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Ioway Cultural Institute : The Ioway Virtual Library

Tanji na Che: Recovering the Landscape of the Ioway


1999 "Tanji na Che: Recovering the Landscape of the Ioway." In Recovering The Prairie. Edited by Robert F. Sayre. University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
©1999 by Lance M. Foster and the University of Wisconsin Press.


Tanji na Che: Recovering the Landscape of the Ioway

By Lance Michael Foster

 Baxoje min ke. I am an Ioway. I am an enrolled member of the federally-recognized tribe, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, located near White Cloud, in northeast Kansas. Not a lot of people know that the state of Iowa owes its name to my people, the Ioway, who lived in the lands that became Iowa before their removal to Kansas through the Treaty of 1836. We are legally known as the Iowa, although we pronounce it "Ioway" and anthropologists often spell it that way to reflect that oldtime pronunciation. We are indifferent in its spelling, some people using "Iowa" and some "Ioway" and others interchanging the two, seemingly on whim, like me.

When I came to Iowa to attend graduate school, I hoped to see a land which breathed the stories of the old times, and of my ancestors. I guess I was spoiled, since I was raised in Montana where so much of the First World is still evident in its wilderness areas and parks.

When I came to Iowa, I could taste the chemicals which ensured the sweep of the agricultural monoculture that spread before my eyes. I was shocked when I learned that Iowa is the state which has been most transformed from its primeval condition in the United States, its prairies stripped, its wetlands drained, its forests decimated, and its animals eradicated.

The pastoral countryside of Iowa is something of a lie. No matter how it is measured, more than ninety percent of Iowa has been changed, through agriculture and urban growth, from the way God made it, and the way my Ioway ancestors knew it and took care of it.

However, I was determined to understand this place, this Iowa I found, and to discover the sleeping form of the Iowa past under the monotonous blanket of the present. To do this I would take every avenue of discovery available to me, whether linguistic, archaeological, historical, or mythological. It has been a time of searching for what our people the Ioway saw and understood about the land that would bear their name.

Our culture was a great and graceful earthen vessel, molded over ages by loving hands, that was shattered by an angry visitor into a thousand pieces. My time has been one of searching for these scattered cultural sherds, some hidden in thick grass or in a layer of dust. Pieces that may be disguised as an old story, as an archaeological site, or as an archaic phrase. Pieces that may even be disguised as the song of a meadowlark or as the swirl of snow that comes in as you shut the door.

Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said that whatever you have lost, if you go back and look hard enough, you will find it. My uncle Herman Bear Comes Out, of the Northern Cheyenne, once told me, the answers are all still out there, in the Land, where they came from in the first place. I believe this. And I believe this because of what I have learned in my time here in the ancestral home of my people the Ioway, the lands which we knew as Tanji, "Prairie."

There are some basic questions to ask when reimagining the prairie of the Iowa past through Ioway eyes. Who were the Ioway? How did they live and interact with the land? How did they see it, name it, use it, make their marks on it and how did it make its mark on them? What was the lost landscape of the Iowa of long ago?

Ioway to Iowa

The State of Iowa got its name from the Iowa Territory, and the Territory from the Iowa River, and the River from the Iowa who lived on it. Contrary to various nonIndian speculations about the meaning of Iowa, such as it being an "Indian" word meaning "Beautiful Land" or "This is the Place," the reality is not as romantic, like much of reality.

"Iowa" comes from our neighbors and cousins the Dakota, who called us Ayuxba (AH-you-khbah), the Sleepy Ones. According to some Dakota I have talked to, it was a way to tease us about how we acted tired to get rid of them when we felt they had overstayed their welcome during long intertribal visits.

Some of our Algonquian-speaking neighbors like the Illini and the Meskwaki borrowed the word, and transformed it to Ayuway, which the French in turn took and passed on to English-speakers. Ultimately it became spelled Ioway (Wedel 1978).

