The Ioway and the Landscape of Southeast Iowa
Original publication information: Foster, Lance M. 1996.
"The Ioway and the Landscape of Southeast Iowa." Journal of
the Iowa Archeological Society 43:1-5.
The Ioway and the Landscape of Southeast Iowa
By Lance Michael Foster
Landscape of belief
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.
Language and the landscape
The Ioway language reveals much about this landscape. Even
after 200 years of cultural destruction, the remaining language holds tantalizing
clues to the landscape of the Ioway past.
The Ioway language is rich in reference to the world of
water, nyí. For example, different kinds of floods, generally
called nyída, were noted, as when a stream overflowed and
left its regular channel, iráwagre, or when a stream overflowed
because of heavy rains or melting snow, nyíwawáyu.
Even different kinds of ripples in the water were distinguished, as those
made by the natural action of the water over hidden objects like stones
or logs, inishe, or the ripples made when a fish or beaver moved
beneath its surface, warírije. The Ioway language is the ultimate
source of the names of most of Iowa's rivers and streams, from the Cedar
and the Upper Iowa, to the Grand and the Nishnabotna, which they once traveled
in great dugouts, some of which have been said to hold as many as fifty
Of course, overland travel was also made, and the Ioways
were known as great walkers; many of their names in fact, contain the word
mányi, which means to walk or go along. When French explorer
Nicolas Perrot first met them in 1685, he noted that they often killed deer
or buffalo while running after them.
The language also indicates various conditions of walking
through different terrain, like nathdáge (to leave a path
while walking through tall grass), wahánré (to walk
under and through brush or tallgrass while pushing it aside), wathánje
mányi (to walk through brush or a thicket, shaking it), and
waxrán mányi (to walk through the brush where there
is no path).
Most of the great trails in Iowa later used by the Sauk
or the American settlers were made by the Ioway. One such trail was the
one which led from their village on the Mississippi, across the marshy glacial
plain of northern Iowa, to their villages on Okoboji and Spirit Lakes, and
thence through the loess hills to their village on the Missouri River.
Of course there were words for the many kinds of plants
and animals found throughout Iowa while it was under Ioway protection. These
animals gave both physical and spiritual life to the people. The buffalo
(che) not only provided meat and hides, Buffalo also taught the people
how to doctor the sick. The connections of life in the landscape, one to
another, and all to the People, were rich, beautiful, and subtle.
Many of these animals disappeared soon after the Ioway
were banished from Iowa, animals like the Plains grizzly (máhto),
the passenger pigeon (rúche), the Ivory-billed woodpecker
(toháre), and the Carolina parakeet (wayínye xóbrin).
Today, we find even the plants beginning to disappear, with the destruction
of habitat, through agriculture and urban expansion. It is often hard to
imagine today, the rich diversity of life once found here.
Landscape, archaeology, and history
The Ioway have been conclusively identified with being
at least part of the archaeological manifestation called "Oneota",
a misnomer as it comes from the Oneida Iroquois who settled in northeast
Iowa for a while and gave their name in their own language "Oneota",
People of the Stone, to the Upper Iowa River, which had been known up to
that time by the French and others as "the River of the Ioway."
But that's a historical mess we won't get into here!
There is also a lot of argument about whether or nor the
Ioway came from another location to the east, or if they were an indigenous
Woodland group that adopted Mississippian traits. If one identifies the
Ioway with the Oneota and still takes the immigration stance, you still
have to decide whether you want to argue for entrance as early as 690 A.D.
or as late as 1600 A.D. As an Ioway, my position is that we have always
been here, in one form or another, and certainly for far longer than 1600.
Of course people have argued for a long time about which
tribes actually belong to the Oneota people. Generally, the Ioway, Oto,
Missouri, and Winnebago (linguistically grouped as the Chiwere-Winnebago)
are considered to be the core of the Oneota, but sometimes the Omaha and
other Dhegihan Sioux, and even Dakota or Algonkian groups are included.
If indeed, the Chiwere- Winnebago group is the core of
the Oneota group, then perhaps their own term "Hungeh"
(an archaic term referring to the ancestors in a Pan-Siouan sense) might
be more appropriate a name for the Oneota than an Iroquoian one. But we
all know how hard-headed archaeologists can be, and Oneota is probably here
In any case the surviving stories of the Ioway tend to
indicate an origin long before their separate identity as Ioway, in a time
called "Madadanyida", when men and animals could still
converse, and indeed, the line between what was man and what was animal
was not always distinct.
