wide variety of plants that have been planted across time and space. But found within some of our gardens are plants that are native to Wisconsin that have been grown and utilized by the Ho-Chunk and other native peoples. Among other plants, ACG is home to native fauna including the American Hazelnut, Bloodroot, and the Cattail, a perennial staple in the lives of Indigenous populations that had access to them.

List of plants that have been used by the Winnebago. From the Bureau of American Ethnology.


The Cattail is a versatile plant that can be used in a myriad of ways depending upon time of year and need. According to Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask, the pollen of the Cattail is considered the real prize of the plant. Only usable for a few days each spring, the golden pollen is carefully extracted by shaking the green stalks over a bowl and catching as much of the bright powder as possible. The elusive pollen has been used in baked goods, most notably in baking beautiful golden-yellow pancakes that have a “delightful” flavor. In addition to eating them, Indigneous communities have harvested Cattail leaves and stalks and woven them into baskets, mats, lodge rooftops, and toys. To amuse the youngest members of Indigenous communities, the dried leaves of the Cattail have been folded and twisted to create “No Face” dolls or even little duck toys that can float on water. 

Recipe for Cattail-pollen pancakes. From Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask.

 At Allen Centennial Garden, culturally important plants continue to play an expanding role in our Garden. Our Cattails are an important part of our pond ecosystem, helping to keep the water clean and clear, much as they do in natural lakes. We continue to take pride in our prairie and woodland gardens full of native plants. This year, we look forward to hosting a new Three Sisters Garden that will highlight corn, beans, and squash along with Indigneous techniques of growing them. Perhaps more importantly, we are excited to be partnering with members of the Indigneous on-campus community as we plant and cultivate our garden with Native American Center for Health Professions at UW–Madison. 

The Bloodroot, currently planted in the Wisconsin Woodland Garden and utilized by the Winnebago.