As you know, the State of Iowa only goes back to the mid-1800’s. Prior to that time, for countless centuries, numerous Native American tribes roamed the prairies we now call our home. Some historians list dozens of individual tribes who, at one time or another, lived here. But, in order to simplify Our Iowa Heritage story, today, we’ll look at just two tribes, focusing on the language they used, because it’s the Native American language that is the origin of our state’s name:
Tradition tells us that Iowa, in Native American tongue, means “Beautiful Land.” As early as the mid-nineteenth century, this phrase was being used to describe our new state. Here’s an example from N. Howe Parker’s classic book (1855), Iowa As It Is, written to encourage Easterners to come explore the Heartland . . .
Now, while that “Beautiful Land” phrase sounds really nice, most historians don’t believe it’s accurate. In truth, depending on what Native American tribe you study, you can find a couple of strong options on what a person truly meant when he/she exclaimed, ‘I-o-wah!’ Our first meaning comes from the Ioway tribe, and the second from the Sauk tribe. Join me as we look at both options, and then maybe, you can decide.
At first glance, The Ioway Tribe offers the most obvious solution to our question. But, here’s the rub. The name, Ioway, is not a word this Native American tribe used for themselves. Actually, the word the Ioways used (their autonym) is Báxoje (bah-kho-je – with alternate spellings: pahotcha or pahucha), which translates into “Grey Snow.”
Sadly, the word Ioway derives from an ethnic slur given to the Báxoje people by the Sioux nation; a word pronounced ayuhwa, which means “sleepy ones.” Early European explorers often adopted tribal names from these ethnonyms (ethnic nicknames), not understanding that these words were often very derogatory in nature, differing greatly from what the native people actually called themselves. Thus, ayuhwa (Iowa) is not a Báxoje (Ioway) word but is actually a slam against the very people Iowans wanted to honor.
The Ioway Tribe – See-Non-Ty-A: an Iowa Medicine Man (above left) and Watchemonne: an Ioway Chief in 1837 (above right).
Sadly, if we Iowans today are left with only this first option, neither “sleepy ones” or “grey snow” will look very impressive when appearing on our state’s license plate! But wait! There’s hope!
When I look, once again, at that old quote from 1855, the phrase I-o-wah isn’t being used to describe a Native American getting ready to take a nap, nor was it describing the color of our snow – but I-o-wah! – I have found. Which now brings us to the much better Option #2 . . .
The Sauk (Sac) tribe, which has long been associated with the Fox/Meskwaki tribe, had a word they used frequently, pronouncing it, kiowa. According to Sauk history, when Black Hawk, the celebrated war chief, made a raid west of the Mississippi, he crossed the Great River at or near where Davenport now is, and subsequently designated that spot as kiowa — meaning this is the place where we cross. Apparently, this word, kiowa, was in frequent use by the Sauk and Fox tribes when the first settlers came into the state.
Taylor Pierce, who was connected with the early trading-post at Fort Des Moines and who spoke the Sauk and Fox languages fluently, said that when the natives were transitioning from one location to another – having to cross deep river waters – they would say:
“Posse (pony) pukachee (traveling or moving) kiowa (specific place) sepo (river).”
Meaning – the braves and their ponies were going across the river at a designated “this is the place” location.
Historian L.F. Andrews, in 1896 adds this to the kiowa argument…
The Sauks were especially partial to the use of the letter “k.” It occurs three times in “Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiah,” the Sauk name of Black Hawk. So also of other chiefs, as Mahaska, Keokuk, Poweshiek, Winneshiek, Waupekuk, Kishkekosh, etc. In a list of over two hundred names of chiefs appearing on the books at the trading post of Fort Des Moines, all but twenty contain this guttural “k” (sound) once or more. It is also a marked characteristic of the languages of the Chippewas and Pottawattamies.
As further evidence of the correctness of this interpretation of the word, an old chief of the Musquakie or Tama County Indians, was very recently asked the meaning of the word “Iowa” or “Kiowa.” His answer was,”This is the place.” For instance, if a party of Indians were traveling, when camping-time came, and the chief found a suitable spot, he would exclaim, “Kiowa,” and the party understood it was a good place to camp.
The 1880 Article from The Iowa City Weekly Republican… In the September 22, 1880 edition of The Iowa City Daily Republican, Rev. Samuel Storrs Howe writes a convincing article (above) that verifies the Meskwaki kiowa – this is the place story.
So, I guess it’s your choice. Some might say Iowa is fly-over country, or a place for sleepy ones to take a nap. But quite honestly, those who say those kind of things just haven’t spent any time here, walking through I-o-wah! – the Beautiful Land we have inherited from our Native American brothers and sisters. For me, I’m a lot like Shoeless Joe Jackson, in W.P. Kinsella’s Iowa-based novel that became the very best baseball movie ever, Field of Dreams.
After 70+ years of Iowa living, I still ask… Is this heaven?
And the whispering wind, blowing gently over my home in Iowa City, replies…
No – It’s Iowa! (kiowa) … THIS is the place!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.