We called ourselves Baxoje (BAH-khoh-jay), another teasing name given to us by our brothers the Otoe. It comes from an ancient incident in which, while the People were camped together on a sandbar, the Ioway camp was covered with ashy snow blown onto it, thus Paxoje, the "Ashy-Snow-Heads." In return we called the Otoe the Watodatan, the "Ones Who Always Copulate," because of an illicit affair between one of their young men and one of our young women.

But both the Otoe and the Ioway had other names for ourselves. The Otoe said Chiwere, and the Ioway said Chikiwere, but both terms meant "The People Who Are From Here," the Original People of this place (Mott 1978). Tribal stories do say that we came from this place.

Archaeology and the Great Nation

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.

Reimagining the Iowa Prairie: Tanji

The tallgrass prairie was not a featureless expanse of grass to the Ioway. Here and there, features natural and cultural marked a land which was familiar and comforting. The lands of the Ioway were under the great dome of the Sky, which was conceived of as the roof of the Earth-Lodge, with the Island-Earth as its floor, and at the four directions the Four Winds and Protectors as the Earth-anchors (Foster 1996).

The Directions were named by the Winds: Byuwahu, the East, "The Sun Comes From There"; Mansje, the South, "Warmth"; Byuwari, the West, "The Sun Goes There"; Umeri, the North, "The Cold Side". The South Wind was considered beneficient, while the rare Northeast Wind brought killing blizzards and was thought to be maleficient.

The elements of this land were the great Powers, the Day, the Night, the Winds, the Winter. Although the Big Male Winter, the time of glaciers, had been killed by Mischinye, the Great Hare, long ago, the land still bore the scars of that glacial age, and the Small Female Winter still returned every year with her bitter winds.

The cycle of the year was marked through events occuring during the months. There were variations, but the cycle collected by anthropologist Alanson Skinner in the 1920s is the most widely known today.

The new year began in March, with the greening of the land encouraged by the singing of the frogs; thus March was called the Frog's Moon, Pesge etawe. April (Mak'anye, Cultivating Moon) and May (Bi wa'un nyinge, Nothing-to-Do Moon) were noted by the work (or lack of it) in preparing the fields for corn.

The changes in the appearance of the landscape as it became summer were noted in the names of June (Wixra shuwe, Little Flowers) and July (Wixra xanje, Big Flowers).

Late summer, fall, and winter were the time of hunting, and the importance of game becomes central in the naming of the months. August was the time of Che Kiruxe, the Buffalo Rutting Moon. September was the Frost in Animal Beds Moon, Doxina Gremina. The bugling of the bull elk as he gathered his harem gave October its name, Huma Yochinya, the Elk Whistling Moon. November was the Deer Rutting Moon (Ta Kiruxe) and December was the Raccoon Rutting Moon (Mingke Kiruxe). The months of January and February are, respectively, Munje'tawe Shuweinye (Little Bear Jumping) and Munje'tawe Shuweinye Xanje (Big Bear Jumping). The names reflect the growing size of bear cubs in their winter dens as they emerge on the warmer days of winter.

The summer was a time of the Thunderers and tornadoes. Tornadoes were called t'at'anwe, which described the incessant and erratic jumping movement they made skipping along their path of destruction. I have heard some nations call them "the Finger of God."

The Thunderers traveled the river valleys during fierce storms, skimming along the bluffs, stopping to rest on mounds which marked their routes, or cedar trees, which they had great affinity for. Sometimes the Thunderers fought the Underwater Spirit the Ischexi. The allies of the Thunder in their status as Guardians of the Sacred were the Cedar and the Snakes.

The larger rivers provided regular travel routes between the large summer villages near their mouths and junctures, and the dispersed winter hunting camps at the headwaters and in sheltered valleys. For example, the Des Moines River, called Mingke Ni, ("Raccoon River" the name survives as one of its tributaries) had a string of familiar seasonal homes and campsites along its course.

