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W-File: gh_columbiaspirits.html

Type: Ghost
Location: Columbia County, Wisconsin

Source: The book Northern Frights by Dennis Boyer (published 1998) pages 169-174.


Columbia's Imprisoned Spirits


Dennis Boyer's Introduction

Despite some clues and some prodding from sources, I was as reluctant to place Portage with a northwoods collection as I had been with the Dells. In spite of the years of driving past the sign on Highway 51 designating Portage as the place "where the north begins," I was not a believer. Time spent in that town as a state employee and a railroad worker did little to convince me that it had any north-country flavor.

It turned out that the equation was reversed in my mind and on the roadside sign. It is not the place where the north begins. It is the place where the north ends. You must look closely for signs of the northwoods around Portage. But south of the city there is a clear transition to more open farm country and a change in mood. Things feel less cranky and less eccentric south of Portage.

If my many sources were right, there should have been a focus of restless spirits in Portage. The flow of the Wisconsin River; the traditional link to the Fox River system, and history of old Fort Winnebago should have seen to that. But years of inquiry brought no leads. As often happens with searches, I found this story just as I was about to give up looking. The lead came on an indirect route: a call for assistance in gaining access to traditional spiritual counseling for an American Indian incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution. It was not the first time I had been asked to use my connections to deal with the cultural misunderstandings and paranoia that arise in correctional settings. But it did take a strange turn as my simple desire to help someone find his way through the bureaucratic maze evolved into my last northwoods ghost story.

Wilson was not sure where to start. Despite his range of experience and sophistication, he was frustrated by things seen and heard inside the prison. He asked me to meet him in a room that he had rented in a boarding house near the Soo Line railyard. I was surprised to find it was the very room I had lived in when I worked for the Milwaukee Road some twenty years earlier: It turned out that our lives overlapped in a number of places.

The Story From Wilson

A-ho, ghost hunter! Thanks for coming. The Great Spirit has favored me with the spiritual road and the opportunity to help others. But sometimes the things of the white man confuse me enough that I must ask questions. So we are all teachers and students in our turns. It is our time to teach each other and for our paths to run together for a time. It is more the surprise that it has not happened before. You know, we are with the same union? Also, do you know that we belong to the same ancient fraternal order? And that we served in the same unit in Vietnam - I was there a year before you - and that we have a mutual friend at the Highground?

We are both open to many possibilities and we both listen to what people have to say. I'm trained as a clinical social worker, but I'm also trained in a number of branches of the Red Road. I'm a Mandan corn priest, by training and part blood. I'm versed in the methods of the Iroquois Society of False Faces. I have studied the traditions of the Delaware holy man, Neolin. I'm an initiated messenger of Gaiwiio, the Seneca good word tradition. I know the sun dance, the peyote ceremony, and the Midewin lodge.

But it is white ways that baffle me. I don't understand chambers of commerce, Jehovah's Witnesses, and demolition derbies. To call attention to one's failings and annoy others, that is a strange thing. What is there about this white medicine that allows or invites public humiliation?

So I must admit it. The spirits here just don't act in ways I understand. Some are petty and whining. Others are dangerous and unpredictable. When we do the sweat lodge on the prison grounds, I can sense dozens of these spirits lurking outside. The power of the lodge, of course, keeps out things that would do harm.

It is inside the prison where the greatest danger lurks. Right in the large room where we do the pipe and drum ceremonies. The Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims use it other times. It's a sterile room, cream-colored concrete block walls, and off-red doors. It's a typical prison space, but somehow even more soulless.

Much of my work has to do with Indian inmates who are being haunted. My first task is to get them to see that these ghosts are not part of the punishment process. Most deserve some form of punishment and a few might even deserve to be haunted. But none deserves the random, psychosis-inducing turmoil that's going on in there. It's cruel and unusual punishment. When I convince them that it's not part of their sentence, then I can work on a medicine strategy to protect them.

That's the frustrating part. I had to study white people's European stories to understand this problem. I couldn't find relevant sacred stories. The closest thing I could find to a road map was that book, Wisconsin Death Trip. It's a bit disjointed, being mostly old excerpts from the Badger State Banner of Black River Falls.

How can I describe it? It's a catalog of madness from poverty and allegations of hauntings and demonic possession. It's a chronicle of strange suicides by hanging, poisoning, and throat-slashing. It's a compilation of bizarre case studies. Things like insanity from "religious excitement." Things like prim and proper women overtaken by sudden urges to send obscene letters or travel the state breaking windows. Rashes of things like people unconnected to each other and living in different locations deciding to throw themselves in front of trains. What did I learn? Well, on the most superficial level I found that these things run in waves and cycles. Look back at the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1950s. And we're sure in one now. I learned that instructions from demons to kill babies were often linked to families with a background of incest. I determined that hermits who died of starvation with food nearby did so because they were too scared to eat. On the deeper level those old Wisconsin stories helped me gain insight into what's going on within these prison walls. There's the pathology of the place and the supernatural aura of the place. That's partly a function of who they lock up here and what forces the prisoners bring with them. Every prison and jail has some of this baggage. But Columbia is the most loaded I've seen.

These prisons are ideal places for spirits to feed off unfortunate souls. So maybe we are saving ourselves from many problems by drawing those spirits here. Maybe it is this place that is drawing the spirits down the river? Maybe we can bottle them up here?

