Vernon County Museum Notes

Vernon County Museum Notes

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November is Native American Heritage Month. Wisconsin has much to celebrate this month, since our state is home to more American Indian tribes than any other state east of the Mississippi River. These tribes include the Ho-Chunk, the Menominee, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, the Mohican, and the Oneida.

The Ho-Chunk and the Menominee have always been in the land now called Wisconsin, according to their origin stories. The Ojibwe and the Potawatomi moved here from the east and the south several centuries ago, and the Mohican and the Oneida came here from New York in the early 1800s

Unlike other ethnicities in this country, American Indian tribal affiliation is also a political identity, because tribes are also sovereign nations within the larger U.S. This is sometimes reflected in the official name of a tribe, such as Ho-Chunk Nation and Oneida Nation. Because American Indians were the first people to live here, their nations are often called First Nations.

Wisconsin is home to 12 American Indian nations. Six of them are different bands of the Ojibwe people. In addition to the American Indian nations currently living in Wisconsin, others lived here temporarily at various times in the past, including the Kickapoo and the Dakota. You can learn much more about tribes in Wisconsin from the excellent website wisconsinfirstnations.org.

One of the ways in which Native American heritage affects the daily life of all Wisconsinites is through place names. Many place names in our state are based on words from different American Indian languages, with varying degrees of accuracy. But some Wisconsin place names were just made up to sound like American Indian words. It’s possible that the name of Viroqua, the largest city in Vernon County, is one of these.

The origin of the city’s name has many possible sources, the most concrete being an 1848 novel, “Viroqua; or, The Flower of the Ottawas, a Tale of the West,” by Emma Carra. The museum owns a copy of this book. The story is purportedly about the Ottawa tribe, but the author doesn’t seem to have had much knowledge of American Indians. So the question becomes, is “Viroqua” actually an American Indian name?

In his 1991 book, “Indian Names on Wisconsin’s Map,” Virgil Vogel writes about the name Viroqua and about this novel. He suggests that Viroqua is “probably a manufactured name”, and notes that novelist Emma Carra “made little effort to use credible names for her characters”.

Vogel also writes that the “terminal syllable -qua [in Viroqua] is commonly attached to Algonquian women’s names.” (Algonquian is a language family that includes many Wisconsin Indian languages.) When Lester Randall, chair of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, visited Viroqua this past summer, he said something similar, that a Kickapoo woman’s name often ends in -qua or-quh.

But the beginning of the name, Viro-, has no apparent origin. So it’s possible that novelist Emma Carra created the name Viroqua based on American Indian names and words that she had heard.

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