The beautiful work of the Meskwaki Nation

By Kate Hayden,

There isn’t really a broad word for “art” in the Meskwaki tribal language as there is with the English language.

“It’s always having somebody that can do ‘this’ — somebody’s good at carving, somebody’s good at beading, somebody is good at painting or making things,” tribal member Mary Young Bear said. “We look at them as gifts from the Creator … We make our world better from this.”

For the first time, some artwork from the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa will be on display at the Charles City Arts Center. Pieces by established artists, students, and heirloom family pieces are all featured, said Young Bear, Registrar and Community Outreach director for the Meskwaki Historic Preservation Department.

“There will be a nice collection of things that are part of our culture, our secular culture, that we can share,” Young Bear said.

It is the first time the Meskwaki tribe — and the Charles City Arts Center — has partnered in such an exhibit. The display will continue through August, with a reception at the Charles City Arts Center scheduled for Aug. 19.

Meskwaki singers and dancers will be at the Arts Center during ArtaFest that day, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The tribe will be sharing shorter versions of traditional powwow performances.

“It’s a reflection of our traditional ways … These are songs and dances that we learn as children, and we carry them on and pass them on to our own children,” Young Bear said. “I’m hoping that people that come to see these songs and dances will appreciate the culture and the history of the tribe.”

The Meskwaki Nation has a unique history among native American tribes: after a series of wars and land concessions from 1701 to the 1850s, Meskwaki tribal leaders purchased 80 acres of land in Tama County from the U.S. government in 1857. The tribe continued to grow the Meskwaki Settlement to more than 8,100 acres of privately owned property over the years — not as an Indian Reservation regimented by federal government.

The tribe celebrates it’s 103rd Meskwaki Annual Powwow in Tama County, Aug. 10-13, which is open to the public.

“I know there’s a lot of people that aren’t even aware there is a tribe living in Iowa. We are trying to educate people,” Young Bear said.

Some of the pieces included at the Arts Center are by the late Leonard Young Bear, a master drawer who depicted people of Native American tribes from the 1960s-1980s. The show will also include work from students at the Meskwaki settlement school — including pottery, drawings and computer illustrations.

Much of the traditional artwork carries a reflection of the natural world — a tradition that educators on the Meskwaki settlement are now passing on to their students.

“As they get older, they come to the museum and we talk about how their ancestors created their designs by just going out into nature, going outside — taking a blade of grass and really looking at it, you find different color combinations that surprise you. They’re unexpected,” Young Bear said. “Once they start seeing things like that and looking at it from that point of view, it’s pretty amazing to see what they do.”

Meskwaki crafters exercising their creative gifts consider “Walking in two worlds … It’s a spiritual world and this world we’re in now,” Young Bear said. “If you look at our art, a lot of it is split in half. They mirror each other. We find that balance, and it’s something that we’re really starting to talk about now.”

Young Bear and her colleagues are bringing that discussion to the forefront on Columbus Day, Oct. 9, during the first public art and culture symposium. More details on the event are online at

“We titled it with a Meskwaki term that translates it into ‘Those That Make Beautiful Things,'” she said. “There’ll be an art gallery, there’ll be demonstrations, there’ll be speakers during the day.”

The tribe had hosted a previous symposium in 2015 that invited scholars of the tribe’s history, but this year’s event is specifically art and culture, Young Bear said.

“It’s my hope that this will empower artists to feel like they can say they’re artists,” she said. “Right now, they’re very humble … I want them to recognize the value of what they do.”