Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


Lessons from the Kickapoo: Radical Conviviality in Community Conservation

Paul Robbins and Marcy West

The Kickapoo River has carved through layers of sandstone and limestone for millions of years

The Kickapoo River is a slowly twisting watercourse, carved into the unglaciated landscapes of Wisconsin’s “Driftless” region, abutted by magnificent bluffs with flora and fauna handed down from the Pleistocene Epoch. But the Kickapoo’s serene meander disguises a history of tragedy, removal, and conflict. Today it is a community-managed resource, jointly governed by the local people of the region and the sovereign nation of the indigenous Ho-Chunk people. That achievement is a kind of American miracle, as unlikely as it is important, serving as a model for doing conservation right.

Up from the Ashes

In the early 1970s, a proposed mega-dam flood control project on the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin was brought to a standstill in the face of organized environmental opposition, careful science, and skyrocketing costs. But by then, the damage had been done. Dam building came to a halt only after most of its construction was complete. 149 farm families had been removed from their land. These settlers had themselves replaced the native Ho-Chunk people, whose violent forced removal and ethnic cleansing came with the cession of their land in the early 19th century. It is difficult to overstate the degree of psychological trauma and anger associated with the creation, and subsequent cancellation, of the La Farge dam.

Subsequently, the valley fell into silent neglect, with half a giant berm jutting out across the waterway (it can still be seen today). The land became a destination for competing users: hunters, foragers, campers, horse-riders, and reckless All-Terrain Vehicle drivers. Governance over the land had collapsed, however, leading to some ecological recovery, but also to invasive species, landscape destruction, and ongoing degradation.

Although Nature has reclaimed some of the constructed berm, the water control tower serves as a monument to how close the dam was to being completed

And then something extraordinary happened. Rising from this bureaucratic and political quagmire emerged the Kickapoo Valley Reserve – a locally devised partnership between residents, dispossessed families, and the sovereign Ho-Chunk nation. Unique in the United States, this reserve is community-managed, autonomous from federal authority, and collaborative between white settler descendants and sovereign indigenous ones. Its rules make no pretense to a “wilderness” but do parse out rights and responsibilities for locals and visitors, making it one of the most welcoming landscapes in the US Midwest. It finds mention in Ashish Kothari’s state of radical well being.

This unique management structure began in 1996, when the US Congress made a surprising decision; it directed the property’s erstwhile managers, the Army Corps of Engineers, to return up to 1,200 acres to the former Native American inhabitants—the Ho-Chunk Nation—and the rest to the State of Wisconsin. The Kickapoo Reserve Management Board now oversees the entire 8,600-acre public property. Preserving the land’s return to nature, the 1996 act directs the Ho-Chunk and the State to protect the Kickapoo Valley Reserve while allowing low-impact tourism and education. Unlike any other natural area in the US, it is not a Federal reserve, state park, or county or municipal property. Rather, it is a place governed by two communities, each with histories of distrust and conflict.

Two Peoples in Dialogue

The creation of the reserve was unique, not only in this remarkable outcome, but also in the complex negotiations and agreements that underlay an unprecedented relationship. Symbolically and ceremoniously, these communities came together on one chilly afternoon in May of 2001 on the site of what would become the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center, with the final transfer of the land completed on site that day.

Traditional Ho-Chunk Nation dancers at the celebration of the Kickapoo land transfer

The Ho-Chunk Nation brought traditional dancers in full costume and the drum circle with traditional song. Local high schools brought their bands for the event. Speeches were made, and food was shared. Parallels of what the residents and ancestors had been through could not be missed. Native Americans and white farmers both had been removed from this land and now it was returned to them, to care for on behalf of the public. Especially touching were the elders of each group, seated next to one another, sharing stories and coming to the realization that they had as much in common as they did differences. The music, dance, food and toasts to a bright future have been compared to a wedding ceremony.

While the party was fun, the marriage would take work. From the outset, there were disagreements about who would control the land. Originally, the Ho-Chunk Nation was not included in the agreement at all and were only added later. On the other hand, had some alternate arrangements not failed, the Ho-Chunk would have been chosen to manage the entire 8,600-acre property with no non-native involvement. So, even in the genesis of the plan, the inclusion of all stakeholders had not been guaranteed and trust was scarce. Rumors circulated in local white communities that the Reserve represented an “Indian Land Grab” that would come with casinos and further exclusion.

Learning by Doing

Nonetheless, once the decision was made, the two communities were culturally and politically entwined and each became committed to the future of the project. Representatives of the KRMB and Ho-Chunk Nation staff had developed working relationships during the two years prior to the land transfer. Each were getting to know the property, working together on cleanup sites and negotiating boundaries and policies. Two members from the Ho-Chunk Nation were added to the Reserve’s Management Board, nominated directly by the Ho-Chunk Nation President.

Equally significant was the protection of cultural resources throughout the property. Desecration of archeological sites brings serious penalties and sites across the property were inventoried and mapped to ensure their protection. Though many of the burial mounds within the Reserve were looted prior to the transfer, moving forward, both communities would treat them as sacred.

Jurisdictional issues with tribal laws complicated things even further. From the outset, it wasn’t clear whether the Ho-Chunk Nation or local police authorities would enforce rules, on which part of the reserve, and at whose expense. Once again, a compromise was reached by jointly contracting the local Sheriff’s Department for enforcement throughout the site. Funding came from both the state and the tribe. Again, these were institutional configurations without precedent.

As these arrangements took root, new models of joint land management emerged. Water quality testing, forest inventory data and recreational trail restorations are all managed cooperatively. The Ho-Chunk worked with the locally headquartered Organic Valley Cooperative to convert agriculture fields on part of the land to meet organic standards. Federal funding also enabled the Ho-Chunk to restore historic structures, build covered bridges and replace infrastructure. Land management planning all happens jointly.

The Kickapoo Reserve Management Board has successfully restored the ecology of the area, and now only allows low impact tourism and education activities in the reserve

The results have been an increased conviviality: a new kind of “living together” between native and non-native people. Over the years, local rumors about a Ho-Chunk Nation “land grab” have quieted considerably. Residents realize that their fear (or hope) of a casino being built on the property did not come to pass. Likewise, payments by the tribe to the local government have further illustrated the tribes’ commitment. When descendants of the former landowners indicate the land should have been “returned to the original owners,” representatives of the tribe quietly remind them that they agree but have a different opinion about who “the original” landowners are.

Lessons from the Kickapoo

The ultimate result of this slow development of rules, plans, and institutions has been the evolution of trust. In going through the fraught process of jointly managing this complex property, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve has, to a degree, healed both the land and the community. The lessons of the Kickapoo are that the social and biophysical are intertwined, that working towards a plan is preferable to waiting for one, and that solutions cannot be imposed but must be negotiated up from the bottom. This is radical, to be sure, but in a soft way that has invited a diverse range of people to come together.

These lessons in conviviality transcend Wisconsin’s Driftless area, of course, and can be found in the countless success stories of local community economies, alternative futures, and experiments in community conservation around the world. Even so, these are lessons that go unheeded in most traditional approaches to either conservation or development, in places where social and environmental reconciliation are so sorely needed.


Paul Robbins is the Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Marcy West is the Executive Director of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge Wisconsin




Discuss these articles on our forum

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: