Event helps preserve Emma Big Bear history

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The 11th annual Emma Big Bear and Winnebago History Day was held July 1, in Marquette. The event included several speakers as well an exhibit featuring baskets, jewelry, art, photos and research materials. Here, one of the speakers, Terry Landsgaard (center), looks at the baskets on display with other event attendees. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Wayne Kling, of the Tomah, Wis., Area Historical Society and Museum, talks about the Blue Wing Cemetery, where Emma Big Bear is buried. Emma's exact location is unknown, however, as a stone does not exist.

The goal in hosting Emma Big Bear Day, shared Rogeta Halvorson, secretary/treasurer of the Emma Big Bear Foundation, which was founded by her parents Roger and Connie in 2012, “is to preserve Winnebago history and the history of Emma Big Bear.”

Spencer Lone Tree was dubbed the "Elvis Presley of the Winnebago" by Emma, who was his great-aunt. In commemoration, he sang an Elvis song at the event July 1.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

From viewing the baskets she once handcrafted to hearing personal stories shared by area residents, the life and legacy of Emma Big Bear was celebrated by many at the 11th annual Emma Big Bear and Winnebago History Day in Marquette on July 1.

Hosted by the non-profit Emma Big Bear Foundation, the event recognized what would have been Emma’s 148th birthday, and featured an exhibit of five personal collections of baskets, jewelry, photos, art and research materials. Three speakers presented on topics related to Emma and the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people.

The goal in hosting Emma Big Bear Day, shared Rogeta Halvorson, secretary/treasurer of the Emma Big Bear Foundation, which was founded by her parents Roger and Connie in 2012, “is to preserve Winnebago history and the history of Emma Big Bear.”

Emma, who died in 1968, was a beloved local figure, living in McGregor and Marquette, as well as the Paint Rock area near Waukon Junction and in southwest Wisconsin. She is remembered as the last full-blooded American Indian to live by traditional Winnebago/Ho-Chunk tribal means in everyday life in Clayton County.

“She was a very interesting person,” Halvorson said. “She lived her whole life in the traditional tribal means, and she loved to be in her native land. This is where she was comfortable.” 

A number of men and women who grew up in the area remember seeing, meeting and interacting with Emma as children, Halvorson said.

From watching Emma weave a basket to bringing her food, “people in this area knew her,” Halvorson added. 

Today, Emma’s well-known baskets and beadwork also keep that connection alive for many, maybe none more so than Terry Landsgaard.

“Emma’s always been a part of my life,” said Landsgaard, who spoke at the event about Emma’s baskets and their unique qualities. 

“She’s a family fixture,” he continued, noting that his family first came into contact with
Emma and her family in the Waukon Junction area. Every time he would visit Marquette and McGregor as a child, he and his father would search for Emma. Since then, he explained, “her baskets and beadwork were always at the forefront of my mind.”

Landsgaard, who’s collected a large number of Emma Big Bear baskets, many of which are displayed in cases outside the Marquette Community Center, said several characteristics distinguish Emma’s baskets, including their perfect balance and quality. 

Her baskets, Landsgaard said, are also wrapped to the left, with a slant to the left, as Emma appeared to be left-handed. The basket bottoms have a herringbone pattern, and the handles, which are typically notched, reach down to the bottom.

Landsgaard wasn’t the only individual in attendance who shared a personal connection to Emma. Singer and writer Spencer Lone Tree, the great-great-grandson of Chief Winneshiek and great-nephew to Emma, also spoke.

Lone Tree said he first began entertaining with bands in the Wisconsin Dells area when he was 16.

“Word spread quickly among the tribal leaders,” he said. Emma, living then in Iowa, also heard, and got some people to take her to Wisconsin Dells. Lone Tree recalled she brought some of her baskets and beadwork to sell when she visited.

Lone Tree was outside, playing basketball, when his father called him inside to sing for Emma. She requested an Elvis Presley song, he noted.

“When I finished, she dug into her purse and offered me some money,” he said. “I thought I was being a nice young man and refused, but I got in trouble. My mother scolded me and said I had insulted her by not taking the money, so I did. It was a valuable lesson. Whenever our elders give a gift, you should be honored.”

Lone Tree said Emma coined his nickname, “The Elvis Presley of the Winnebago,” and commemorated that by playing an Elvis song for the crowd.

The event’s third speaker, Wayne Kling, had no personal stories with Emma, but through his work with the Tomah, Wis., Area Historical Society and Museum, has learned a lot about the Blue Wing Cemetery, where Emma and many of her relatives are buried.

“Emma Big Bear was originally from the Tomah area, and had family there,” Kling said. “She is buried in Blue Wing Cemetery, but she does not have a stone.”

Halvorson said Kling has been instrumental in helping the Emma Big Bear Foundation with its goal of purchasing and placing a headstone.

Last year, $140 was raised for the project, said Halvorson. She hoped to increase that amount this year.

Placing a headstone is no easy task, however, Kling said.

“Cemetery records are not very good,” he admitted, and Emma’s exact location in the cemetery is unknown. “Traditionally, when someone died, the family did not want a marker on the grave—no concrete or marble stones. Instead, they had spirit houses made of wood.”

Over time, Kling said, those wooden structures disintegrated. Now, if you want a stone placed on a grave, the caretakers of the Blue Wing Cemetery will select the spot they believe the person is located.

“You know they’re in the cemetery, and you’re making a best guess as to where they are,” Kling said. “The point is to honor the person. It’s nice to honor the Native Americans who have contributed so much to the community.”

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