When we go into the prison sweat lodge we ask these questions. We ask why half the inmates hear voices and what those voices mean. We ask which spirit Dahmer's killer was talking to, which spirits Dahmer left behind, and whether his spirit is still out at Columbia.

In the lodge, we learn more about the tensions between the guards and the administration. It's because the administration has a secret and a secret agenda. They not only know what's going on here, they're experimenting with it.

Usually, if you have people hearing voices you're dealing with multiple personality disorder. Usually a psychiatrist would use hypnosis to contact those other personalities. From a clinical standpoint, hearing voices is a biochemical construct. It always results in a psychiatric diagnosis. In other words, science does not allow for any explained category of hearing voices. It doesn't concede any supernatural explanation. But this way of thinking doesn't square with all the voices at Columbia.

In the lodge we've learned that the voices are manipulated. We have one decent ghost that comes into the lodge and explains what is going on. He's a Menominee from the time of the Black Hawk War. He was a scout for the U.S. Army at Fort Winnebago. He was part of a group that refused to aid in the slaughter of the Sac and Fox people. He and his friends were disposed of and buried in hidden graves right where Columbia was built.

This Menominee ghost is telling us that someone in the administration is linked to these voices. There's a tie to a whole group of professionals high up in state government and the corporations. It's a whole secret cult, devil worship, ritual murders, nude ceremonies, and everything.

The ghost was a victim of distant government treachery and he sees the same pattern in what's going on at Columbia. So there's a thirst for justice here. He wants to break the cycle of evil and of broken promises.

I don't fully understand everything he is teaching us. It's something about a connection between evil, money, corruption, abuse of the earth, and broken promises. It's something that goes back to the beginning of the state. Something that's all bundled up in over a hundred and fifty years of logging, mining, land swindles, and abuse of the living and the dead.

I'm not much of an ecologist. I can't tell you why frogs are being born without all their legs. But the Menominee ghost has helped me understand why all the spirits are stirring. It is the modern way of life that is stirring them up.

Wisconsin has a law prohibiting the disturbance of burial sites. That law is broken all the time. A little payoff here and there, some contractors and politicians who look the other way, and presto, those old bones can be just part of the fill under a highway or a prison. That's what happened with the Menominee ghost. He was dug up, activated, and imprisoned to boot. He can't be put to rest again until he gets some payback.

But he taught me there's a much bigger problem here. It's the pace at which we're disturbing the land. Even though there are ceremonial ways to gain forgiveness for disturbing graves and ways to put most spirits at peace, the sheer amount of building and sprawl creates an incredible number of problems. The burial site protection law is geared around the European notion of a cemetery with a fence around it. But humans have been here for ten thousand years. The whole state - the whole of North America - is a burial site. This means that almost every inch is sacred and needs to be treated as such.

Does that mean that we can't live here? No, we just need to slow down. We need to ask the spirits of all our ancestors how best to proceed. This is hard work, almost like the work of long-term therapy. So, we can't expect quick answers. But we need to get on the spirits' timetable and not the timetable of banks, contractors, and bureaucrats. The Menominee ghost tells us it is the same today as it was in his day. This hurrying of things faster than the earth can handle always comes down to greed for money and power. That is always the opening for evil.

This kind of evil must always tame the wild things and places to get control. It must tame - or crush - those pockets of independent people outside the mainstream economy and culture. That's the entire goal of the banks, the universities, and the big corporations. Their hirelings from the governors down to the local extension agents work off this agenda. They police the resource colony we call Wisconsin. The inmates are directly related to this process. The prisons are filled with people who have been disconnected from the land. Some whose ancestors were stolen from their homelands and enslaved. Some, whose ancestors were starved off their homeland long ago. Others who were pushed off farms only a generation or two ago. The prisons are part of a control structure. And, in the case of Columbia, part of the experiment for further control. But as I said, there's a lot of uncertainty about results. The experiment may run out of control.

The Menominee ghost tells me that spirits are brought here and imprisoned. And he says it is part of a circle. We feed and make strong those imprisoned spirits. They then set in motion the social forces that make us keep building and filling prisons. This will go on in a downward spiral. Unless we can stop this spiral, we will end up breeding a new kind of evil spirit. That will be one that the government won't be able to control. One that will come and go at will.

My part in all this has grown. It started out that I only came to Columbia to offer spiritual comfort and advice. But the Menominee ghost has given me a different job. I have to train warriors here even though my band is made up of spirit-injured men. The task is to find those inmates with that northwoods spirit still in them somewhere. What will we do with an imprisoned band of warriors? First, we practice the patience and love that will help that Menominee ghost rest and that will reconnect these injured men with Mother Earth. Then we will stand vigil at this place. We will be an outpost for those standing vigil elsewhere. If they are standing vigil to protect the waters, we stand with them. If they stand at a boat landing to protect treaty rights, a potential mine site, to protect our Mother's body, or at a railroad tracks to stop toxic cargo, we will stand with them in spirit.

We will pray, and in doing that, heal these injured men. We will pray and send the power of those prayers to those guarding the earth. Our prayers will send the spirits back up river to where they are needed. Prayer may even get that Menominee ghost back to his people. My spiritual practice used to be something I kept separate from politics. I never saw much healing in politics. But now I can see that the protection of the sacredness of our land, and the spirits in it, is the political act that we are all called to.

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