The People, The Place: Native Americans in Iowa

February – March 1991

At least 11,000 years ago humankind first entered the territory we know as Iowa, following closely behind the retreating glaciers of the ice age. At first these early settlers were primarily hunters of the mammoth and other large mammals of the tundra, but as the climate changed and warmed, Iowa’s first human inhabitants developed a more diversified economy as they learned to exploit a more varied environment.

About three thousand years ago the Woodland culture appeared in Iowa. Characterized by a denser population, a more complex social organization, and some early experimentation with agriculture, this culture was dominant in Iowa for at least 2000 years.

Nearly a thousand years ago a people more heavily dependent on agriculture began to replace the older Woodland culture. These included such groups as the Glenwood and Mill Creek cultures in western Iowa and the Oneota culture in eastern Iowa.

As all of these societies and cultures were pre-literate, we know about them only from their frequently rich and revealing archeological record. The Office of the State Archaeologist and the Iowa Archeological Society have cooperated for many years in exploring the story of Iowa’s early inhabitants.

The Oneota culture was probably directly ancestral to those Ioway Indians encountered by the first European explorers when they entered Iowa. In early historical times the tribes resident in Iowa were the Ioway (northern, central and eastern Iowa) and the Sioux (northwest Iowa). In the eighteenth century, the Sauk and Mesquakie were driven out of their ancestral homelands in eastern Wisconsin by the Ojibwa, with the assistance of the French. They resettled in western Illinois and eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries. The subsequent forced removal of the Sauk to the western side of the Mississippi was the principal cause of the Black Hawk War of 1832. In 1837, a band of Potawatomi from northeastern Illinois were resettled in southwestern Iowa, and in 1840 the Winnebago of Wisconsin were moved by the U.S. Army to northeastern Iowa. All of these tribes, except the Sioux who had earlier abandoned their lands, were resettled by the U.S. Government on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma during the mid and late 1840s. By 1850 no organized groups of Indians remained in Iowa.

The story does not end here. In 1857 a portion of the Mesquakie tribe returned to Iowa where tribal representatives had purchased land in Tama county, along the Iowa River. Since that time the Mesquakie have owned and controlled their own land, and have not been dependent on the government, as were many of the Indians who were forced onto reservations in the nineteenth century.

The Mesquakie continue to struggle to preserve their identity, not as a historical curiosity, but as a vibrant living culture encompassing art, music, dance, and poetry. Today the Mesquakie community in Iowa serves as a reminder that a people need not surrender their own culture to the dominant culture which surrounds them.

In recent years the University of Iowa has become more sensitive to the presence of Indians on the campus. Organizations such as the American Indian Student Association and the Chicano/Indian American Cultural Center have provided a cultural focus for the Indians within the University community, while activities such as the American Indian Education Conference of October 1990 have enhanced the cultural awareness of the larger University community.

We dedicate this exhibition to all Indians, especially those who continue to honor their heritage and seek to build creatively upon it.


This exhibition was prepared by Grace Fitzgerald and David Hudson.