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Ioway Cultural Institute : The Ioway Virtual Library

A Closing Circle: Musings on the Ioway Indians in Iowa

"A Closing Circle: Musings on the Ioway Indians in Iowa." In The Worlds Between Two Rivers: Perspectives on American Indians in Iowa. Pp. 142-150. Edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, David Mayer Gradwohl, and Charles L. P. Silet. 2000 Lance M. Foster and the University of Iowa Press.

For reference and continuity I have placed page numbers in [brackets].

15 A Closing Circle: Musings on the Ioway Indians in Iowa


The following essay, drawing, and poem illustrate Lance Foster's eclectic skills and are instructive as to American Indian world views, historical perspectives, and contemporary identities. Continuing the issue discussed by Maria Pearson in the previous chapter [see published book], Foster's essay underlines the sanctity of the Ioway's ancient burials here both in relationship to the tribe's traditional values and the identity of contemporary Ioway people today.

No Indians of any other Tribe dare build his fire or make a moccasin track, between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers from the mouth of the Missouri, as high north as the head branch of the Calumet, Upper Ioway, and Des Moines Rivers, without first having obtained the consent of the Ioway Nation of Indians. In fact this Country was all theirs, and has been for hundreds of years. And this fact is susceptible of the clearest proof, even at this late day. Search at the mouth of the Upper Ioway River (which has been the name of their Nation time out of mind); there see their dirt lodges, or houses, the mounds and remains of which are all plain to be seen, even at this day, and even more, the Country which they have just claim to, is spotted in various places with their ancient Towns and Villages, the existence of which no Nation can deny And even now their Village on the Des Moines is held and occupied by the Sacs - which place the Ioways only left about twenty-five years ago, on search of Game on other parts of their land, but never intended to abandon their claim to the Same or the bones of their fathers, which are yet to be seen there - and the Country has never been taken from them by Conquest.

- Watchemonne ("the Orator"), Ioway

Bakhoje min ke. I am an Ioway. Our ancestral lands were these lands between the two great rivers, the Mississippi, which we called Nyitanga, "the Great River," and the Missouri, Nyisoje, "the Turbid River." Appropriately, these lands still bear a variant spelling of our name, Iowa.

Our tribal name is spelled in different ways, though most often either Iowa (legally) or Ioway (culturally), based upon how different visitors with their different accents pronounced our name. The federally recognized entity in which I am enrolled is officially designated "The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska."

However, we called ourselves Bakhoje, a name we got from related tribes long ago. It seems that during our travels in prehistoric times [143] along the larger rivers, we were camped on a sandbar during the winter. The Ioway were traveling with our close sister tribes the Otoe and Missouria. Suddenly a great gust of wind blew a mixture of the ashes from our many campfires over our lodges and all over our heads, causing our heads to become gray with the mixture. As a joke, the Otoe-Missouria called us Bakhoje, translated "Gray Heads," "Ashy Heads," or sometimes "Gray Snow." We have another name, Chikiwere, "the People of This Place," which we once called ourselves.

Our language is called Chiwere. This is the name by which our sister tribe the Otoe call themselves, and it means, essentially, "the People of This Place." Our language is of the Siouan family, and, although our closest relationships were with the Otoe, the Missouria, and the Hochunk or Winnebago, we also had ancient ties with the Omaha, Ponca, and Dakota. We did not always get along, but we always saw them all as related peoples.

Our oldest traditions indicate that many of our clans, such as the Bear, split off from our relatives the Hochungara (Hochunk or Winnebago), whom we also called our fathers or grandfathers, and whom we left behind near Makashuje, Red Banks, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. We left with our sister tribes the Otoe and Missouria, who continued on to search for new lands.

This fissioning process appears to have begun very early, perhaps as early as A.D. 700, but was finalized by the 1500s. No one is sure. However, the Ioway continued to visit their relatives the Winnebago, or Hochunk, into historic times. We have always recognized each other as kin.

Each of our clans had different traditions about their origins, different histories, and different religious rites, and the consensus seems to be that individual clans were originally separate ethnic groups who united to become one people in some long-ago time called madadanyida. Originating in other language families, some words survive in our own Siouan language.

Our stories indicate the Bear clan, and perhaps other clans such as the Thunder, went in search of new lands to escape the overcrowding and environmental and social stresses of the ancient homelands. Our ancestral travels seem to be marked by the effigy mounds they left in the shapes of bears, birds, and other shapes across the states of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota.

