Elders in the Ioway Tribe have said that before white people came, no other nation could put a moccasin inside the land between the Missouri River and Mississippi River without the Ioway knowing about it. Nearly 200 years after the 1838 treaty that forced the tribe from the state, the Ioway people once again have land in Iowa – seven acres in Johnson County!
Lance Foster stood on a grassy knoll overlooking the Iowa River Valley and Coralville Lake for the first time last year, gazing at the land that his people, the Ioway, lived on and cared for centuries ago.
White settlers pushed out the Ioway, but the U.S. government would use the tribe’s name when creating the Iowa Territory in 1838.
“It was our ancestral land for … time immemorial,” Foster said. “Hundreds and hundreds of years, if not thousands of years. It’s been part of us since the very beginning.”
Nearly 200 years after the 1838 treaty that forced the tribe from the state, the Ioway once again have land in Iowa, picking up 7 acres in Johnson County after a yearslong quest by Foster to link his tribe tangibly to its origins.
Foster wears many hats in the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, as the tribal historic preservation officer, the director of Ioway Tribal National Park, and as vice chairman — a position he equates to being a vice president of the nation of 4,737 people on about 12,000 acres across portions of Brown County and Doniphan County in northeast Kansas and Richardson County in southeast Nebraska.
Foster works to maintain cultural legacy and language, protect ancestral sites and help with the tribe’s administration, including with social services and construction.
“(I was) trying to find a place that our tribe can be connected again to a little bit of Iowa, because Iowa was named after us,” Foster said. Click here for more on the Ioway tribe and our state’s name.
Foster cast a wide net, making connections around Iowa and visiting sites of cultural significance. He connected with Johnson County Conservation Director Larry Gullett and the Melloy family, who gave 7 acres of their 90-acre property to the tribe this year. The other 83 acres were given to the conservation board.
White settlement, conflicts with other tribes pushed out Ioway
Like other Indigenous tribes, the Ioway were the victims of American colonialism and expansion to the West. Conflict, disease and treaties killed many Native Americans and removed tribes from their land over several hundreds of years in early American and European colonial history.
The tribe’s website says that, in 1804, the Ioway population was reduced to 800 because of many factors, but primarily because of smallpox. The Ioway had no natural immunity to the disease when white settlers introduced it. By 1908, the Ioway had recovered to approximately 1,000 people.
Foster said conflicts with neighboring tribes in what became Iowa caused borders to ebb and flow for many years. But he said elders in the Ioway have said that before white people came, no other nation could put a moccasin inside the land between the Missouri River and Mississippi River without the Ioway knowing about it. Read more here.
“That entire area was part of us, or was our territory at one time,” he said.
The University of Iowa Native American Council and its statement of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement recognize several other tribes that inhabited this area of Iowa, including the Meskwaki and Sauk. The Iowa City Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently passed its own land acknowledgement, which it reads at the start of each meeting, and is asking the Iowa City Council to adopt its version of one. Read the OIH Land Acknowledgement Statement.
The Meskwaki Nation is Iowa’s only federally recognized Indian tribe, also known as the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. Read more here.
Foster said Albert M. Lea, an American soldier and surveyor, came to the River of the Iowas when it was still part of the Wisconsin Territory and called it the “Iowa country.” Read more here.
A final treaty in 1838 pushed the Ioway from what then became known as the Iowa Territory that same year. Iowa became a state in 1846. Read more here.
Foster said the tribe’s last village on the Iowa River was in the early 1700s, but others existed for decades later along the Des Moines River.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 split the reservation in those states in two when the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were created. That is how the tribe became known as the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.
Iowa Tribe land to be place of worship and natural beauty
The 7 acres in Johnson County mark the highest elevation on the land, a hill overlooking the Coralville Lake and Iowa River on what is known as the Two Horse Farm property. It is an exact circle of prairie with differing heights of grass that reach toward the sky.
Foster said the prairie won’t be altered from what is there today and will be allowed to grow as is. He said it will be a place for the Ioway to visit, connect with the land and make it their own.
Foster said that his first day of looking over the land from the high vantage point felt good. He said he reflects on how the top of hills is where tribal members went to pray to the creator. He said his view of this 7 acres is complex because “property” is an alien concept to the tribe, but one it has had to learn over the last few hundred years.
Foster said his people take the view that the land has its own will and awareness, something many others don’t understand.
“Imposition of man’s will upon the land is still taking the land’s will away from it,” he said. “We support the idea of it going back to what it needs to be and support the work of the conservation board.”
Foster said honoring the land will be a matter of visiting as often as tribal members come through, saying prayers and leaving some tobacco or a bit of food to recognize kinship.
“I don’t think people understand that the land is us and we are the land,” Foster said. “We don’t see land as property in that sense. We see it as part of our flesh and bones. Land is a person just like we are.”
While the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska own the title to the 7 acres, Foster said Johnson County will help manage the land.
Gullett said the conservation board has installed five poles to mark the boundaries of the Ioway’s property. The ribbons that fly on the poles have colors representing the four races of people and the earth and water.
Foster said the county doesn’t want to impose its will on the land, but said sometimes burns will happen to revive the grass, and the tribe may be invited to take part in those.
Erin Melloy, the previous property owner, said she struggles to find the words to express how it feels to be part of this historic moment, but said she and her husband were enthusiastically in favor of giving the land to the Iowa Tribe when the county approached them about it.
“We were very uneducated and still are,” she said. “But we really started to understand what actually happened when all these Native Americans ceded their land. It was horrendous that we did this to them.”
While she said it is difficult to claim their action can right this wrong, the 7-acre gift was an easy gesture to make.
“I mean the Iowa River and the state of Iowa was named after them,” she said. “Their history on the land is beyond anything we can even comprehend. Our time is like a zepto-second compared to their history in Iowa.”
Gullett said Foster’s vision is what brought this about and he hopes the county and Ioway can continue to build a relationship. He said he was humbled to help the tribe return to Iowa.
“Indigenous cultures are known for their knowledge and sensitivity to nature compared to our culture,” he said. “What we’re hoping out of this is that they can help teach us.”
He said when he brought the news to the tribe, members were amazed because it has been such a long time since the 19th century treaties forced them from the land.
“It’s one of the milestones of my life, really,” Foster said.
“It’s a sacred thing that happened, and I was really grateful I was a part of it.”
Click here to read more about our efforts here in Johnson County to bring reconciliation with our Native Iowan friends & neighbors – the Meskwaki Tribe.
Click here to read our Indigenous Land Acknowledgement…
Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…
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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen’s local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at (515) 350-6307, GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge
Indigenous tribe that gave Iowa its name has land again in the state. Here’s how it happened., George Shillcock, Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 27, 2022
The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska website
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