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Ioway Cultural Institute : The Ioway Virtual Library

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 the West.

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 men.

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 to stay.

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.

Southeast Iowa

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 the Shake.

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.

Suggested Reading

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 Mexico Press.

Mott, Mildred

1938 The relation of historic Indian tribes to archaeological manifestations in Iowa. Iowa Journal of History and Politics 36: 227-314.

Skinner, Alanson

1925 Traditions of the Iowa Indians. Journal of American Folklore 38(150): 427-506.

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 Oklahoma Press.

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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