The Meskwaki recognized an upper and a lower cosmic region. The former was ruled by the great or gentle manitou. There were also any number of other nature-related spirits, or manitous, the most important of which were connected with the four directions. People might gain the attention and assistance of the manitous by offering tobacco, blackening their faces with charcoal, fasting, and wailing.
The vision quest, undertaken at puberty, was another way to attract spiritual power. Those who were especially successful assembled a medicine pack or bundle; certain packs represented power that affected and were the property of entire lineages. Two annual ceremonies were related to the medicine packs. The midewiwin, or medicine dance, was a key ceremony. Others included the green corn and adoption ceremonies. The calumet, or sacred pipe, played a vital role in all sacred activities, including peace negotiations.
Meskwaki society was divided into bands or villages, of fluid composition, that formed in the summer but broke up in the winter. There were dual political divisions of peace and war. Officers were the main chief, subchiefs, and criers. A hereditary peace chief held authority over gatherings, treaties, peace councils, intertribal negotiations, and rituals. War chiefs were chosen by other warriors on the basis of merit, although there may have been a hereditary component.
The Meskwaki recognized about 14 patrilineal clans. Membership in one of the two tribal divisions was determined by birth order. Each summer house was an economic unit as well as a social one.
Parents rarely inflicted corporal punishment on their children. At the onset of puberty, girls were secluded for 10 days and were subject to various restrictions. Both sexes marked puberty by undertaking a vision quest. Marriages were generally arranged by the couple in question and were formalized when the families exchanged gifts. Some men had more than one wife. Adultery was generally cause for divorce. Burial took place after various rituals had been performed. All people were buried in their finest clothing, wrapped in bark or mats, with their feet toward the west.
Summer villages were located near crop fields in river bottoms. Extended families of some 10 people lived in houses about 50 feet long by 20 feet wide and covered with elm bark. These houses were oriented in an east-west direction and were built in parallel rows, with an open game and ceremonial area in between. People moved the villages when firewood became scarce or when attacks forced them to move. When in their winter camps, people lived in small, dome-shaped wigwams covered with reed mats and located in sheltered river valleys. The camps ranged in size from just one or two families to an entire band.
Meskwaki women grew corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. They also gathered a number of wild plant foods, including nuts, honey, berries, fruits, and tubers. Men hunted a variety of large and small game, especially deer, as well as buffalo from at least the 18th century until about 1820. Clothing was generally light and consisted mainly of buckskin breechclouts, dresses or aprons, leggings, and moccasins. Hide or fur robes were added for extra warmth. The people also tattooed and painted their bodies.
Reasons for war included conflict over territory, retaliation, and the achievement of status. War parties had to be authorized by the war council. Leaders of war parties began by fasting to obtain a vision and undertook several more ritualistic activities before the party departed. The leader carried his sacred ark, which was said to provide the party with spiritual power. Warriors were subject to a number of rituals on their return as well. Prisoners were often adopted.
The Meskwaki may once have lived just west and/or south of Lake Erie and, before that, along the southern shore of Lake Superior. They were driven by Iroquois raids into the upper Fox River–Chicago River area, perhaps in the early 17th century.
After non-Natives first appeared among them in the mid-17th century, the Meskwaki quickly joined the fur trade. Unlike most Algonquins, however, they refused to settle near trading posts or missions. They also made enemies by requiring a toll from French traders plying the Fox River and were even able to block French access to the Mississippi River if and when they chose.
The Meskwaki fought the French and their Indian allies in the early to mid-18th century. They were almost destroyed during that period by warfare and disease, which was in fact the goal of French forces. Survivors took refuge with the Sauks in 1733, beginning an alliance that lasted until the 1850s. In 1769, the Sauks, Meskwaki, and other tribes dealt a permanent defeat to the Illinois tribes and moved south and west into some of their former territory and ultimately back into Iowa. By that time they had become highly capable buffalo hunters.
The Meskwaki took an active part in Little Turtle's War (1790–1794) and in Tecumseh's Rebellion (1809–1811), two defensive actions in which the tribes of the old west made a last-ditch effort to hold onto their lands. Lead mines near Dubuque, Iowa, at which the Meskwaki had been mining up to two tons of lead a year, were illegally seized by non-Native interests in the early 19th century. In 1842, the Sauks and Meskwaki ceded their remaining lands and were relocated to a reservation in Kansas.
Some Meskwaki remained with the Sauks in Kansas and went with them in 1869 to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). However, after a series of disputes with the Sauks, most Meskwaki returned to Iowa in the late 1850s, settling near Tama and acquiring land there. Ownership of their own land prevented future allotment and enabled the people to maintain their physical boundaries and thus much of their traditional culture. The people generally refused to enroll their children when the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened a boarding school in the late 19th century, but they did accept a day school after 1912. They adopted an Indian Reorganization Act based government in 1937. Traditional and progressive factions have struggled for control of the tribe for much of the 20th century.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.