Indeed, although the Ioway knew the prairie lands, the rivers were their primary homes, full of timber, game (especially in the winter), rich river terraces for garden plots, and protection from winter storms. Every large Oneota village site is located near the rivers of the prairie. Large summer village sites full of storage pits were found along its lower reaches in what are now the areas of Red Rock Reservoir (Gradwohl 1974) and Iowaville near Selma (Straffin 1972).

Historically, the Ioways always located their villages on major rivers: the Iowa River and the Upper Iowa River (both appropriately named for their use as residences of the Ioway), the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River. Even today on their reservation lands, the Ioway maintain this riverine settlement pattern, with the Ioway of Kansas on the Nemaha and Missouri Rivers, and the Ioway of Oklahoma on the Cimarron River.

Cultural evidence also abounds for the Ioway attachment to wooded river valleys. For example, the woodlands were the home of the Little People, longtime friends of the Ioway. Dead standing trees were known as "witch trees"; trees were benevolent beings and captured evil spirits sometimes. The evil in them would twist, gnarl, and kill the tree. No one dared cut down a standing snag, as that would release the spirit. Instead, the "witch trees" were left for the Thunder to strike and destroy.

Ioway stories also contain a knowledge of riparian ecosystems such as the proximity of certain tree species to water. For example, in one of the Ioway stories of the Trickster, Ishjinki, he is blinded when he falls into a pile of excrement and his eyes are glued shut.

    He went along until he bumped into a tree and asked, "What kind of tree are you?" The tree replied, "An oak" (Butu). So Ishjínki said, "Oh, I know where you grow, on the dry highlands." He went on to another, and asked what it was. It replied, "A walnut" (Tóku). He proceeded until he came to another tree and asked it what kind of tree it was. It said, "An elm" (Éhu). "Oh," said Ishjínki, "you're near the bank." He went on and came to another and inquired what that was. It replied, "Hackberry"[sic]; then he came to the cottonwood (Baxré). "Oh you are right on the bank," said Ishjínki. He went on and came to another and asked what it was. It said, "Willow" (Uxristun'a). "Oh," said Ishjínki, "I am at the water's edge," and he leaped right into the water and washed his eyes open (Skinner 1915:488).

Hunting camps and ceremonial areas on the Des Moines River have been found in the Saylorville (Gradwohl 1974) and Ledges State Park areas. Hunting camps are obviously not as easy to find and recognize as large villages, but they include sites such as short term habitation sites where game was killed and butchered, and game-watching stations, located at good vantage points and marked by lithic debitage (the leftover stone chips from making artifacts) and campfires. Ceremonial areas are often recognizable at upland ridges with burial mounds, or at unique landforms such as isolated boulders with petroglyphs. Up in the headwaters of the Des Moines River, in the prairie pothole country of the Des Moines Lobe, there were undoubtedly winter muskrat and beaver camps. In warmer months, waterfowl without number could be hunted there (Foster 1997).

Waterfowl were generally called mixe, and there are many Ioway legends that speak of them. In one, Ishjinki the Trickster fooled some waterfowl into dancing around him with their eyes shut while he knocked them over their heads and stuffed them in his bag. He sang, "Whoever looks will have red eyes," and it was the coot who first peeked and then warned his remaining brothers about what was happening. That's why the coot, or mudhen, has red eyes and is the most watchful of all waterfowl.

The wetlands and marshes were places from earliest creation. They were remnants of the time of the Flooded-Earth from which Trickster had created the present Earth-Island, with the assistance of Muskrat. Muskrat was instructed to dive to the bottom of the Flood and to bring up mud, which Trickster had spread around to make this Earth-Island. The Marsh, Jegixe, with its swarm of invisible and visible life, was the still-powerful remnant of Creation, and the prairie pothole region was an area that continued to be a part of the process of ongoing Creation. In fact, some of the burial mounds, built high on bluffs have rich marsh earth added to them and this may be symbolic of the connection between rebirth of the dead through the mound and the energy of Creation issuing from the primal Marsh.

