Environment, Organic Policy and Regulations, What is Organic

The History and Hope of My Iowa Tribe

Photo by Ryan De Hamer on Unsplash

I have been attempting to reconcile my place in the world. As it applies to my heritage, racial equality or lack thereof, and social justice. Of course, also realizing how food fits into the equation.

This was a personal post for me to write and may not be for the faint-hearted.

Growing up in Iowa, I remember shared slaloms and slides in a wintery universe. Some of my earliest memories are of riding a cold, solemn and wide toboggan down a small incline—Jefferson Hill. A broken wrist.

The land around me was dotted with farms where families lived, raised children and cherished the land. Picture voluptuous mounds routed out by slow rivers meandering from the drift-less places. Wisconsin’s dales—the Mississippi River—The Cedar—The Missouri were around us. These confluences of rivers once defined the tribes of mid-North America.

I was one of the wandering ones who left. When I was young, I often wished to be a gypsy or trapeze artist. I wanted to dance with fire, stay warm and get away from the territory I knew as Iowa.

The place where I was conceived.

Iowa is actually a Sioux word, meaning “the sleepy people.”

The Dakota Sioux they were one of several tribes that could be found throughout Iowa. The others included the Ioway, the Illini, the Otoe, and the Missouria.

iowa NA map

This then is my story of ignorant innocence and privilege—a personal realization of the racial travesty of my own heritage.

Iowa Tribes

I believed I had no connection to the crimes of race. I believe all lives deserve the same rights. An idea firmly in my conscious – yet not quite taken with historical light.

I believed I had no transgressions in my past because none of my ancestors had owned slaves.

The truth is—my ancestors were not entirely guiltless.

My great grandparents left Poland, now Germany, searching for a better life, food, religious freedom and a chance for prosperity.

These wandering pilgrims, my ancestors, broke the beautiful prairie sod with big ideas, strong hearts and sturdy legs.

They bore a multitude of children to make a life on this cold relentless piece of earth. But because they were European, they had the gun powder backed by broken treaties.

They unwittingly “land grabbed” hundreds, maybe thousands, of acres from Native Americans. Broken treaties trusted written and torn over and over again. For a better life away from tumultuous Europe.



160 acres by the parcel—pennies on the acre.  My grandmother’s family put down fences. She was the last “girl child” of twelve children, and she inherited hundreds of acres.

My dad’s great Uncle Gutlieb and Aunt Elma lived their entire life in the home they were born. They became so rooted to the parcel they never married nor traveled. Neither ever climbed a mountain nor smelled the sea.

But their farm was an oasis of diversity and magic for me. They fed literally hundreds of animals, and their jersey girls were milked and treated like pets. They grew timothy and beans, fruit trees and grapes with long waving rows of asparagus in the spring.

Photo by Christian Widell on Unsplash

This was the time before pesticides and genetically modified seeds. Wild lilies and milkweed lined the sides of the gravel roads. Today they are wiped clean by herbicides.

Unwittingly, my people ripped the very soil and soul from the Sioux Nation, dislodged, diseased and destroyed. And our collective soul went with it.

Today, some dependents and decedents of my greater Iowan family have gone to sleep to their collective loss with the Native Americans. The first lost their land and their culture, the second lost their reverence for the sovereignty of nature.

Much of Iowa is now an endless nation of genetically modified soybeans and corn, that will not wither when inundated with a toxic cocktail of chemicals. Herbicides, pesticides, dicamba and glyphosate dominate the landscape.

Many of these quite earnest farmers hang on and plant modified seeds in economic desperation.

Photo by Christophe Maertens on Unsplash

The toxic-cocktails seep into the watershed, killing frogs, fish, turtles and crawdads. All the wild things that once lived in the rivers and creeks are all but gone. Nitrogen seeps into the great basin of the Gulf of Mexico

Has death descended upon the nation of my childhood, once the Great Sioux Nation?

There is yet hope budding in some fields. Turning to organic production has helped many farmers become profitable and get off the toxic treadmill of chemical dependence.

Some are seeking a solution in managing the land organically. Iowa State University has an Organic Agriculture Program whose mission is to educate producers, consumers and the errant policymakers about the research and activities in Organic Agriculture both on-farm and in the universities.

They show that the premium prices for certified organic products immediately benefit organic farmers in Iowa financially. There are long-term benefits to human and environmental health derived through organic management.

The Rodale Institute has opened the Midwest Organic Center in Iowa that provides research, education, and assistance to farmers looking to implement organic practices on their farms. It’s also an educational center for the public, and the site of collaboration between Rodale Institute researchers and local partners.

Its located in Marion Iowa which is super close to my hometown of Cedar Rapids! 

The Iowa Organic Association hosts the “Iowa Organic Resource Directory” that was developed to provide organic and transitioning farmers resources to help encourage their success.

Over 900 businesses, non-profits, educators, and service providers are listed in the Directory, and it serves as a valuable tool for Iowa’s organic community to achieve growth and continued success within the organic industry. Some in my tribe can now find a list of organic farms and local organic food.

Photo by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash

The Iowa Department of Agriculture even has a directory of organic producers!

Most of the people who live in Iowa have no idea what was lost; the sod the soil, endless herds of bison. The biodiversity of the prairie.

I am not innocent, nor am I ignorant of the privilege I have wrought from these past crimes upon the native peoples and the current ones upon the land.

What reparations can be framed upon these past transgressions?

Perhaps the answer is to help reveal and heal the food paradigm being planted on these soils.

This is why I write to you about my history.

Photo by Jon Phillips on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “The History and Hope of My Iowa Tribe”

  1. How do you think the religion of your tribe affected the Sioux and other Native Americans? How would you say their religion infuenced the development of Iowa?

  2. Nice post Melody. You have deep roots in Iowa. I’m glad you mentioned the organic activities. Rodale has a research farm in Iowa now. Kathleen Delate at Iowa State does great work supporting organics in Iowa. Kalona, Iowa, is the home to the largest concentration of organic farms in the US. The Amish and Mennonite farmers there support Kalona Supernatural dairy products. But as you point out, Iowa has a long way to go; lots of GMOs, pesticides, and CAFOs. An interesting note of history: I remember reading that there were never any Indian wars in Iowa. At least it’s always been a peaceful place.

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