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Clayton Counties Last Native American, Emma Big Bear
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Clayton Counties Last Native American, Emma Big Bear

Do you know who Emma Big Bear was? What do you know about the Winnebago Indians? Come to Marquette, on June 30, 2018, for the FREE Annual Emma Big Bear Day/Basket Exhibits in the Community Center. Take a day trip for the glorious views of the River Bluff Scenic Byway. Enjoy the guest speakers and many exhibits on display from regional Native American culture. 

Emma Big Bear was born July 5, 1869, in Tomah, Monroe Co., Wisconsin. She lived most of her life around small Northeast Iowa Mississippi River towns. Emma claimed to be a direct descendant of Winnebago Chief Waukon Decorah. Emma refused to live on an Indian Reservation, but she stayed close to the gravesites of her ancestors, such as Effigy Mounds along the Mississippi River.

Emma was married to twice. Little is known of her first husband, Little Beaver. Her second husband, William J. “Henry” Holt lived until 1944. With this union, they had one daughter, Emmaline. Emmaline past away in 1945, so Emma Big Bear moved to McGregor, Iowa. Due to flooding, Emma moved to Marquette. When Emma became ill, she moved into a nursing home. She lived out the rest of her life there, until her passing on August 21, 1968, at the age of 99 years.

Emma would barter by skinning muskrats and raccoons for local hunters and trappers in exchange for meat. She is best known for making baskets. Her baskets, beadwork, and herb gathering was her main source of income. She would sell her goods by the Marquette Bridge or in downtown McGregor.

Emma Big Bear is gone but not forgotten. Keep history alive and head to the Annual Emma Big Bear Day in Marquette this June.

By Gianna Manternach

Image credit: Darla Kelchen CCDG

Leave a Comment

  1. Patrick Muller
    I did not know of this Iowan. Thanks for sharing. I bet this sculpture represents one of the few statues of a First Nation woman in Iowa. If there are more, I wonder where they are and who they represent?
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