Through my research, it is becoming clear to me that the prairies were laced with a network of rivers and buffalo trails used as travel routes, with villages and sacred places at the nodes. During the fasting or vision quest, sacred places included canyons, bluffs, caves, and isolated high hills and rock formations and glacial erratics, some with inscribed petroglyphs.

I have heard over the years various stories told by elders of the Ioway and other tribes. There were places of haunted mysteries on the prairies of northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota, such as Ocheyedan Mound, Pilot Knob, and Spirit Lake. Oceyedan Mound was avoided by all tribes as the home of a race of small and angry spirits. Pilot Knob was said to be a place haunted by the spirits of Ioway and Sioux warriors who died there. Spirit Lake was the home of one of the Ischexi, the Underwater Deities which ruled the Underworld. The Loess Hills were said to occasionally harbor a phenomenon called the "Sun Bridge," which was a jumping off place for the dead in their travel to the west, and the Land of the Dead (Foster 1997).

Bordering the Big Sioux River in northwestern Iowa and southeastern South Dakota, Blood Run was a large ceremonial site at which oral tradition says many tribes, including Ioway, Omaha, Ponca, Otoe, Arikara, and Dakota, camped together. Tradition also holds this was where the Arikara introduced the intertribal adoption ceremony known as the Pipe Dance to the other tribes (Foster 1997).

The great rivers were connected by overland trails through the upland prairie. In marshy country, the glacial eskers and ridges provided relatively dry travel for people and buffalo. The Ioways were known as great walkers; many of their names in fact, contain the word mányi, which means to walk or go along (Foster 1996). When French explorer Nicolas Perrot first met them in 1685, he noted that they often killed deer or buffalo while running after them (Blaine 1979). And the Ioway language reveals a great ease with overland travel through the prairies, and, at the same time, the difficulties encountered with the varying vegetation of the different prairie plant communities.

For example, the Ioway language indicates various conditions of walking through different prairie 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) (Foster 1996).

Most of the great trails in Iowa later used by the Sauk or the American settlers were made by the Ioway and their ancestors. One such trail that is recorded in historic French maps was the one which led from the Ioway 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 (Mott Wedel 1986). Although a detailed study has not been made of this route, I strongly suspect they used glacial landforms such as eskers on at least parts of the trail where they provided drier passage across marshy terrain, as well as following the roads made by the buffalo herds.

The prairie in a very real sense defined the Ioway as a people, for they formed their identity as the Paxoche, the Ioway Nation, on the prairies. The French explorers appropriately recorded their Algonquian-bestowed name as the Nadowessioux Mascoutens, "the Sioux of the Prairies" (Mott Wedel 1978). The Ioway and their brother tribe the Otoe were the acknowledged masters of these prairie lands for hundreds of years, from the Blue Earth prairies of Minnesota, to Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, to the Grand River prairies of Missouri, to the Loess Hills along the Missouri River. While other nations might hunt in Ioway-Otoe territories, none did so without permission (Foster 1997).

A group of Hurons and Ottawa sought refuge from Iroquois aggression in the prairie lands of the welcoming Ioway, but the easterners felt vulnerable and dismayed by the endless open expanses. They were a woodland people and feared the overwhelming spaces as much as the European settlers did two centuries later. The Huron and Ottawa returned to the eastern forests and meadows. They apparently preferred to face the wrath of the Iroquois rather than the loneliness of the treeless lands (Mott 1938).

Although the Ioway made their larger villages on river terraces and ridges, for ease of transporting furs and regulating trade in their territories, they fully inhabited the tallgrass uplands and prairie potholes beyond. They moved from site to site in a landscape fully inhabited, the way we move from room to room in our fully inhabited house. Indeed, the world was conceived as being a lodge, under the overarching roof/vault of heaven.

Little has been written on the impact of the early fur trade on the beaver and muskrat of those times, but the Ioway participated in that trade in the furs of the Beaver, the Clan Ancestor who taught the People how to make winter homes and pipestems, and the Muskrat, the One Who Helped Create the World by bringing up mud for Trickster to spread and make the Earth-Island.

