Native American Heritage Month: Historical Photos of the Meskwaki

November is Native American Heritage Month, and our post for today features two sets of photos from within larger manuscript collections that offer glimpses of Meskwaki life from late 19th and early 20th century Iowa.

It bears mentioning that, while we are always seeking to diversify our collections, Iowa State University is not, and by its very nature will never be, the best resource for learning about Native American people’s histories and cultures — even those directly adjacent to us. This is because Native American nations keep their own records. If, therefore, you want to learn more about the Meskwaki Nation, which is located in Tama County, about an hour’s drive from ISU, I strongly recommend that you go directly to the source by visiting their website, their cultural center and museum, and/or by getting in touch with the museum’s historic preservation staff (contact information at the bottom of the linked page). They will be able to tell you more about themselves than our archives, or even coursework in ISU’s excellent American Indian Studies Program (AISP), ever could.

I also want to point out that the photographs in this post are, to the best of my knowledge, the creation of white, European-American photographers, who were outsiders to the Meskwaki culture. This is significant because it suggests that what we are actually seeing in these photos is (sometimes obvious, but always decidedly one-sided) documentation of encounters between two very different cultures, rather than internal elements or perspectives of Meskwaki life. It does not, at least in my opinion, make the images any less interesting or historically valuable; it is simply important context to bear in mind, particularly as our collections do not contain the counterpart, which would be documentation of such interactions that centers a Meskwaki point-of-view.

1897

These photos are among the oldest I know of in our collections that contain glimpses of people from what was then, at least to English-speakers, known as the “Sauk and Fox” tribe. The images are contained in a 6″ x 8″ photo album, which documents rural life in central Iowa at the end of the 19th century, though it is unclear who the creator was or why so much of the album remains empty.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album. Album cover.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album. Last page in album, identifying the manufacturer.

I have scanned the relevant page spread in its entirety but will zoom in on the three individual images, as well. Each is a black-and-white, thumbnail-sized picture inserted into a photograph sleeve with four-windows and then captioned and dated by hand.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album.

According to an Encyclopedia Brittanica article, THE Black Hawk (Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kai-kaik), a Sauk warrior famed for leading three allied Iowa tribes (Sauk, Meskwaki, and Kickapoo) through the 1832 “Black Hawk War” against the U.S. government, died in 1838. This means that the man pictured above must be another, younger leader who went, or at least was know to local Anglo settlers, by the same name.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album.

It is too bad that the photographer neglected to ask and/or recall these individuals’ names. It is, unfortunately, also not clear whether any of them had consented to be photographed in the first place. The fact that they are walking away from the camera suggests that they did not.

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MS-0714. Iowa Photograph Album.

Although these individuals are identified as being “from Tama Reservation,” it is not entirely clear whether they would have belonged to the Meskwaki Nation as it currently defines itself. “Sauk and Fox” seems to have been a catch-all term designated by the U.S. government for at least two distinct tribes, both of which it sought to forcibly relocated to Kansas in the decades following the Black Hawk War. The Meskwaki have also never referred to themselves internally as the “Fox”; this is an anglicization of a name conferred on the tribe by French fur trappers more than a century before. The “reservation” in Tama county, where a number chose to remain and/or return, was also not technically a government reservation, as the Meskwaki had purchased this land for themselves in 1857.

 

1931

These pictures were taken at an annual Powwow festival, which, according to the Meskwaki website, is typically held in either August or September and modeled after a traditional harvest-time social event known as the “Green Corn Dance.” Photographer Walter Rosene, best known for his prolific local bird photography, featured in the Avian Archives of Iowa Online, took these pictures, presumably while attending a Meskwaki Powwow with family or friends.

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MS-0598, Box 17, Folder 5. Meskwaki Powwow.

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MS-0598, Box 17, Folder 5. Meskwaki Powwow. The kids posing for this photo afford us an excellent view of their fancy outfits. The little one on the left, though, looks like he’s ready to scamper off to re-join the festivities!

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MS-0598, Box 17, Folder 5. Meskwaki Powwow. It is unclear whether this photo was taken at the Powwow or sometime before or after. There is no additional information on the back, but I am guessing that the people in this photo were all spectators. I personally also find the symmetry and contrasts interesting — for example, the plaid in both the little white girl’s dress and in the Meskwaki woman’s shawl, and the way the woman and children in the foreground are the only ones both not wearing hats and seemingly absorbed in something other than Rosene’s camera.

I did locate photos within a few more collections, all of them RS collections, which is more of what I typically work with. But I realized belatedly that the boxes I needed from each of these are stored off-site and that I wouldn’t have time to request them. Perhaps they will become their own blog post someday.

 

 

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