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What Is an Atlatl? How Is It Used? October 28, 2010

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History, Louisa County.
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At first glance, the picture above may look like a simple stick, but it is actually an atlatl (pronounced AT-l-at-l).

An atlatl is a Native American spear chucker than can add distance and velocity to a spear without sacrificing accuracy. Back in the days when David was using a sling to wing a softball-sized stone at Goliath, the folks living in southeastern Iowa were using these for hunting and possibly warfare.

To use one, you place the butt of your spear on the tongue of the atlatl (that’s the short little stub of branch). You grab the shaft of the atlatl and lay your index finger over the shaft of the spear. if you have a fancy atlatl like the one above, you can rest the spear in the little Y shaped twig at the other end, otherwise rest the spear on your knuckles. The next picture shows how it’s done.

Holding and atlatl

You throw the spear as you would without the atlatl except that, as your arm comes over your shoulder, you take your finger off the spear and snap your wrist. Finish with your hand pointing at the target.

If you want to add a little more pop to the atlatl split the end of the atlatl and place a leather thong across as shown below.

Atlatl with thong

My thanks to Kathy Dice, a naturalist with Louisa County’s Conservation Board, for teaching a dozen of us how to make and use spears and atlatls last Sunday. You can find out about upcoming LCCB events by visiting Naturally Louisa and subscribing to their newsletter.


Who Built the Toolesboro Indian Mounds? April 5, 2010

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History, Louisa County.
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The burial mounds at Toolesboro are approximately 2000 years old. They date to a time archaeologists call the Middle Woodlands period and a trading network of indigenous peoples who have been dubbed the Hopewell cultures.  The Toolesboro mound builders were part of a regional group archaeologists call the Havana Hopewell. They lived along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers from about 100 BCE to about 400 CE.  Some think the Havana Hopewell culture was the root from which the Mississippian culture grew a few centuries later.

The burial bounds at Toolesboro are cone-shaped and vary in size.  They are eight to ten feet high and from 35 to 80 feet in diameter. Most, like the one in the picture below, are in the woods.  The two nearest the visitors’ center have been cleared and are mowed regularly.

Similar mounds have been found as far east as New York, as far south as Florida, and as far west as the Missouri river. You can get a sense of the extent of the Hopewell trading system and the variety of cultures it included from the map at this link.

Since they did not leave any written artifacts, no one knows what the mound builders called themselves, however there are some things that can be learned from the mounds that have been excavated here and elsewhere.

First, the people lived in settlements in wooded areas along the rivers. Their food came from agriculture, hunting, and gathering.

Second, they traded over wide areas.  Many of the goods buried in the mounds were made of materials that had been brought long distances.  Items have been unearthed made from seashells, Rocky Mountain obsidian, copper from Lake Superior, and pipe stone from Illinois.

Third, the articles were made by skilled craftsmen. You can seen photos of artifacts taken more than a century ago from one of the Toolesboro mounds here.  The Ohio historical society also has numerous pictures and videos of artifacts taken from Hopewell mounds. The main article is here. Be sure to check out the links, especially the video of the Wray Figurine, the obsidian blades, and the article on effigy pipes.

Fourth, only selected people were honored by being buried in a mound and each mound contains the remains of only a few people.  The sign at the visitor’s center says:

Archaeological evidence indicates that the mounds frequently contained an individual burial and then subsequent burials. Log tombs were often constructed for the internment.  When the tomb was filled it was covered with small mounds of earth and the wooden structure was burned around it. Then a large mound of earth was piled over the whole area.

For more information, check out the links below or stop in the visitors’ center at the Toolesboro mounds. Click here for the museum hours.

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Who Was Wapello? Part 3 January 25, 2010

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History, People.
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by Connie Street

When the Indians were forced to move further west in 1838, Street took measures to start an agency more convenient to the Indian villages and started a new agency for the Sac and Fox tribes early in the fall of 1838. He set out with Chief Appanoose and a party of Indians to examine the country to select a location for the agency. They chose the location where Agency City was later located in what became Wapello County.

Street contracted for the necessary buildings to be built.

Prior to the establishment of the Agency in Wapello County, Wapello and his band lived at the mouth of Crooked Creek, near Marshall, in Henry County.

In 1838, Chief Wapello moved his village to the Des Moines River just south of Ottumwa near the new agency that was being built. A Council House, a place to hold talks with the Indians, was the first building completed . Soon to follow was a house for the first agent, Gen. Joseph Street, who arrived with his family in April 1839. There was a blacksmith shop, stables and mills. A “Pattern Farm” to teach farming skills to the Indians was begun and several other buildings were constructed.

In the spring of 1839, after the completion of the buildings, Street moved his family to the new agency. In the meantime, his health had been gradually declining. Before the close of 1839, he had become almost totally disabled, by “obstinate maladies.”

On May 5, 1840, the general died. When he died, Street’s wife and their nine youngest children had been living in the Agency residence for about a year.

The Indians were greatly attached to Street, and at the word of his sudden death, great numbers of them came immediately to the agency, where Street was buried.

Wapello and his tribe were so demonstrative in their grief that it caused distress for Street’s wife and the younger members of his family. It became necessary to find an interpreter to kindly ask the Indians to express their sorrow further from the house.

Source: “The Red Man of Iowa” by A. R. Fulton and the Ottumwa Courier 2000 Progress edition.

