Landscape of belief
by Lance Foster
Excerpted from "The Ioway and the Landscape of Southeast Iowa" By Lance Michael Foster. Entire text in the online Ioway Library.
The Ioway (Páxoje) recognized the seven cardinal
directions of the Above, the Below, the East, the South, the West, the North,
and the Center, each having its own Deity Protector (Wakanda Wawa'in),
and all these under the Creator, Wakanda, or Ma'Un.
This land was an Island, resting on a Turtle, the earth
on its back placed there by Muskrat, and the island floated on a great sea.
The Earth was our Mother, Hina Mayan.
Over her was the domed arch of the Sky, through which the
Day and Night Lights, the Sun and Moon moved along the Sacred East-West
Road. This Road was known as the Road of the Dead, and the stars of the
Milky Way were the campfires of the Dead. Huge cracks separated the sea
from the skydome, and these cracks opened and shut, allowing or preventing
earthly access to the Cardinal Deities beyond, such as the Thunderers to
In fact the world could be looked upon as a great domed
lodge, with the Earth-Island as its floor, and the walls and roof the sky.
In the center was the invisible kettle-pole, the navel of the World, the
axis mundi. One might remove it and travel to the Worlds Above and
Below, as the Hero Twins did, for this was only the Middle World.
The land itself was delineated by the rivers, especially
the two great rivers, Nyitanga (the Mississippi) and Nyishuje
(the Missouri), the life's blood of the Earth, and the domain of the Ischexi,
the Water Monster. Ischexi was pictured as the Water Panther on woven
bags, or on bluffs as pictographs, such as the famous Piasa pictograph.
Between these two rivers lay the lands the Ioway claimed as their own, threaded
with other rivers, and marked by glacial hills, marshes, tall grass prairies,
and ancient woodlands.
Other spirits lived throughout the land, including the
Little People of the Woods, of which there were several kinds. Some were
bad, such as the little ones who lived in trees and shot people with invisible
objects so that they became sick and died. Witches sought the patronage
of these spirits.
However trees were basically good, and could act as traps
for witches and evil spirits. If they did this, they were soon transformed
into ugly, dead standing snags, called "witch trees." No one dared
cut down a tree like this, because that would only release the evil. Instead,
dead trees were left to the Thunderers, protectors of the sacred, who would
strike and destroy such trees and the evil inside.
The Thunderers also fought the Underwater Ischexi.
Stories are told among many people about this eternal war between the Above
World and the Below World. Sometimes people even saw the fight itself, during
violent thunderstorms. A waterspout was the tail of the Ischexi, thrashing
wildly about as it fought the Thunderers, who tried to drag it from the
water to feed its young in the nest far to the west. Usually the Thunderer
won, but not always.
The Thunderers also traveled the river valleys during fierce
storms, traveling along the bluffs, stopping to rest on mounds which marked
their routes, or cedar trees, which they had great affinity for.
The land which we call the midwest was recognized and bounded
by its rivers. The rivers provided the easiest routes for travel. They provided
the floods which cleansed the land of decay and which deposited rich soil
for crops. The river terraces determined the placement of villages, the
lower, rich terraces reserved for fields of corn, beans, and squash, and
the village itself placed on a higher terrace or even a bluff, overlooking
the river. These were the summer villages, for protected areas were preferred
for winter lodges.
The bluffs above the villages provided a resting place
for the dead. The mounds and high places provided an easy departure point
for the spirit to begin its journey to the west and ultimately the spirit
road to the heavens above.
The Villages were generally placed near the graves of the
people, for the Ioway did not fear their dead relatives, knowing the bond
of family affection was too strong for death to dissolve. The unknown dead
were another story, for they roamed the dark places, tapping on lodge covers,
and their cold touch could produce a stroke or even death.
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