The magnet which drew them further and further from their rivers and bluffs to the open prairie was Che, the Great One, the Buffalo. At the same time pressures from increasing Native populations to the north and east began pressing the Ioway west and south.

Che: The Great One of the Prairies

The buffalo and the prairie-plains were synonymous. One cannot truly and deeply exist without the other. While the prairie sustained the buffalo, the buffalo maintained the prairie. Grass and territory is traded for manure and soils alternately compacted and aerated by trampling hooves. As the grass prospers, so does the Buffalo.

The buffalo shaped the landscape of the prairie in many ways. The Buffalo Clan name Nawo Dayi, "Road Maker," referred to the wide buffalo trails worn across the prairies, which were used as roads when moving camp by the Ioway (Foster 1997). These buffalo roads were also converted by later EuroAmerican settlers into wagon roads (Dinsmore 1994:22).

The archaeological sites of the Oneota which are recognizable as the historic Ioway are marked deeply by the evidence of Buffalo, whether through bison bones or bison motifs on a artifacts. Large villages were usually located on major rivers with access to the prairies and the buffalo. Oneota settlements are usually found in ecotones, areas which are transitions between floodplain and woodland, or woodland and prairie, so the widest range of food and material resources were available (Tiffany 1979)

During drying periods, when the prairie expanded at the expense of forested areas, the buffalo benefited in the expansion of its range. It seems not a little coincidental that it is also during these periods of prairie expansion that Oneota settlements expanded and prospered (Gibbon 1972). Oneota sites from Minnesota to Kansas reveal a reliance on the bison. Some archaeological investigators have even suggested long range communal bison hunts from Iowa into Kansas (Fishel 1995; Logan 1996). This reliance on the buffalo increased with the coming of the horse in the late 1600s, and the Ioways' involvement with the beaver and bison robe fur trade in the 1700s.

The buffalo robe trade was a precontact development among the Ioway. The Ioways had long been suppliers of buffalo robes to their relatives the Winnebago, along with that other prairie resource, pipestone from Minnesota (Blaine 1979).

Some of the Oneota sites in eastern Iowa, near the Mississippi River, such the Kelley and Kingston sites, may have acted as trade centers for bison products like hides, bone artifacts, and dried meat (Henning 1995; Tiffany 1979). Early trade in bison hides and pipestone between the Ioway and the Winnebago at Green Bay was recorded by the French missionary Father Andre in 1676 (Mott 1938).

There are indications that the Oneota took over the Upper Midwest trade routes of the Hopewell and Mississippian moundbuilding cultures, and this is certainly consistent with the notion that the Oneota represent the cultural heirs and biological descendants of those cultures.

Although some Indian tribes really only became inhabitants of the plains and seekers of buffalo after the introduction of the horse, the Ioway dependence on the buffalo seems to be as old as the tribe itself. Archaeological evidence indicates greater dependence on the buffalo in western prairie sites oriented to the Missouri River, and more on deer in wooded eastern sites oriented to the Mississippi River (Alex 1980; Tiffany 1993).

Oneota sites in northwest Iowa are especially rich in evidence for this reliance upon the buffalo by 1300 A.D. (Alex 1980). Bison were abundant in northwest and north central Iowa, a region of tallgrass prairie and wooded riverbanks. Even as late as the early 1800s, Lt. Stephen Kearny recorded a herd of 5000 buffalo on the upper Raccoon River (Mott 1961:586).

At such Oneota sites as Milford and Dixon, in northwestern Iowa, the abundance of bison remains suggests the economic importance of the Buffalo to the Ioway (Fishel 1995; Tiffany 1993).

The spiritual and ideological importance of the buffalo is evident at many Oneota sites. Several pipestone (catlinite) tablets have been found, engraved with the figures of buffalo.

Within the old Ioway-Otoe territories in southern Minnesota, and on a little-studied travel route between Ioway villages on the Minnesota River and the Pipestone Quarry, Buffalo petroglyphs are carved deeply into a horizontal expanse of red quartzite at the Jeffers Site, near the town of Jeffers in southwestern Minnesota. Some of the buffalo are depicted with protruding arrows and spears, in what may be hunting prayers (Lothson 1976).

