History of the Otoe-Missouria

Posted By BrokenClaw on January 3, 2007

First Contact

The people who would become the Missouria, the Otoe, and the Ioway once belonged to the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Nation, one of the Siouan tribes of the Great Lakes region. At some point, a large group separated themselves and began to migrate to the south. In the simplest sense, the Ioway settled along the Mississippi River, the Missouria settled along the Missouri River, and the Otoe settled farther west.

The Missouria were known by reputation to the earliest French explorers — Jacquez Marquette, Louis Joliet, and Robert La Salle — because the other natives would always describe to them the Missouria tribe that lived where a second great river emptied into the first. Consequently, that second river became known as the Missouri. The earliest maps of the area, drawn by the Marquette-Joliet expeditions, show only a handful of native villages, but they include both the Otoe and the Missouria. These two tribes were always closely related, both in family gens and in cultural practices. Not particularly large, neither the Otoe nor Missouria tribes ever numbered many over 1,000 people. Early written accounts referred to these closely related Indian nations — the Otoe, Missouria, and Ioway — as sedentary tribes that cultivated crops on a small scale, but they probably obtained at least half of their sustenance from hunting.

In 1680, two Otoe chiefs met with La Salle at Fort Crévecoeur along the Illinois River, two years before his expedition down the Mississippi River. Following La Salle’s claim to the Louisiana Territory, the French continued to control much of the interior of the continent. The earliest known account of the Otoe and Missouria engaging Europeans in battle occurred in 1720, when a Spanish expedition ventured into the region from the southwest. Their mission was probably to establish a frontier against the French, but they no doubt were bolstered by fables of gold, which still persisted nearly two centuries after Coronado’s famed failed expedition. The Spaniards were prepared to fight the French, but they were unprepared to defend themselves against the indigenous Pawnee, Otoe, and Missouria; the Spanish commander and about half of his force were exterminated.

However, one of the best-known early French explorers, with a more peaceful approach, was Etienne Bourgmont, who took a Missouria wife. He was the first European to write an eyewitness account of life in a Missouria village. In 1725, several Otoe and Missouria chiefs accompanied him on a voyage to France, where they were received by the Court of King Louis XV.

Western Expansion

Following the Louisiana Purchase, the Otoe were the first tribe encountered by Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery in 1804, meeting at a place that would become known as Council Bluffs. Between 1817 and 1841, the Otoe lived around the mouth of the Platte River in Nebraska. Written accounts of this period indicate that the Missouria was once the larger of the two tribes. However, the Missouria seemed to be constantly at war with their neighbors, particularly the Sac and Fox, which dramatically decimated their population. By 1829, members of the Missouria tribe had dispersed into other tribes, primarily the Otoe. From that time on, the combined Otoe-Missouria were treated as a single tribe, although the Missouria families continued to serve their own chiefs and traditions.

During the 1830s, Baptist missionaries established a school for the Otoe. Their son was probably the first white child ever born to settlers in the Nebraska territory. The school, however, was abandoned within the decade. The Otoe-Missouria lands, lying south from the Platte River in eastern Nebraska, were ceded to the U.S. by treaty in 1854. Chief Arkeketa, along with several other Otoe and Missouria tribal leaders, traveled to Washington, DC, to conclude the treaty negotiations. The tribes not only ceded all but a small tract of their land, but also acknowledged their “dependence on the Government of the United States”.

In 1964, after more than a decade of legal argument, the Indians Claims Commision awarded the Otoe-Missouria a million dollar compensation for the fraudulent way in which the government sold these tribal lands. The award was a landmark in federal claims, because it was the first time that aboriginal title, in lieu of written treaties and deeds, was accepted as legal proof.

A 162,000-acre reservation, a mere fraction of their homeland, was established along the Big Blue River on the present Kansas-Nebraska line. Quakers established another Otoe school there.

A New Home

During the 1870s, different ideas of how they should survive in the white man’s world split the tribe into two factions. The Coyote band, led by Chiefs Medicine Horse, Little Pipe, Pipestem [see photos], and others, favored an immediate move to Indian Territory, where they believed they could perpetuate their traditional tribal life outside the influence of the whites. The Quaker band favored continuance on their present land, even if it meant selling the western half of their current reservation back to the whites. The federal agents wanted to keep the Otoe-Missouria where they were. The local white settlers encouraged removal to Indian Territory for their own self-interests. On several occasions, members of the Coyote band tried to establish a new home. By the spring of 1880, about half of the tribe had left the Big Blue Reservation and taken up residence with the Sac and Fox tribe in Indian Territory. [The names of the Coyote band are notably absent from Dorsey's Otoe-Missouria census of 1880.]

Historical MarkerHowever, by 1881, in response to dwindling prospects of self-sufficiency and continued pressure from white settlers, the federal agents finally allowed the tribe to sell their entire reservation, and the Otoe-Missouria purchased a new reservation of 129,000 acres in the Cherokee Outlet in the Indian Territory, in what is now Noble and Pawnee Counties, Oklahoma. In October, 1881, with their possessions loaded onto seventy wagons, the rest of the tribe walked across the state of Kansas to their new home in northern Oklahoma. Although they initially resisted the location, within a few years most of the Coyote band rejoined their kinsman. The tribe contested allotment for more than a decade, but in 1899 and 1906, the entire reservation was finally allotted to tribal members.

By Act of Congress, 1904, the Otoe-Missouria Reservation was officially abolished after allotment, and the property became part of the various counties. Nevertheless, descendants and residents still refer to the area as the Reservation. Despite the directives of the Indian Welfare Act of 1936, the Otoe-Missouria continued to govern their tribe through the traditional authority of the clan elders and tribal council until 1984, when they instituted a formal constitutional government. Today the Otoe-Missouria remain a federally-recognized tribe, based in Red Rock, Oklahoma.

It is significant today, in the centennial celebration of the Otoe-Missourias, to marvel and exclaim that the tribe has survived at all, growing into a thriving community that emerged from an uncertain past.

The Otoe-Missouria Elders: Centennial Memoirs

Otoe-Missouria Seal

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