The ancestral culture of the Ioway, Otoe-Missouria, and Hochunk, [144] hallmarked by a distinctive type of pottery, left many sites across these Midwestern states. Archaeologists have called this ancestral culture "Oneota," after a name for the Upper Iowa River where the culture was first discovered in the early part of this century.

From the east, we crossed Nyitanga, the Great River, the Mississippi. Here we thought we had found a new land, but when we landed on the shore, we found in the mud the footprints of others. In Iowa, we met other clans such as the Beaver. After a period of friction and warfare, our ancestral clans decided to make peace and unite as one people, the Ioway.

When the first French explorers entered the Land Between Two Rivers, they learned that these were Ioway lands. It is said that at one time, the Ioway had such power that a person of another tribe could not make a footprint anywhere in our territory without the Ioway knowing about it immediately, and that none could be here without our permission.

This was not because the Ioway were a particularly large tribe, but because we had been, according to our traditions, the first keepers of the Pipestone Quarries in southwest Minnesota, and because we had established a sacred covenant with the many natural forces and spirits who were the First Beings of the Land Between Two Rivers. These forces and spirits were our relatives, and would let us know about anything that was going on in our lands as soon as it happened.

For hundreds of years we moved along the rivers and streams of Iowa, building bark lodge villages, planting corn, beans, and squash, and hunting deer and buffalo in the woodlands and across the prairies. Our villages moved as garden soils and wood supplies became depleted, or sometimes due to frictions or whim. We moved freely across the lands that would become Iowa, as a man moves freely between die rooms of his house. In 1837, Grandfather No Heart defended our ancestral rights to these lands by producing a hand-drawn map showing our many villages and routes of travel.

Nothing lasts forever, and even before the French came, our lands suffered conflicts originating in events far to the east, primarily the Beaver Wars and the epidemics of disease that began decimating our people as early as the 1500s. Refugee tribes such as the Meskwaki pushed west by events to the east in those bloody times, were generally welcomed and given sanctuary. Other tribes intruded aggressively, such as the tribes of the Illinois Confederacy, and they were expelled. [145]

Those times remain bitter even in our memories today, with the game disappearing, incessant disease and warfare, and the intrigues of the European powers manipulating tribal alliances and enmities for their own purposes. At times, we experienced difficulties with our relatives the Sioux, the Yankton and Dakota, as well as the Osage and Omaha. We made new alliances with the Sauk and Meskwaki (erroneously known as the Fox) which sometimes went awry. Those were hard times, which it is better to try and put aside, for our tribes long ago made peace.

Ultimately, we were coerced into signing a series of treaties which forced us to retreat from our remaining lands in southern and western Iowa and northern Missouri. In 1836 we were pushed across the other great river, Nyisoje, the Missouri, and were established on a new reserve on the Nemaha River along the Missouri and the borders of what would become the states of Kansas and Nebraska. Here we were faced with our darkest times, for while there had been troubles and warfare in our Iowa homelands, we had at least had our freedom, and now we were prisoners on a small reservation that continued to be made smaller by more treaties, land speculators, and corrupt Indian agents. Social unrest was at its highest with the mounting pressures brought about by a surrounding white population that increased with every year, and by marriages outside the tribe that diluted our blood and traditions to the breaking point.

Finally, in the 1870s and 1880s, the last of the traditionalists said "Enough!" and moved south to Indian Territory (which would become the state of Oklahoma). Here we joined our old allies the Sac and Fox, and were near our relatives the Otoe-Missouria. Here we could live in the old village community, unlike the Iowa of Kansas and Nebraska who were pressured into breaking up communal lands into individual allotments. However, this situation in Indian Territory only lasted about ten years, before the white man once more forced the tribe to break up and accept allotment there as well. The white man's hunger for land was a force that could not be stopped, like the clouds of grasshoppers that devoured every plant in sight.

Now split into two federally-recognized groups, the Iowa of Kansas and Nebraska, and the Iowa of Oklahoma, we have learned to adapt to the changed conditions in the twentieth century. We hold jobs, scattered across the country, and often barely know our own relatives. The accounts of racism, fraud, and the loss of many of our an-[146]cient ways are well-known, an experience shared by every other tribe. This is a sad and long story of erosion of a people that once were the masters of the Land Between Two Rivers: a people barely remembered in that land which even yet carries their name, Iowa.

Now here we are, in the evening of the twentieth century. It is June, 1999, as I write this. The morning of the new millennium will soon dawn. But something has begun to happen in the last twenty years. The Spirits of our Old People, the S'ageh, have begun to call their lost children home, home to Iowa, the land that bears our name. According to what I understand, the process began in earnest with the dedication of the Ioway bark houses down at Living History Farms near Des Moines in 1982. At the dedication, Ioway from Oklahoma, including Solomon Kent, Nelson White, and members of the Big Soldier family, came up from Oklahoma and dedicated the site with ancient Bakhoje prayers.

