Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa – This is the Place.

Symphony of IowaIowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1935) created this breath-taking oil painting of an eclectic group of Iowa pioneers looking over this beautiful land we call Iowa. Indeed… Iowa – This is the Place. Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing murals.

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:


Iowa 1700
A Native American map of Iowa includes Pawnee, Ioway, Dakota and Omaha.

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 . . .

…from Iowa As It Is, N. Howe Parker, 1855, p68.

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.

The Ioway Tribe “Ayuhwa” option.

The Ioway Tribe – Iowa Indians Who Visited London and Paris, George Catlin.

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, George Catlin.

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! Gosh, thank goodness the Báxoje tribe wasn’t jided about being “yellow snow!”

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!

I-o-wah! – I have found…

Which now brings us to the much better Option #2 . . .

The Sauk Tribe “Kiowa” option.

The Sauk Tribe – Dance to the Berdache: Sac and Fox, George Catlin.

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.

The Sauk Chief – Black Hawk.

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 braves were moving southward from their excursions in the north, they would say: “Posse (pony) pukachee (traveling or moving) kiowa (place) sepo (river).” That is, they and their ponies were going across the river at a designated “this is the place” location.

Fort Des Moines (#1) was located near the southeast tip of the Iowa District, where the Des Moines River meets the Mississippi. Today, in this same spot, stands the small Lee County community of Montrose. Click here for more about how this Sauk word “kiowa” was popularized.
The Meskwaki Tribe of Iowa – Sauk and Fox.

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 that verifies our Meskwaki “This is the Place” story.

A June sunset at the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa. The ballfield was built out of a cornfield in 1988.

Iowa: A Field of Dreams. This is the Place.

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!

Iowa Prairie Chronicles in Picture – a map of Iowa by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing murals.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855

The Word Iowa – What It Means, L.F. Andrews, 1896

The History of the Ioway, www.bahkhoje.com

George Catlin – The Complete Works website

The Meskwaki Nation website

Meskwaki, Wikipedia

The Name – Iowa, Rev. Samuel Storrs Howe, The Iowa City Daily Republican, September 22, 1880, p 4

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…

Click here for a complete INDEX of PEOPLE-PLACES-THINGS…

Click here for a complete INDEX of stories listed CHRONOLOGICALLY…

Click here for a numerical INDEX to all of the U.S. postage stamps, postal cards, and coins in our collection…