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Native American Herb and Vegetable Garden

In the backyard of the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse Archaeology Center and Laboratories Building is a luscious garden. Tiny as it may appear, every nook and cranny is full of ripening plants. Heirloom seeds and donated plants have grown into bountiful lush plants. Several harvests have provided much pleasure for the students and staff at MVAC. You may be wondering how does growing a garden relate to archaeology? Experimental archaeology can answer basic questions about the lifestyles and practices of the Oneota (1300-1625 AD) and Woodland (500BC- 1000 AD) peoples who lived in the La Crosse locality. Such questions include what kinds of tools were used and how effective these tools were, what methods of planting and harvesting work best, how much yield is possible and so on. Experimental archaeology creates hands-on activities that can't be found in textbooks. Through these experiences interpretations of the past can be made. The garden functions as a unique learning tool for archaeologists and the public.

Garden Herb Garden
Corn, beans, squash Vegetable Garden


Click on one of the following links if you would like to hear Merlin Red Cloud Jr. talk about gardens.  You will need a player to listen to the MP3 files.  Click here if you want to download a free version of RealPlayer.

The Native American Herb and Vegetable garden would not be possible without great contributions from Merlin Red Cloud Jr., a member of the Ho Chunk Nation, who has taken the time to share oral garden traditions with us and his vast knowledge of gardening.  He has helped by providing family heirloom seeds, continues to stop by and check on the garden and assists with the harvest.  The garden would not be possible without funding.  Grants from University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, College of Liberal Studies for Faculty Development and Summer Projects provided the funding necessary to work with Ho Chunk Historic Preservation and tribal members as well as develop the garden, web pages and displays in the UW-L Archaeology Center and Laboratories.

Merlin Red Cloud Jr.
Merlin Red Cloud Jr.

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Every gardener must have the proper tools to get their garden prepared for planting and sowing and later for tending their crops. The MVAC gardeners are using tools that cannot be bought in any store and include no metal. These tools were made as replicas of garden tools used  by the Oneota.  The Oneota lived in the Coulee Region from 1300 to 1625AD. 

Bison scapula hoes were made from the shoulder blade of a bison and attached with sinew to a wooden branch. A clamshell can also be tied in the same fashion to a stick.  These types of hoes work just as well as metal hoes. Sections from deer antlers are also being used, and are extremely versatile for working on small sections of the garden.


Bison Scapula Hoe

Bison Scapula Hoe

Bison Scapula


Bison Scapula


Clam Shell Hoe

Clam Shell Hoe

Clam Shell Hoe

Clam Shell Hoe

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Ho Chunk Archive Photographs

Corn heap behind the car

Corn heap behind the car, unknown men.
The photographs are from and used with permission of the Ho Chunk Department of Heritage Preservation.  The following images were selected for this web page because each image contains the theme of gardening.  The images depict specific moments of food processing; from planting to harvesting, and some show how large a scale food production was.
Mrs. John Stacy picking cucumbers Berry picking
Mrs. John Stacy picking cucumbers. Berry picking, donated photograph from Keith Snake.
Girls husking corn at the Neillsville Indian School Boys husking corn at the Neillsville Indian School
Girls husking corn at the 
Neillsville Indian School.
Boys husking corn at the Neillsville Indian School.
Ruby Lincoln in the garden with digging stick Frank Lincoln's Moter removing cooked corn kernels from the cob
Ruby Lincoln in her 
garden with digging stick.
Frank Lincoln's Mother removing
cooked corn kernels from the cob.

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The following bibliography provides the sources used in this garden project.  We recommend these books for more information about traditional herb usage and Native American gardening.

Herbal References:

Densmore, Frances
1974   How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Gilmore, Melvin R.
1997   Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. University of Nebraska Press.

Hutchens, Alma R.
1992   A Handbook of Native American Herbs. Boston, MA: Shambhalia Publications.

King, Frances B.
1984   Plants, People, and Paleoecology Biotic Communities and Aboriginal Plant Usage in Illinois, Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XX.

Moerman, Daniel E.
1998   Native American Ethnobotany. Portland Oregon: Timer Press Portland.

Garden References: 

Buchanan, Carol
1997  Brother Crow, Sister Corn.  Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press. 

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac
1996   Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects and Recipes for Families. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Wilson, Gilbert L.
1987  Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians.  St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Web Sites:

Seed Savers Exchange

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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse
1725 State Street, La Crosse, Wisconsin 54601 U.S.A.
Phone:  608-785-8463, Webmaster

All material Copyright 2000-2014 Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse

*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.