If a comparison is made amongst these "Chiwere"
people regarding the stories of that time, one sees that the stories are
parallel, essentially one and the same, differing only in particulars. Each
tribe has the same clans, each clan originates from similar places. Bear
comes from beneath the earth and Thunder comes from the sky.
The divisions indicated by those traditions indicate division
not along tribal lines, but along clan lines. For example, the Ioway said
the Wolf Clan spoke a language unintelligible to the other clans and also
brought the bow and arrow, which had been unknown to the others until that
time. Most people believe the bow and arrow was introduced during the Woodland
period. This may indicate that the clans came together during the Woodland
period, as distinct Woodland populations, who amalgamated into the people
called the Hungeh, or what is known archaeologically as the Oneota.
The stories indicate quite clearly the conflict between clans as they expanded
and met each other over territories and rights to resources. They indicate
clearly the method of peace-making and unity, namely through introduction
of the pipe and the agreed-upon establishment of certain rights as belonging
solely to certain clans.
With the unification of the clans into a mighty nation,
centered at a palisaded village at a place called MaShuje, "Red
Earth", came the domination of the Hunge Nation (the Oneota)
over the land between the Two Rivers, the Nyitanga (the Mississippi)
and the Nyishuje (the Missouri), which would last for nearly 600
years (1000 A.D.-1600). Each clan had its own villages along the rivers
throughout the region, but there was extensive trading voyages and intermarriage,
and contact was maintained.
The Hunge Nation began to break up about 1600, with
the appearance of the deity they called Diseasemaker from the east, as well
as the influx of more nations and more conflict. Various groups of people
had already begun to form new identities, and move off in different directions,
representatives of each clan in most of these bands.
Sometime, during one of these journeys on the Nyitanga
(Mississippi), perhaps at one of the trading fairs that the French would
come to know as "Rendezvous" (perhaps near LaCrosse, or Prairie
du Chien), there were a number of encampments of various bands, one of which
had camped on an sandbar. They had camped there long enough that quite a
lot of ash from fires had built up. The wind suddenly came up and blew the
sandy ashes all over the heads and lodges of those camped there. Making
jokes at their appearance, the other people, including Oto, Missouri, and
Omaha called the people of this camp the Paxoje, the "ash (grey)
heads." The name given in jest stuck, and these were the people who
would become later known as the Ioway.
The Ioway were in southeast Iowa so long ago, that today
most people tend to identify the landscape as being linked more to the Sauk
and Fox, or the Illinois Confederacy, than to the Ioway. There are numerous
Oneota sites in southeast Iowa, along the major tributaries of the Mississippi,
like the Des Moines River, the Iowa River, and the Skunk River. Sites like
Schmeiser, Clarkson, Poison Ivy, McKinney, and Kingston put the Oneota in
southeast Iowa from before 1000 A.D. until historic times, along both sides
of the Mississippi.
By the time treaties were being made, and settlers had
begun to make serious inroads in southeast Iowa, the Ioway had been decimated
by wars with the Sioux and Sauk and Fox, and disease. The destruction of
the big village on the Des Moines River, now known as Iowaville, was the
final chapter of Ioway presence in southeastern Iowa. The Des Moines River
system was known to the Ioway as the Raccoon River, Mingke Nyi, or
"Lots of Raccoons" (mingke rohan) River. Some say the lower
part was sometimes called the Deer River (Ta Nyi). It is not known
at the present what the Ioway called their town on the Des Moines / Raccoon.
Villages were often named after their location, such as at their Nebraska
village, called Wolf Village, on the Wolf River, It may well be that the
Ioway village on the Des Moines might have been called Míngke
China (Raccoon (River) Village).
During the final treaties in which the lands of Iowa were
being considered, the United States had decided to primarily deal with the
Dakota and Sauk and Fox, since the Ioway star over these ancestral lands
had been obscured by these more numerous and vociferous peoples.
Armed with a map showing Ioway villages scattered throughout
the region, Nasjenyingeh (No Heart), emphasized in negotiations in 1837
that the Dakota and Sauk and Fox were interlopers, having intruded on these
lands only since the late 1700s, and even then the Sauk and Fox had only
come with Ioway permission.
