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The Mesquakie

Emilia Ohsone Zargham
Unity Point School, Carbondale

From the 1600s to the 1700s, one of the most prominent midwestern Indian groups were the Mesquakie. Their name meant "Red Earth" or "Red Earth People." The French called them Renards, which meant foxes; hence, they are often referred to as the "Fox." It is probable that the Mesquakie had received the name Fox when members of the Fox clan told a group of French traders that they were the Fox Indians. They spoke Mesquaki and all except the oldest also spoke English.

From the 1750s to the 1850s, the Mesquakie maintained an alliance with the Sauk Indians, with whom they are closely associated. The Mesquakie were Algonquian speakers and closely affiliated with the Sac and Kickapoo. The Mesquakie were hunters and shared a cultural tradition with tribes inhabiting the western Great Lakes, including the Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Menominee tribes. Mesquakie men's clothing consisted of leggings, breechcloth, moccasins, and a robe or a blanket. Women wore trade-cloth skirts and blouses, leggings, moccasins, and a blanket or a shawl.

The Mesquakie were divided into either loosely defined bands or villages that were more permanent and were located along river bottoms. Their loaf-shaped, rectangular homes were small frame houses, covered with elm bark. In the fall and winter they covered them with mats. They called the houses "wickiups." They also attended good schools under the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many attended preschool through eighth grade or they went to the public junior and senior high schools in Tama, Iowa. There many Mesquakie boys starred in football and other sports. Near the village were garden plots where women grew maize, beans, squash, pumpkins, and melons. Wild foods were gathered also, such as wild potatoes, roots, berries, nuts, and maple sap. They hunted buffalo in the spring until 1821 when the animals disappeared from the Mesquakie territory. Hunting animals such as deer and fishing was a primary occupation of men.

The Mesquakie's social organization was based on a system of clans organized around one or more sacred bundles for which semiannual ceremonies were held. The clan system was thus the center of their religious life. Some of the bundles were war bundles and medicine bundles. Some items in the medicine bundle were charms, such as the Cree drum with a thunderbird design on it. According to one writer, "the destructive forces of thunder, hail, and wind were given increased prominence in the myths of the forest people as they took up agriculture and accordingly came to depend on fine weather."

Relationships with other tribes were maintained by means of wampum, which were beaded belts sent as messages. Warfare was a major interest to all men. At the time of the first European contact, the Mesquakie lived along the Wolf River in northeastern Wisconsin and ranged over an area extending from Lake Superior to the Chicago River, and from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. The Mesquakie moved a great deal between the prairie and from Wisconsin to northern Illinois. They tried to avoid the southern Great Lakes because they would have run into very strong tribes that did not like them.

The Mesquakie made three notable migrations south to Illinois. First, they moved because they fol-

4 ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1999


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The Mesquakie often built frame shelters covered with bark, much like the one pictured here.

lowed game. Also they did not have sewage systems; therefore, when sanitation was poor, they moved. Another time they migrated to escape the French who made war with them in the eighteenth century. The Illinois Indians found that the Mesquakie and the French sent soldiers and Indian allies to attack them. This caused them to go farther west in Illinois. The Mesquakie and French fought so much because the French sold firearms to the Sioux Indians, enemies of the Mesquakie. The Mesquakie also were not as well equipped and did not have as many people as the Sioux. The Mesquakie moved a third time when they punished the Illinois Indians for killing important leaders. One was Pontiac, a very popular Chieftain with the northern tribes who was killed in Cahokia, Illinois, by an Illinois Indian. Although the Mesquakie and the Sac remained neutral during the Black Hawk War, they were nevertheless forced to leave the land as reparations in 1832. Later in 1837 and in 1842 more land was ceded and both tribes were assigned to a reservation in Kansas. In 1857 they were sent to Oklahoma, the Indian country.

The Mesquakie practiced many customs and religious or ceremonial activities. For example, they told stories around the fire in a circle of men and women, with their feet always toward the fire. One person told a tale and then the next person told another tale. Each story was different. The stories that they told were brief or short as possible. Most of the stories were how the earth was made and how people came to be. A few of the ceremonials are also associated with curing illnesses and crop raising.

Today there are just a few Mesquakie living in Illinois; most Sac and Mesquakie live in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa, where they practice many of their historic customs.[From C. Burland, North American Indian Mythology; student historian's interview with B. Fester, Sept. 9, 1999; B. Fester, D.E. Foley, The Heartland Chronicles; F. O. Gearing, The Face of the Fox; M. R. Harrington, Sacred Bundles of the Sac and Fox Indians; D. A. Horr, Sac, Fox, and Iowa Indians; W. Jones, Fox Texts; and J. W. VanStone, Mesquaki (Fox) Material Culture.]

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