A few days ago, I returned from a celebration held at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa. At the speakers' table, members of the Ioway, Otoe-Missouria, and Hochunk once more gathered as one people, something that had not happened at this locality for at least 170 years. It was in 1830 that our ancestors gathered across the Nyitanga at Prairie du Chien, to sign one of the treaties that would be used to remove us from these lands where our grandfathers and grandmothers sleep in the graves in the bluffs high above, where the mounds shaped like our Bear and Thunder ancestors cluster and march.

Having grown up in Montana, I came to Iowa State University in 1991, ostensibly to get my graduate degree in Anthropology (I would eventually add a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture as well). I would not have succeeded were it not for the many people there who helped me along the way, especially my major professor David Gradwohl, one of the editors of this collection. I accomplished some fruitful work, including my Anthropology thesis, "Sacred Bundles of the Ioway Indians" (1994) and my creative component for Landscape Architecture "Mayan Jegi (This Land Here): The Ioway Indians and the Lost Landscape of Iowa" (1997). However, my real reason for returning to Iowa was to spend time in my ancestral home, visiting the sites of our S'ageh, understanding the seasons and elements, and connecting Ioway names of plants and animals to the actual plants and animals. For example, I had heard a story in which Trickster dresses as a [147] woman, and uses the small seed balls of the sycamore tree as "tinkler" decorations. I finally held one of these balls in my hand, standing by Nagredhe, the Spotted Tree, the Sycamore, and thought of Trickster.

So many things have come to pass in my time in Iowa, the six years from I991-1997. More and more Ioway and Otoe-Missouria have come to see this land their Old Folks told them stories about. The beauty of this place -the richness of the soil and its plant fife never fails to elicit wonder and joy. As I let my thoughts drift, I think of many such occasions.

Robert Fields, a Pawnee-Ioway-Otoe relative from Oklahoma with a Ph.D. in Anthropology, who taught for a time at Iowa State, brought his mother Esther Fields, Ioway-Otoe, to see the rich soil before she passed on.

In 1996, a conference on the Oneota ancestral culture, sponsored by the Office of the State Archeologist in Iowa City, brought members of the Ioway, Hochunk, and Otoe-Missouria together with archaeologists and other Oneota scholars. The high point for tribal members was the visit to ancestral sites in northwest Iowa, especially along Bear Creek, the Upper Iowa River, and finally at Effigy Mounds.

After a period of turmoil in the 1970s, our Yankton sister Maria Pearson led an effort that was joined by archaeologists in Iowa and resulted in new laws that protect burials and provide for reburial of the Old People. These Iowa laws, the first such legislation, became the model for other states, and ultimately provided the basis for the national law known as NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Our Ioway people support these efforts and hope that our Old Ones will be returned to rest as quickly as possible.

For me, much of the most enjoyable time has been spent with my relative Pete Fee. He is the son of my grandmother's sister, and in the Ioway tradition, this makes him my Hinkayinye, "Little Father."

Years ago, Pete lived in northeast Iowa, near New Albin, where he met his wife Alana. He returned with her to Kansas, where they spent the next twenty years raising a family. In 1998, Alana moved back to New Albin to be near family and Pete followed. Pete and his family now live there, with horses, on land near the edge of town. In Pete's words, "The spirits of our ancestors are here. I can feel them all around me. I feel good when I come back."

Pete and I talk often, although now that I work for the National [147] Park Service in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we do not get to see each other face-to-face as much as we used to during my days at Iowa State University when I would drive the five hours to Kansas for the powwow, a tribal election, or just to be with people I knew and trusted, and who knew and trusted me.

We talk now about this process which seems to have brought so many Ioway back to Iowa these last twenty years. It all seems part of a larger "something" that we cannot see clearly just now. We have talked about reestablishing a presence here in Iowa, somewhere where there is a lot, an acre, a patch of woods or a spring. There we would once more make the sacred connection, re-establish the ancestral covenant.

We talk about this. We will see. The S'ageh, the Old People, our grandmothers and grandfathers sleeping out there on the bluffs, made that covenant. Even now, perhaps they are guiding their wayward grandchildren to fulfill it once more. [148]

[page 149: Illustration and caption: "Only Stories"]

[page 150: Poem: "Living Stone"]

Copyright 2000 by Lance M. Foster and the University of Iowa Press

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