Annual Emma Big Bear Day is July 1 in Marquette

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The 11th annual Emma Big Bear and Winnebago History Day program will be held Saturday, July 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Marquette Community Center. The event will include speakers, as well as exhibits containing baskets, jewelry, art, photographs, stories and more. This recently-discovered photo shows 19th century chiefs and leaders, some of whom were related to Emma Big Bear.

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

Everyone is invited to attend the 11th annual Emma Big Bear and Winnebago History Day program on Saturday, July 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Marquette Community Center, 102 North St. This free program marks what would have been the 148th birthday of Emma Big Bear, who was born July 5, 1869, and died Aug. 21, 1968. 

The event is hosted by the non-profit Emma Big Bear Foundation, which was founded in 2012 by Roger and Connie Halvorson.

The event moved to the community center last year, after out-growing space at Eagles Landing Winery.

“[The event] is growing,” said Rogeta Halvorson, Roger and Connie’s daughter and secretary/treasurer of the Emma Big Bear Foundation. “There’s growing interest from people because it’s such an interesting part of history.”

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the public is invited to browse the foundation’s large exhibit containing five personal collections of artifacts and handiwork, like baskets and beaded jewelry, created by Emma Big Bear and other Winnebago artisans. 

Also on display will be research materials from the Pat and Shorty Matt estate, portraits and photo art collections and personal stories and accounts by local Emma Big Bear friends and her Decorah/Blue Wing families.

“We also invite people to bring along their baskets,” Halvorson said. “Our experts can authenticate them.” 

The event will feature several speakers, sharing new pieces of history.

At 11 a.m., Wayne Kling, of the Tomah Area Historical Society and Museum, in Tomah, Wis., will present tales of Emma Big Bear’s Blue Wing side of the family. Kling will also share history about the Blue Wing family cemetery, as well as notable burials like Ah-Who-Choe-Go, Winnebago Chief Blue Wing (Emma’s maternal grandfather), Mary Blue Wing (Emma’s mother), Emma Big Bear herself, three Winnebago Civil War veterans, Moses Decorah and more. 

Rogeta Halvorson will share information about the foundation’s current fundraising efforts and plans to purchase a headstone for Emma Big Bear’s unmarked grave. Kling, who knows the Blue Wing Cemetery caretakers and Ho-Chunk leaders in Black River Falls, will help make this headstone project a reality.

At 12:30 p.m., Terry Landsgaard, of West Union, a Winnebago historian and basket collector, will relay actual family stories of Emma Big Bear and the Winnebago families who lived on his grandfather’s farm near Festina, in northeast Iowa. 

Landsgaard has a collection of over 75 Emma Big Bear and Winnebago baskets. He personally received some of them from Emma Big Bear and other Winnebago friends when he was a child. Part of his collection is on permanent display in the lobby of the Marquette Community Room, to view not just during the program but all year long. Landsgaard will also teach attendees how to spot an Emma Big Bear or Winnebago basket, along with how to maintain them.

At 1:30 p.m., Emma Big Bear family member Spencer Lone Tree, of Postville, will briefly update attendees on the status of “Spirit of the Wilderness,” book three of his five-part “Night Sun” series, which conveys the 19th century, first-hand accounts and stories told to him by his grandparents. 

In addition, Lone Tree will identify Winnebago villages and chiefs in Iowa and Wisconsin and talk about the “Trail of Tears” as the Winnebago people were moved by the U.S. government throughout a multi-state region and away from their beloved homeland. 

Lastly, Lone Tree will sing the Lord’s Prayer in Ho-Chunk, as well as Emma Big Bear’s favorite songs. Lone Tree will also autograph books one and two from his five-part series.

Each year, Halvorson said members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, as well as family members and acquaintances of Emma Big Bear, attend the event, interacting with the speakers and audience members.

“You can ask them personal questions about Emma,” she said. “We always pick up little things about her.”

Coming from a long line of famous Decorah and Blue Wing family chiefs of the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) nation, Emma Big Bear is a beloved local figure. She lived the last quarter of her life as a widow, losing her child in 1944 and her husband, Henry Holt, in 1945, and made her ancestral homeland her home. Big Bear refused to live on a reservation and did not wander far from the graves of her ancestors. She preferred to live in the prehistoric area by Effigy Mounds’ sacred space along the Mississippi River, near McGregor and Marquette, the sacred Paint Rock area between Waukon Junction and Harpers Ferry, and in southwest Wisconsin. 

Although Emma Big Bear is long gone, she will be remembered for being the last full-blooded American Indian to live by traditional Winnebago/Ho-Chunk tribal means in everyday life in Clayton County, and possibly all of northeast Iowa. Many locals helped her sustain her day-to-day life.

The Emma Big Bear Foundation is an endowed fund. At $10,000 in donations raised, an Iowa foundation is “endowed” and may draw on the interest made each year to operate the next year’s program and also to operate the foundation. As the Emma Big Bear Foundation grows, foundation directors may expand their efforts to put on bigger events, hire new speakers, market and advertise more programs and the foundation itself. Contributors may receive a 25 percent tax credit on their state tax returns.

Learn more at EmmaBigBearFoundation.org/emmas-story.html. Find program and fundraising information on the “Emma Big Bear Foundation” Facebook page or call Rogeta Halvorson at (563) 880-9190.

Please note that Marquette’s Fourth of July celebration will also be held July 1, so the public is recommended to arrive earlier than 11 a.m. for the best parking. The streets will temporarily close from 1 to 1:45/2 p.m. for the parade, but will immediately open after its completion.

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