© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How To Mark Native American Heritage Day In Iowa

S Pakhrin
flickr creative commons
Meskwaki dancer Larry Yazzie in November of 2015.

Friday is Native American Heritage Day, a time designated since 2009 to honor and celebrate Indigenous history and culture, which advocates say is too often forgotten.

For thousands of years before European settlers arrived, many different Native societies lived in what is now the state of Iowa. The state itself is named for the Ioway people, who were resettled to Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Christina Gish Hill, a professor in the Iowa State University American Indian Studies Program, says the Ioway, also called the Iowa, have been able to sustain their culture and their connection to sacred lands in Iowa, even after this displacement.

“Iowa people are still here,” she said. “Those nations continue to live their culture and celebrate their history and practice their lifeways in Kansas and Nebraska and in Oklahoma. Meskwaki people of course are right here in Iowa today.”

Hill says the heritage day can be fraught for some and concerns persist that interest in Native history and culture may be relegated to single day, instead of being examined more broadly year-round. Still, she says it’s worth taking the opportunity to delve into the accomplishments and struggles of Native peoples, spanning generations before European settlement up to today.

“For peoples in the U.S. who have often, outside of Native nations and Native communities, have often really been a hidden minority, whose concerns and cultures and voices are often neglected in the wider culture of the United States, I think it’s useful, it’s important to have even a little bit of time where the wider culture and the wider media is paying attention,” she said.

Hill posited that for some non-Native Iowans, it may be harder to conceptualize what came before European settlement because what is now the state of Iowa is considered the most environmentally altered state in the country. When European settlers pushed out Native peoples and plowed under the tallgrass prairie, they fundamentally changed the landscape, resulting in a massive loss in biodiversity. Less than one-tenth of one percent of Iowa’s native prairie still exists, according to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

“The transformation was really intense,” she said. “I think it probably is very difficult for us now on this landscape to imagine what it looked like when Indigenous people were the only people here. And I think another issue is that so many Native peoples and Native nations were removed from the state of Iowa.”

“There’s a real erasure there,” she added. “Native people managed and shaped this landscape for generations upon generations.”

Hill says this year many events marking the heritage day, and Native American Heritage Month, are happening online due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Native communities and highlighted preexisting health disparities and inequities.

More ways to mark Native American Heritage Day

  • learn more about the Meskwaki Nation, the only federally-recognized tribe in Iowa
  • listen back to Charity Nebbe’s conversation with Indigenous Chef Sean Sherman on IPR’s Talk of Iowa
Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter