Ho-Chunk people are the Indigenous people of Wisconsin, and their influence on the county of La Crosse is tied to their continual presence here. Prior to colonization, they were primarily hunters, farmers, and fishermen. The Ho-Chunk people were forcibly removed by the US Government, but many families journeyed back to their homeland of Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk Nation is a sovereign nation, and their people live here yet today.

The Naming of La Crosse

The city of La Crosse occupies land that was once a wide, flat sand prairie that was home to a band of Ho-Chunk. They called this area Hinukwas Eja (hee-nook-was aja) after the shape of two hills nearby. In 1673, French colonists led by Rev. Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet visited the area. It is unknown why or how, but this is the first known time that the area began to be called Prairie à la Crosse. The name “Prairie La Crosse” continued until the mid 1800s, when locals dropped “Prairie” from the name to distinguish La Crosse From Prairie du Chien.

One legend says that these French colonists witnessed a group of Indigenous peoples playing what they called “The Creator’s Game.” Many Indigenous tribes and clans in the Great Lakes region used this game as a way to determine wealth, land, social status, and prestige. It was also sometimes used as a religious ceremony, to prepare for battle, or for recreation. According to this legend, the wooden sticks reminded the French of a bishop’s staff, la crozier (la crow-zee-ay) hence the name “La Crosse.” However, this legend is not supported by primary source evidence.

The above section written by the La Crosse Public Library Archives. Sources: Wisconsin Historical Society, “Expedition of Marquette and Joliet, 1673;” and 2015 interviews conducted by Calli Niemi and Callie O’Conner with Chloris Lowe Jr. and James Blackdeer.