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Ioway Cultural Institute : History


Archaeology and the Great Nation

by Lance Foster

Excerpt from "Tanji na Che: Recovering the Landscape of the Ioway", full text of which is in the online Ioway Library

According to tribal tradition, the ancestors of the Ioway Indians united as a people ages ago. The Clans had come together and agreed to become a People, the Honga, the Great Nation. Some clans had come from the Great Lakes. Others had come from the north, from a land remembered as very cold. Others had come from the western prairies or the eastern woodlands. Some of the ancestors had made great mounds in the shapes of animals and birds along the bluffs of the Great River. Others had traded down the River to the great southern mound cities, and came back with new ceremonies, new beliefs to add to the older ones.

This development of the Clans into one Nation, is traced in the ancient stories and traditions of the Ioway and their brothers, the Otoe, the Hochunk (Winnebago), and Missouria. Other relatives of these peoples also seem to have been a part of this Nation, including the Omaha, Ponca, Kansa, Quapaw, and Osage. These stories recall a time when they were all one people. A time when all the land of this Middle Place was theirs.

These stories seem to be supported by archaeological research. The archaeological culture is called Oneota, after a rock formation along the Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa where the certain types of pottery fragments which characterize this culture were first found (Hall 1995).

The Oneota appear to have developed from indigenous Woodland peoples of the upper Mississippi River Valley and surrounding areas by about 1000 A.D. (Tiffany 1997). The Oneota left hundreds of sites across the midwest, including sites in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, and South Dakota (Gibbon 1994).

The Oneota culture was oriented to the matrix of rivers that laced across the tallgrass prairies and wooded valleys, the so-called Prairie-Peninsula of the Midwest, with present-day Iowa at its heart. Oneota was a flexible culture that survived changing climate and varying resource availability. The people hunted when there was game, farmed when growing conditions were good, and in scarce times intensified the gathering of wild plants (Wood 1995).

The Oneota way of life dominated these areas until the 1600s, when contact with advancing European culture and its attendant diseases and trade wars splintered the Nation into smaller nations, and fragments coalesced into the nations we know historically as the Ioway and their brother nations, like the Otoe (Foster 1997). It is worth noting that the territories of the Great Nation, the Oneota, and their descendants, including the Ioway, are for the most part within the heart of the tallgrass prairie.


Archaeology reveals culture of region, article on Ho-Chunk and Oneta archaeological findings.


Description of Iowa's Loess Hills. Off-site link to PDF file.

Iowa's Prehistoric Past. An overview of the archaeology of Iowa, the homeland of the Iowa Tribe. Especially note the sections on "Oneota Culture" and "Historic Period." By Iowa's Office of the State Archeologist.

The Jeffers Petroglyph Site. The Jeffers Petroglyph site is in southern Minnesota. It is a rock art site with hundreds of etched-in drawings on red quartzite exposed to the sky where the ground has eroded away. The Ioway and Otoe are believed to have been one of the groups that made many of the pictures. I've been there, and it is a very windy, sacred place. The Ioway-Otoe controlled much of southern Minnesota until the late 1600s, from the Falls of St. Anthony's (modern Minneapolis-St. Paul) up along the Minnesota River, over to Jeffers, and then down to Blood Run National Landmark, along the Iowa-South Dakota border. Lance Foster

Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association, with images from the Gotschall Rock Shelter.

The Jeffers Petroglyphs, several links to information at Kevin Callahan's website.

The Blood Run site.

The Effigy Mounds National Monument.

The Toolesboro Mounds.

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