In 1859, Robert White Cloud, an Ioway, was interviewed by Lewis Henry Morgan:

    He says they also regard the buffalo as a god. This seemed so strange to me that I was curious to know in what sense or way. He said the Indian believed the buffalo after being killed and eaten by him had power to cover his bones again with flesh and come to life again, and that he did thus come to life again after being killed. I suppose this must be a legend to account for their constant reproduction (Morgan, in White 1959:70).

Ioway and Otoe stories have come down to us which discuss the origins of buffalo hunting. In one story, it is a horse which wins a race with a buffalo, which secures the right of people to hunt the buffalo, instead of the other way around. In another, a human man marries a buffalo woman, and competes with a buffalo bull to the right to lead the herd. The man wins and affirms his right to the buffalo. In this last story, it is said that the buffalo originally came from a cave deep in the earth, and that they wait there still, in uncounted numbers.

The stories agree: it was when the Clans of the eastern Woodlands, under the leadership of the Bear Clan, met with the Buffalo Clan on the western prairies, that the Clans formed one People. While the Bear Clan led the tribe in the fall and winter, the Buffalo Clan led in spring and summer.

The Buffalo Clan also told how the buffalo wallows collected water, which was used by other animals for drinking. Medicinal plants, like the Male Buffalo Bellow Plant, also grew by the wallows, and the buffalo sometimes were seen using these wallows for healing their sick. In 1851, Topomuk, an Ioway Buffalo Doctor said:

    Sometimes when a Buffalo is shot in the breast, he becomes very sick, staggers from one side to the otherthen two other Buffalo get one on each side, and support it and urge it along, perhaps, and helping it until they get it away. When they doctor itthey have a basin of earth [a wallow] in which they place the water. This they use in blowing on the wound. If there is no water nigh, one runs off to a stream and drinks water and runs back again and pours it out of his mouth into the basin. They bring the weeds also on their horns and using the water in the basin they blow as we do on the wound (Blaine 1979:225).

Twice a year, in early summer and in early winter, came the tribal buffalo hunt. Long ago, the Ioways hunted the buffalo on foot, even running after them (Perrot, in Blaine 1979:20). The surround method and stalking under decoy wolfskins were the most common methods of hunting buffalo in pre-horse days. In those days, wolves commonly prowled the margins of the herds and were paid little attention by the buffalo as long as they did not get too close.

The Old Ones also had a lot of powers in those days to help in the hunt. One old prayer which has come down through the Otoe, was when the leader-priest put down tobacco, and prayed to the buffalo: "You have given me this animal to live on. We don't want any trouble. Everything is peaceful. Everything is all right." He talked to the wind so that it would blow away from the buffalo. "Now you are going to kill buffalo. You are going to kill them in here." He would make an encircling motion with his hands, like a fence, as if enclosing the buffalo so they could not get away (Whitman 1937;1938).

The Ioway used the fire-surround hunting method occasionally, in which hunters encircled a group of buffalo and fired the prairies around the herd, leaving some areas unburned. At those points, the hunters lay in ambush (McHugh 1972:69-70). Although I have not yet found any traditions of systematically managing the prairie for better game range through fire, Prince Paul Wilhelm of Wurttemburg did write in 1823 about the intentional firing of prairies by the Ioway: "In the autumn the Indians set the dry prairie on fire and so lay whole forests in ashes, the wind driving the fire on until it reaches the river" (Paul Wilhelm 1973:307).

There was a constant war on the prairie margins between the grasses and the advancing woodlands of burr oak and hawthorne. The firing of prairie grasses and margins, favorable to the deep-rooted grass communities and less favorable to woody plant communities, ensured that plentiful pastures near favored campsites would encourage the buffalo to remain in the area. Buffalo are notoriously fickle and hard to predict in their movements. For such a large animal, they are amazing in their ability to be inconspicuous on the landscape, and the Indian buffalo scouts often had difficulty finding the herds.

