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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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