I grew up in an area of the Midwest that had little diversity in its population. I don’t think there were any non-white residents of Sheboygan Falls when I lived there. There is a concentrated community of Asians in Sheboygan, though. When the United States fought in Vietnam, our government recruited many Hmong natives from neighboring Laos to assist in a secret part of the war being waged there. Various historical accounts debate what promises were made to the Hmong, but the general consensus was that we would assist these people at the end of the war. When we left, however, we abandoned the Hmong, who were then persecuted, victims of intended genocide by the Vietnamese and Thai. Eventually, we granted many Hmong refugee status in the United States in a feeble attempt to make up for our misdeeds.
This was a people from southeastern Asia, though, and why our government chose to settle them primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota is absolutely beyond me. Their adjustment to life in the United States would be hard enough – why place them in a harsh and bitterly cold climate that couldn’t be more different than the tropics they came from? Large communities of Hmong were settled in cities like Sheboygan and Kenosha, but they were persecuted for their different cultural beliefs, and viewed as incapable people that were only here to live off of welfare. They were ridiculed openly, and still face discrimination today. I never personally knew any Hmong people, but they do reflect one of my earliest senses of cultural difference living in an area full of white people of mostly European descent.
The only other cultural subgroup I knew of while growing up was the Indian. There is a rich history of Native Americans in Wisconsin, and many of the towns and cities carry Native American names, such as Menominee, Winnebago, Waukesha, Kewaunee, Waupaca, Manitowoc, Ozaukee, and Oconomowoc. There are two rivers with the name Kinnickinnic, which referred to a blend of tobacco and other plants, or literally, “what is mixed” in Ojibwa. Sheboygan has Native American origins as well, though many scholars debate the correct translation of the name. These names roll off my tongue with ease, but whenever I speak them aloud to others that are unfamiliar with them, I often have to repeat myself and even spell the words for people to make sense of the sounds.
I learned at a young age I wasn’t supposed to talk about Indians. I didn’t understand why it might offend someone. There are eleven federally recognized Native American tribes still in Wisconsin, but unfortunately, people like my grandparents and great-grandparents were not far enough removed from their ancestors that they had forgotten the clashes between the white man and the Indian. Still, there has been some effort to preserve sacred burial grounds, and there have been some significant archaeological finds, too. There’s a park on the south side of Sheboygan called Indian Mound Park. It contains effigy mounds created by the Native Americans. They were burial sites, and mounds of earth were built over graves in the shapes of animals the Native Americans held sacred – deer, turtles, panthers. Effigy mounds can be found outside of Wisconsin, but the largest concentration of them is in Southern Wisconsin.
There’s also an old family homestead, owned by the Henschels, which operates a small Indian museum. Their property near the Sheboygan Marsh, once a glacial lake, is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest red ochre burial ground, and dates somewhere between 600 and 800 B.C. The ancient burial site was accidentally discovered when a farmer was plowing and his horses fell through the ground into a big hole. A number of Native Americans were positioned, seated in a circle, and buried together in what was surely an ancient ritual practice. I found I am related to the Henchels by marriage in my genealogy research. The farmer whose horses fell through the hole is the uncle of the husband of my second great-grand aunt. This family is said to have co-existed with the Indians in the mid-1850s, and their museum is full of artifacts found on their property.
Many of the people I knew in Wisconsin took all this rich history for granted. I didn’t begin to appreciate it until I had been away for more than a decade, myself. I never understood all the prejudice against anyone that wasn’t white and German or maybe Nordic, but we were never confronted with much difference, either, so like many people, I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I got older. I realized at a young age that I had a real interest in other cultures. I’d always wanted to travel, but never thought it would be possible. Almost no one I knew of in my family had ever travelled far. It was a big deal to go to out of state – most people rarely leave the immediate area, let alone travel outside the Midwest.
I did eventually figure out how to get out of the Midwest, and I’ve traveled internationally some, though not as much as I’d like. I’ve been to Thailand, Costa Rica, London, and Amsterdam. My genealogy research has set my sights on Eastern Europe. I have had a hard time digging up information on my father’s grandfather, the stowaway from Romania, before his life in the states, so I hope one day to go to the village he came from to see what I can uncover about his family. Of course, living in the Bay Area, I’m surrounded by diversity now, and that’s a good thing.
What were some of your early lessons about diversity? International travel experiences?