In hunting the buffalo, the surround and charge method was used after the horse came to the people. The warrior police, the Waiakida, kept the eager hunters in line until all was ready for a unified charge under the order of the chiefs. This way the buffalo would not be frightened away in a stampede before they all had an even chance at taking the buffalo (Skinner 1926:290).

There were formalized rules for dividing up the buffalo meat among the participants to ensure everyone would get something, with the actual killer usually only getting the hide. The meat was smoked and dried over buffalo chips (Whitman 1937). This was on the open prairie where wood was scarce.

After skinning, the buffalo hides were stretched on frames with things passed through holes in the hides. Hide scrapers, called wik'o homahe, were used by the women to "flesh the hides" (remove subcutaneous tissue from the skin). With handles made of carved elk antler and the blades made of stone scrapers, and later, iron, these scrapers were engraved with inscribed designs which represented the accomplishments of the woman and her family. The scapula was used as a hoe in the cornfields. A wooden spatula was used to work soften the hide. Many things were made of the buffalo's hide: lodge covers, clothing, rawhide, parfleches, quivers and bow cases. Shields (chagre) were made of the hump skin of an old bull (Skinner 1926).

The Ioway tipi, was called chehachi, the "buffalo hide lodge." It was said to have had a four-pole foundation with ten hides for the cover. Twenty poles were laid spirally on top of the four-pole foundation, with two used to prop up the lodge ears, called chiha. While traveling or on the buffalo hunt the camp circle was used. Leadership of the hunt cycled every three months among the clans of the moiety in charge of that half of the year in which the winter or summer hunt was held (Skinner 1926).

Even after the Ioway were removed to their reservation on the Nemaha in Kansas, they continued to hunt buffalo for a time. Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan noted in 1860, while among the Ioway:

    [Robert] White Cloud says that the Indians still prefer the bow and arrow to the gun for hunting buffalo. That the animal is easily killed, and the arrow does it with great certainty and that they can fire, or rather shoot, from the saddle much easier with the bow than with the gun. That the motion of the gun is liable to be unsteady, and therefore to shoot over, while with the bow they have no difficulty. They also prefer to hunt on horseback, as they must follow the buffalo as they hunt. They usually advance at the rate of ten to twenty miles per day, cutting, drying and packing their meat as they go. All these nations, I find, expect to go out for the June and September hunts. The hide in the spring is good for shoes, and for tent covers and for rawhide. In the fall the hide is preserved with the hair on for robes. The only drawback is the constant fighting of these Indians with each other, which endangers the lives of those who engage in the hunt. Robert says the Navy revolver is the best weapon for the buffalo hunt." (Morgan, in White 1959:99).

In summer, the bellows of the bulls rolled across the plains like thunder. August was called Che Kiruxe, the Moon of the Buffalo Rut. While the Buffalo was the most vital lifegiver to the Ioway on the prairies, many other beings lives were entwined with theirs in the sacred nest of grass we called Tanji, the Prairie.

The elk, Huma, supplied meat and hides, and his shoulderblade was used for hoeing corn and beans. The antlers were worked into hide scrapers and quirts. Elk Medicine was powerful for attracting the women, much as when the bull elk bugled, and the cow elk came running. September was known as Huma Yochinya, the Elk Whistling Moon.

The wolf, Shunta, was loved and respected, not feared. The wolf was the scout, the one who kept watch. My ancestor Mahaska wore a white wolfskin as a cape, which was said to give him the power of invisibility.

Whitetail deer, Ta, are a riparian species, and were hunted along the riverbanks as a staple. The deer was very important, and special hunting medicines were sometimes used. The skins of unborn fawns were used in the most sacred ceremonies.

Although the black bear, Munje, was not a regular visitor to the prairies, his bad-tempered relative the grizzly, Mahto, was occasionally seen. Although he had a fierce reputation, Mahto also pitied the people and gave them the Grizzly Bear Society, which was complementary to the Buffalo Doctor Society in the healing arts.