Further proof of the Ioway ownership and primogeniture
lay in the fact that the rivers of the land still bore the names the Ioway
had given them. At that time, the only changes had been ones of translation
of the Ioway names into either Sauk and Fox or English. Many of these translated
Ioway names are still carried by these rivers today, such as the Mungka
Nyi (Ioway), which became the Chicaqua (Sauk/Fox), and then the
Skunk River. It is ironic however that few Iowans today recognize this fact.
It was said that at the time of the Sauk and Mesquakie
retreat from Michigan and Wisconsin in the early 1700s, all tribes' hands
were against them, except those of the Ioway.
Permission was asked to seek sanctuary from the French
in Ioway territory.
The old chief Pumpkin gave this permission, and directed
them up the Iowa River, although the Mesquakie were told that the permission
was for hunting and camping only; the land was not to be considered theirs.
Even today, it is reported by the Ioway of Oklahoma that "at one time,
the Ioway were so powerful that not one moccasin could be made in Ioway
territory without their knowledge and permission."
The Iowaville Site
There are conflicting accounts about what happened at the
Iowa Village at the site now known as Iowaville, and even what year it happened.
All of the accounts I am aware of are based on hearsay. In any case, with
the pressurized situation over territory in Iowa in the 1800s, a tragedy
was perhaps inevitable.
In 1764, the Ioway had been living for some time with the
Omaha, on the Platte River in Nebraska. Here, both tribes were harassed
by the Sioux, who were expanding onto the plains. The Ioway were outstaying
their welcome there though, because of diminishing game and personal conflicts.
They sent a party to trader Pierre Laclede, who had established
St. Louis that same year, to ask if he would establish a post on the Des
Moines, in which case they would move there. Laclede agreed, and sent two
traders to live with them, back in Ioway lands.
The War of 1812 polarized the Ioway into British and American
factions, as it had the Sauk and Fox, with whom the Ioway were closely aligned.
In 1813, the pro-American faction left the site on the Des Moines to relocate
on the Grand River, under Hard Heart. The pro-British faction stayed on
the Des Moines, and continued to fight with their Mississippi Sauk allies
against the encroaching American frontier. Unfortunately for the American
Ioway faction, Manuel Lisa was able to goad his Yanktonai Sioux, as well
as Omaha, into continued attacks on the Ioway, and the American Ioway on
the Grand River happened to be within easy reach. The Sioux killed many
Ioway and destroyed their fields,
In September, 1815, Hard Heart, who is also known as White
Cloud the first, and the pro-American Ioways signed a Friendship Treaty
with the U.S. at Portage des Sioux. Not only had the Sioux and the Sauk
and Fox invaded old Ioway lands, there were new invaders: Euroamerican settlers.
The game of the land became scarce. Other tribes, like the Sauk and Osage,
were ceding lands to the U.S. that were not rightfully theirs.
Both the American and British factions of the Ioway were
pressured by enemies on all sides, and in 1817, the greater part of the
Ioway reunited once more at the village on the Des Moines, numbering there
about 1200 men, women, and children. Hard Heart was even said to have had
a two-story house in the village.
The troubles with their old Sauk allies smoldered. In 1819,
an Ioway was killed by the Sauk. The Ioway were angry at this betrayal,
and were aware of Sauk and Fox machinations and bullying attempts to claim
Ioway territory as their own. The guest tribes had overstepped themselves.
The Sauk and Fox had even claimed the lead mines of Dubuque as their own,
which was not true, as the earliest negotiations with Dubuque had recognized
joint Ioway-Sauk-Fox interests in the mines. Now, the Ioway had been left
out entirely of the profitable lead operations in their own territory. The
Ioway were becoming so angry at this betrayal of hospitality that they even
sided for a time with their inveterate enemies the Sioux in raids against
Now it was the Sauk and Foxes turn to feel betrayed. Not
only had the Ioway signed a treaty of friendship with the hated Big Knives,
they had now joined the hated Sioux against their former friends.
Of course, the basic issue on both sides was one of territory.
Where once there had plenty of game for all, so much the Ioway had agreed
to provide refuge for the Sauk and Fox from their enemies not 50 years before,
now game was becoming scarce, under the pressure of conflicting tribal claims,
encroaching white populations, and market hunting for army posts and cities
like St. Louis downstream, by both Indians and whites.
Now that friendship was like so much dust, and with the
game fleeing before the coming of the Big Knives, future survival depended
on the control of territory. It was time for the allied Sauk and Fox to
make their move: to punish the faithless Paxoje and make the land theirs
through a pre-emptive strike on the Ioway village on the Des Moines.