Less than a year later, on March 15,1841, while on a hunting trip, the 55-year-old Chief Wapello became ill and died on the banks of Rock Creek in present day Keokuk County, Iowa. His body was returned to the Indian Agency by ox cart, accompanied by numerous mourners. According to Wapello’s wishes, he was buried on the agency beside the grave of his friend Gen. Street. The burial included the customary Indian ceremonies.

Chief Wapello consistently promoted peace.

[Editor’s Note: Wapello moved more than once to new territories in order to escape the encroachment of white settlers and avoid war. Two years after his death, new treaties forced his tribe to move yet again. This time to Nebraska.]

Connie Street is a retired journalist who contributes regularly to the Wapello Republican. She also staffs our local historical museum

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Who Was Wapello? Part 2 January 12, 2010

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History, People.
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by Connie Street

We ended the first post about Chief Wapello in Boston in 1837. There he spoke of his tribal nation’s desire to live in harmony with white settlers.

Chief Wapello knew Gen. Joseph Street as an Indian agent at Prairie du Chien, Wis., and Rock Island, Ill. Through the years, they became very good friends. (Note – Street is no relation to the writer.)

In the fall of 1837, Street, accompanied by Maj. John Beach (who later became Street’s son-in-law), conducted a party of about 30 Indian chiefs to Washington, D.C. to see President Andrew Jackson.

Wapello, his wife and little son, and perhaps one or two more women were part of the entourage.

Beach, wrote prolifically about the Indians. He was present during the week when they visited Boston.

He wrote that they were “a novelty in the city, and were received and entertained with great attention and kindness.”

The party was received with all due ceremony, in old Faneuil Hall by the Mayor and city government, and on the succeeding day, Gov. Edward Everett, received them in the State House on behalf of the State. The military escorted the Indians about in carriages through throngs of people who filled the streets to see them.

According to Beach, a struggle ensued between Boston’s two theaters, both wanting to obtain the presence of the Indians in order to draw big crowds. It was finally decided that the Indians would enjoy a play that was based on action instead of tragedy, and all 30 Indians attended.

This is what happened according to the History of Wapello County: “the Indians gazed with eager and breathless anxiety” and when one actor “finally pierced through the breast with his adversary’s sword, fell dying, and as the other drew his bloody weapon from the body heaving in the convulsions of its expiring throes, the whole Indian company burst out with their fiercest war whoop.

“It was a frightful yell to strike suddenly on unaccustomed ears. And was instantly succeeded by screams of terror from among the more nervous of the women and children. For an instant, the audience seemed at a loss, but soon uttered a hearty round of applause – a just tribute to both actor and Indians.”

At the time when they went east, the Sac and Fox tribes still retained a large and valuable portion of the territory of Iowa. The last treaty in which the Sac and Fox tribes ceded their land in Iowa was negotiated and concluded on Oct. 21, 1837.

Street helped negotiate this final treaty. The principal sum of $200,000 for the land became a permanent fund to be held in trust by the United States. The interest only, at the rate of 5 percent, or $10,000, was to be paid annually to the Indians.

Click Here for Part 3

Connie Street is a retired journalist who contributes regularly to the Wapello Republican. She also staffs our local historical museum.

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Local Tribes Had Their Own Look August 31, 2009

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History, Louisa County.
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by Connie Street

Recently, I attended the Meskwakie Powwow near Tama with my daughter and her two children. I finally learned what the American Indians who lived in and around Louisa County wore on their heads.

Traditional Meskwakee Dress

Traditional Meskwakie Dress

Looking at paintings and actual photographs, I knew it wasn’t feathers, but what was it?

There was a discussion at a recent school board meeting about what type of Indian to use in the new mural in the gym. One choice was an Indian wearing a big feather headdress. Another suggestion was actually using the likeness of Chief Wapello, for whom the town and the school are named, based on a painting of him done in the early 1830s. The result is an Indian with a couple of feathers.

The typical feather headdresses that you see in the movies were not the norm here. Called a roach, the decorations used in this area were made mostly of porcupine hair and fastened to a scalp lock on the head. That’s what many of the dancers were wearing at the powwow.

Jonathan Buffalo, tribal historian, verified that for me. I found him in a tent filled with historical artifacts and books about the Meskwakie Nation.

Nearby was a wikiup, a cone-shaped house made of sticks woven into mats. A step inside and the temperature was several degrees cooler than being in the hot sun.

Roach Up Close

Roach Up Close

At the Meskwakie casino/hotel is a nice museum about the history of the Meskwakie. Stop by and take a look sometime when you are up that way. There is also a CD available for sale at the hotel gift shop on the history of the Meskwakie Nation.

If the name Meskwakie doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably heard of the Sac and Fox. Those names were given to the tribes by white men. What is commonly known as Fox should have always been called Meskwakie.

At the Louisa County Heritage Center in Wapello, there is a diorama showing the Sac and Fox Indian Council held along the Iowa River when the warrior Black Hawk asked for support in his quest for a war with the encroaching settlers. Keokuk, the tribal chief, and Wapello a sub chief, both said no.

Black Hawk went to war anyway. Many of his followers, including women and children, were slaughtered. The peaceful Indians who lived in southeast Iowa were moved west to reservations and white settlement began in Iowa soon afterward.

Connie Street is a retired journalist who contributes regularly to the Wapello Republican. She also staffs our local historical museum.

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