Native Nations: The Indians of Iowa
by Lance Foster*
forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press
Name means: “Sleepy Ones” (Derived from Sioux)
Other names: Ioway, Baxoje, Bah-Kho-Je
They call themselves: Baxoje (“Gray Heads or Gray Snow”) or Chikiwere (“People of This Place”)
Language spoken/Language Family: Ioway—Chiwere Siouan
Residence in Iowa: Prehistory to 1837
Location today: Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska (near White Cloud, Kansas); Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma (near Perkins, Oklahoma)
The Iowa tribe is best known today as the tribe for whom the state of Iowa was named. They are often called the Ioway today to help distinguish them from the state of Iowa. Tribal members use both Iowa and Ioway. The Ioway language belongs to the Siouan family, and is closely related to Otoe, Missouria, and Winnebago, and more distantly related to Omaha and Dakota. The Ioway and Otoe–Missouria languages are called “Chiwere” by linguists, after the Otoe name for themselves (jiwere).
By the time white settlers first moved into Iowa in the mid–1800s, the Ioway had moved their villages into northern Missouri, due to pressure and incessant warfare in Iowa between the Sioux in the northern and western parts of the state, and the Sauk and Meskwaki in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Archaeologists call archaeological sites of the ancestral Ioway “Oneota,” after one of the names for the Upper Iowa River, where such sites were first located. Other closely related tribes such as the Otoe, Missouri, Winnebago, and Omaha also participated in the Oneota culture. This connection is supported by linguistic studies and by tribal traditions, which related that all these tribes were once one people.
The Oneota are most identified with certain types of pottery, but also with the use of pipestone, copper, and small, triangular arrowheads. They were guardians of the pipestone quarry in Minnesota up until about 1700. Many of the sites currently well established as ancestral Ioway sites are in northeast Iowa. Other sites such as at Blood Run (in northwestern Iowa and southeastern South Dakota), Iowaville (near Selma), and Council Bluffs were also locations of Ioway villages. The most important villages were located along Iowa's major river systems: the Mississippi, Upper Iowa, Iowa, Missouri, Big Sioux, Grand, and Des Moines, as well as Okoboji–Spirit Lakes.
The Iowa were closely related by language and culture to their Siouan kin, but conflict over territory in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota began in the 1600s as a result of the domino effect caused by the Beaver Wars (conflicts over fur trade) in the east. The Iowa accommodated settlement in eastern Iowa by the Meskwaki by 1730, after that tribe's disastrous wars with the French. The Meskwaki–Sauk alliance against the Sioux pulled the Iowa into the intense intertribal wars from 1720–1845.
During the series of treaties made from 1804–1838, in order to defend their claims against those of other tribes like the Sauk, Meskwaki, and Sioux, the Iowa showed maps they had made that located No-Heart-of-Fear in connection to the treaty of 1837. Although this map showed clearly the antiquity of Iowa villages along most of Iowa's major rivers, the U.S. decided in favor of the claims of the more numerous and powerful Sioux, Sauk, and Meskwaki.
During the early 1800s, the Ioway continued to hunt in the intertribal hunting grounds in western Iowa, along with the Sioux, Omaha, Otoe, Pawnee, and others. Successive treaties made the Iowas and the others surrender title to those western Iowa lands.
In 1836 the Iowa signed a treaty that moved them by 1837 to a new reservation in Kansas–Nebraska. Successive treaties shrank that reservation, and by 1880 a part of the tribe began moving to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Today there are two groups of Ioway people, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, although members are scattered across the U.S. Some still speak a little of the language, attend powwows, and attend to clan functions such as funerals.
Ioway warfare was centered on war bundles, which provided the war party with spiritual power. Like other tribes, the Ioway had graded war honors for accomplishments like scalping the enemy and counting coup. The Ioway warriors shaved their heads except for their scalp lock to which deer tail roaches were tied.
Ioway houses were of various kinds, including buffalo hide tipis used during buffalo hunts, oval and square bark lodges used in the summer villages, and smaller mat-covered lodges used during the winter. During the summer, the Ioway grew gardens of corn, beans, and squash near their villages along the major rivers. They went on two annual buffalo hunts on the prairies, as well as hunting deer and small game throughout the year. They also fished and trapped furbearers.
As in other tribes, men were responsible for war and hunting, while the women were the homemakers and farmers. Clothing was made of buckskin decorated with quillwork. Men wore little other than loincloths, robes, and moccasins during warm weather. The Ioway quickly adopted European clothing, such as shirts, decorating it with trade goods like ribbons and beads, and mixing it with more traditional buckskin elements.
A Closer Look: Indian Women in Iowa
For Indian people, the reality is more balanced. Both women and men had defined tasks needed for tribal survival. Except for men’s possessions like warhorses, clothing and weapons, women owned everything else, including the houses, the equipment, tools, and other horses. Women directed most non-war activities. Women are the heart of the tribe; without them, the tribe would cease to exist. Women also are often the real keepers of the culture, as they were not as exposed to the outside world, and passed their teachings down through their children.
One often hears controversy over the word “squaw.” The word “squaw” is derived from Algonquian tribes back east, and was adopted in English usage to mean any Indian woman. You may even hear it from the ignorant today. To Indian women, it is a derogatory term. It may have had Indian roots, but today has sexual and racist meanings and is offensive to all.
There are several Indian women from Iowa’s tribes who have achieved great fame outside their own communities. Perhaps the most historically well known of Iowa’s women was Marie Dorion. She was an Ioway woman who, much like Sacagawea, traveled with and guided a party of white explorers to the Pacific. In 1811, five years after Lewis and Clark returned, the Astorian party set off to look for an overland route to the Oregon country, more direct but more difficult than Lewis and Clark’s river route. They hired Pierre Dorion as interpreter, and his wife Marie insisted on coming with them. She had two small children and was pregnant with a third. Like Sacagawea, Marie served as interpreter, guide, and peacemaker. After some near–disasters, the party successfully made it to the Pacific and founded Astoria. On the return trip in 1813, the entire party was massacred, but Marie was able to hide and escape with her children in the dead of winter. She led them through 250 miles alone to safety, surviving on tree bark and boiled hides. She finally found refuge among the Umatilla tribe. Marie never returned to the Midwest, but remarried and raised her family in Oregon. She is counted as the first woman on what would become the Oregon Trail, and a historical park in Oregon bears her name.
There are many other native women of Iowa whose stories need to be told. Maria Pearson (also known as “Running Moccasin”), Yankton Sioux activist, was most famous for her work with the archaeological community. Her efforts led to the protection of burials in Iowa, regardless of race, and ultimately helped lead to a national law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Adeline Wanatee, Meskwaki artist, author, and educator, was the first Native American elected to the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, in 1993. Bertha Waseskuk, Meskwaki, was a historian and chronicler of Meskwaki history, whose loss is still felt by the tribe. The contributions of all the indigenous women of Iowa deserve to be more widely known.
* Lance Foster is a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and is involved efforts to preserve Iowa language and culture.
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