On May 1, 1819, the Ioway were celebrating their successful
return to their beloved principal village on the Des Moines after the winter
buffalo hunt. The men were at a horse race on a course about two miles away
from the village. They were so happy and relaxed after a good hunt, with
so much meat, that they had relaxed their vigilance, and left their cumbersome
arms in the village. In the village, the women prepared for a celebratory
feast. The old people sat around and talked, and the children played.
No one saw that two divisions of combined Sauk and Mesquakie
forces lay in wait in the thick tallgrass prairie near the race track, commanded
by the Sauk Pashepaho. No one saw that another division lay in wait in the
woods beyond the village, under Black Hawk. If anyone wandering about saw
any sign of the waiting enemy, they were quickly and efficiently silenced.
When the sun had reached a certain height, pandemonium
broke loose. Pashepaho's forces ran in shouting waves onto the shocked Ioway,
who grasped in vain for the weapons they had forgotten, and who fell in
numbers before the attackers. They fought the best they could, with sticks
or stones or quirts, whatever they could find, and barehanded if they could
find nothing. They began to make a break for the village and their weapons,
and then new fear arose in them, fear for what might be happening to their
defenseless families at home.
They fought and ran and died. But it was too late, and
the horror that they felt at seeing the carnage at the village, flames scorching
the framework of the houses and the charred and ravaged bodies of the dead
women, children, and elders, gave them the desperation of the hopeless.
The Ioway fought the best they could but their hearts were gone, and they
gave up just before sunset, and submitted to the enemy in unconditional
surrender. Only a handful of the people were left, over a thousand dead,
scattered over the darkening landscape for two miles.
The Sauk and Fox admired their bravery and spoke of it,
that they had fought well but it had been hopeless. They offered to adopt
the survivors into their tribe. The Ioways submitted, their hearts broken.
Some Ioways had been away, visiting or camping. Ultimately, the surviving
Ioway banded together once more and moved away from the shadow haunted valleys
of the Raccoon River, away from the Sauk and Fox, who had become insufferable
in their successes. Successes that would end soon enough with the Black
Hawk War. In the meantime, the pompous Keokuk had decided to build his new
village--- on the bones and ashes of the Ioway village of the Des Moines.
By the fall of 1819, the remaining Paxoje had moved from
the disaster to be with the Oto in Nebraska, where they would join Hard
Heart, a chief and signer of the 1815 Friendship Treaty, who had stayed
with the pro-American Oto. He had faced the difficult situation of either
siding with his people or going back on his word. In gratitude, the American
government recognized Hard Heart, also known as Mahaska, or White Cloud
the First, as sole and head chief of the Ioway People.
Not all the Ioways who were there were happy to be reunited
under an American flag. Some would never recognize Hard Heart as sole chief
or the treaty he had made in 1815. There were conflicts because of this
dispute over rights and authority that would eventually develop into factionalism
that has never entirely healed, even today.
The Ioway would never again travel the lands of southeast
Iowa. Later, Ioways traveling in Europe in 1844 remarked how similar the
Serpentine Lake in London's Hyde Park looked to their old homes along the
Cedar, Skunk, and Iowa Rivers and how homesick they felt.
Even today, after removal from their ancestral lands, the
Ioway preference for rivers and river valleys, and the wooded bluffs around
them, remains evident. In Nebraska and Kansas, the Ioway settled along the
Missouri and Nemaha Rivers. The land there is marked by river terraces and
high loess bluffs and tree-lined hollows, with lands beyond the bluffs that
once were tallgrass prairie, but now are cropland. In Oklahoma, the soil
is red rather than dark brown, but the tribal lands are just above the Cimarron
River, and the tribal cemetery lies on the highest land around, like the
bluff burials of the ancestors.
Blaine, Martha Royce
1979 The Ioway Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Momaday, N. Scott
1969 The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New
1938 The relation of historic Indian tribes to archaeological manifestations
in Iowa. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 36: 227-314.
1925 Traditions of the Iowa Indians. Journal of American Folklore
1926 Ethnology of the Ioway Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum
of the City of Milwaukee 5(4): 181-354..
Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed.
1987 Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman: University of
Vogel, Virgil J.
1983 Iowa Place Names of Indian Origin. Iowa City: University
of Iowa Press.
Copyright 1996 by Lance M. Foster
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