The Ioways practiced a ceremony similar to the Grand Medicine Dance of the Woodland tribes. A candidate for admission to the secret Ojibwa medicine society, for example, was "shot" with a shell and then "revived" by members. The Ioways offered the first puff of tobacco smoke to the sky spirit. Hereditary clan and war chiefs held positions of authority. The people played lacrosse and the moccasin (guessing) game, games customarily played by Woodlands tribes. There was a dual tribal division. Patrilineal clans were divided into subclans.
Semipermanent villages consisted of earth lodges. When hunting and traveling, people used bark-covered pole-frame lodges as well as skin teepees.
The major crops were corn, beans, squash, melons, sunflowers, and pumpkins. Buffalo were taken, using the surround method, in two communal buffalo hunts a year. Men also hunted other animals such as deer, beaver, raccoon, otter, and bear. Women gathered plant foods such as nuts, berries, and roots. The Ioways also fished, using equipment including spears and possibly weirs and basketry traps. Men made a combination quiver and bow case. After the eighteenth century, women dressed skins with elk-horn scrapers. They also wove reed floor mats over a bark-cord foundation. Like Woodland tribes, Ioways made soft-twilled buffalo hair wallets and rawhide box containers or trunks.
During the early eighteenth century, Ioways sold Indian slaves, probably Pawnees, to French traders for resale to Gulf Coast plantation owners. Actively involved in the fur trade at that time, they also traded pipes to other tribes. Women made clothing of tanned animal skins. After their adoption of many Plains traits in the eighteenth century, the people gave highest war honors to those who led several successful raids. In descending order, other honors included killing an enemy, touching an enemy, and scalping. They also created rival military clubs.
According to tradition, the Ioways, Winnebagos, Missourias, and Otoes once lived together north of the Great Lakes. Migration toward their historic areas began in the sixteenth century. Moving south through Wisconsin, the Ioways crossed the Mississippi River in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and began building villages in northeastern Iowa, just south of Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, they continued west to the Des Moines River area of northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. In the midseventeenth century, the Ioways, constantly on the move and under pressure from the Dakotas, moved west again into northern Nebraska. By the late seventeenth century they had crossed the Missouri eastward back into Iowa.
After they acquired horses in the early to mideighteenth century, they began to range farther west and take on more characteristics of Plains Indians. They were heavily engaged in the fur trade in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when some bands were living as far west as the Platte River. Around 1800 they were engaged in territorial wars with the Sauk, Fox, and Dakota tribes. They also suffered a major smallpox epidemic in 1803.
The tribe signed treaties with the United States in 1824, 1825, 1830, 1836, and 1837, eventually ceding all of their lands. In 1836, they were assigned a reservation along the Great Nemaha River (southeastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas) that was subsequently reduced in size. In the 1870s, the tribe divided into two independent groups, the southern Ioways, in Oklahoma, and the northern Ioways, in Kansas and Nebraska. The former group preferred to live in the traditional way, on lands held in common, whereas the latter group accepted individual allotments of land. The southern Ioways were assigned a reservation in the Indian Territory in 1883, but it was opened to non-Indian settlement several years later.