Celebrate Emma Big Bear’s 150th birthday at July 6 event

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Emma Big Bear (Photo courtesy of Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret)

Five collections of Emma Big Bear and Ho-Chunk baskets, along with jewelry, photos, books and resource materials, will be on display at the annual Emma Big Bear Day, held July 6 in Marquette. (North Iowa Times file photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Celebrate the 150th birthday of local icon Emma Big Bear at the annual Emma Big Bear and Ho-Chunk History Day, held Saturday, July 6, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Marquette Community Center.

“We’ve had such a good response from people. The programs are growing,” said Rogeta Halvorson, whose parents, Roger and Connie Halvorson, started the Emma Big Bear Foundation that holds the event each year. “People just love Emma. They have stories about her, they met her, saw her or have one of her baskets.”

Emma, recognized as the last full-blooded Native American to live in Clayton County, was born in 1869. She took pride in the fact that she was a direct descendant of Winnebago Chief Waukon Decorah. Emma was uncomfortable with the idea of moving to a reservation, as she wished to stay close to the graves of her ancestors.

Each year, Halvorson said the foundation tries to focus Emma Big Bear Day, which includes presentations by several speakers, around a theme. 

“I was thinking, ‘I wonder what life was like for Emma?’” Halvorson shared—and a theme was born. “Each speaker will focus on not just Emma’s life at that time, but what the Ho-Chunk were going through then.”

The first presenter, Wayne Kling, will go on at 11:30 a.m. A member of the Tomah, Wis., Historical Society and a Ho-Chunk historian, he will speak about Ho-Chunk involvement in the Civil War and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

“Emma was born in a cabin by Tomah,” said Halvorson, and she’s also buried in the Blue Wing Cemetery there. “We love that we’ve connected with Wayne. He loves Ho-Chunk history and is in the process of writing two books.”

Kling will provide details about Emma Big Bear’s burial in Blue Wing Cemetery, as well as the new Ho-Chunk Museum in Tomah.

“We’d like to bring more attention to Emma’s mother’s Blue Wing side of the family,” Halvorson noted, “as well as the Decorahs, her father’s side.”

At 1:30 p.m., attendees will hear from Terry Landsgaard, an Emma Big Bear historian and  expert on the Ho-Chunk baskets she was known for creating. He will discuss what life was like for Emma and her family 150 years ago and help those gathered learn how to identify and collect Emma Big Bear and Ho-Chunk baskets.

“Terry’s grandfather had a farm west of here,” said Halvorson, “and Emma’s family would camp there. Terry was a little boy then, and he would trade baskets and talk with her.”

Five collections of Emma Big Bear and Ho-Chunk baskets will be on display throughout the day, along with jewelry, photos, books and resource materials. Halvorson welcomes people to share any baskets or artifacts they have. Either she or Landsgaard can look at the baskets and determine if they are Ho-Chunk-made.

Attendees are welcome to stay for all or part of the day, Halvorson said. 

She appreciates that the city of Marquette allows use of the air conditioned community center for the event. For the best nearby parking, people are encouraged to arrive early. Marquette’s annual Fourth of July parade will be held downtown beginning at 1 p.m.

For more information, contact the Emma Big Bear Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, by calling (563) 880-9190, visiting their Facebook page, or going to EmmaBigBearFoundation.org.

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