There are so many animals of the prairie that were vital in the lives and minds of the people. The meadowlark, Postinla, sang about the true nature of approaching strangers. The mouse, Hindunye, hid ground beans in its nest which might prove invaluable survival food; it was this mouse that raised one of the Hero Twins, who rid the world of monsters and made it safe for people. The gopher, Mayinye, shot dangerous medicine at the unwary from its burrows.

There are many, many examples of these stories which reveal the richness and diversity of prairie life. The gathering of these stories, once scattered, and their attachment and embodiment in living form and place, is a sacred journey of many lifetimes, but a journey which I must undertake in only one.

Last Thoughts: The Coming of the Buffalo

It has taken years of living here to begin to see the sleeping form of the old times beneath the electric blanket of modernity. For example, the next time you go to a powwow, watch for the Grass Dancers. That yarn and fringe you see hanging from their regalia is a reminder of the old times, when warriors would stuff bunches of tallgrass into their garters and belts or sashes, and dance vigorously with low, sweeping motions of the feet, to flatten the prairie grasses and make the dance grounds ready. Among the Ioways, this was called the Herushka, or Iroshka. The warrior dances of the Iroshka survive in the deep-voiced Southern Drums of groups like Yellowhammer, and in the searching and dignified steps of the Straight Dance.

Whenever I see the Grass Dancers and the Straight Dancers and hear those Southern Drums, I think about the old tallgrass prairies stretching out like wave upon wave of an endless ocean. And when I think about those prairies, I think about the Old Folks, and about the Buffalo.

In April of 1997, while thinking about the buffalo, I decided to go down and see a place I had heard about. Walnut Creek National Wildlife Refuge is near Prairie City, Iowa, southeast of Des Moines. Unlike most wildlife refuges, which are wetland refuges, Walnut Creek is a oak savannah and tallgrass prairie refuge, being restored to a prairie state from agricultural use. And I heard that a small herd of buffalo was there.

I went on a Monday, but to my disappointment, I found that the Prairie Learning Center was not open on Mondays (or Sundays a word to the wise). However, because it was not open, I had the refuge almost to myself.

The rolling slopes were scarred with the mechanized, and ironic, efforts of returning agricultural land to prairie. Prairie fires are a necessary management tool in establishing and maintaining the health of the prairie, and one area was so completely burnt that it looked like a field carved from coal. But it was amazing to see the amount and variety of life that was returning to the prairie. I saw delicately-colored birds that I did not recognize, and even a small lizard scooting across the road.

But I was there to see the buffalo, who are kept in 800 enclosed acres, with a so-called "Buffalo-proof" fence. I took the road which warned of "Buffalo on the Road." Well, the road went right through the enclosure, but I saw no buffalo. I looked and I looked. I wondered if somehow I was not worthy. While the terrain was rolling and broken, and some portions were wooded, it still amazed me that such large animals could remain so well hidden. I drove through once, turned around, and drove through again. Still nothing.

I was disappointed, and I drove down by the bur oaks, down below the charred slopes. I sat there for a while, listening to the tree frogs peeping near Walnut Creek, and enjoying the smell of growing sweetgrass somewhere nearby.

I thought about how the old ones believed that the Buffalo could come alive again, by clothing its desiccated bones with a mantle of living flesh. And another thought came to me, as I looked around at the prairie around me. It seemed to me that this prairie was coming alive in the same way the buffalo was said to have done.

It had once been killed and the flesh torn away, the soil with its coneflowers and Indian grass, so that the prairie was invisible, nothing left but a sheath of hybrid corn and scattered patches of weeds and scrub. But now the skeleton was again becoming clothed in its old flesh of prairie life, plants, birds, and animals. Like the old stories of the Buffalo returning to life, I was seeing it, this prairie returning to life. And somewhere, just over that ridge, unseen as in a great cavern beneath the Earth, the Buffalo were waiting.

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