The Meskwaki (sometimes spelled Mesquakie or Meskwahki) are a Native American people often known to outsiders as the Fox tribe. They have often been closely linked to the Sauk people. In their own language, the Meskwaki call themselves Meshkwahkihaki, which means "the Red-Earths." Historically their homelands were in the Great Lakes region where the tribe was first located in the St. Lawrence River Valley in Ontario; and later Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. In the 19th century Euro-American colonization and settlement proceeded forcing resettlement south into the tall grass prairie in the midwest. The Meskwaki, within the designation 'Sac and Fox,' currently have reservations in Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.
The name is derived from the Meskwaki creation myth, in which their culture hero, Wisaka, created the first humans out of red clay. The name Fox originated in a French mistake in applying a clan 'fox' name to the entire tribe. Anglo-Americans, including the United States government, adopted the French term Renards (the Foxes) into English.
Meskwaki are of Algonquian origin from the prehistoric Woodland period culture area. The Meskwaki language is a dialect of the language spoken by the Sauk and Kickapoo, within the Algonquian languages family.
Meskwaki and Sauk are two distinct tribal groups. Linguistic and cultural linkages between the two tribes have made them often associated in history. Under US government recognition treaties, officials treat the Sac (anglicized Sauk term) and Meskwaki as a single political unit, despite their separate identities.
According to archeologists, about ten thousand years ago, peoples from the Eurasian landmass migrated to modern-day North America via the Bering Strait land bridge. Approximately seven thousand years ago, groups of these earlier migrants reached and settled in what is now know as Ontario, in Central Canada. Around the turn of the 1st century, the "Great Drought" took place. The lands which the ancestors of the Meskwaki inhabited did not receive enough rain to sustain their population, and the group lost about 98% of its members.
The Meskwaki lived along the Saint Lawrence River in present day Ontario, east of Michigan. The tribe may have numbered as many as 10,000, but years of war with the Huron, whom the French colonial agents supplied with arms, and exposure to European infectious diseases reduced their numbers. In response to these pressures, the Meskwaki migrated west, first to the area between Saginaw Bay and Detroit west of Lake Huron in present day eastern Michigan. Later they moved further west into Wisconsin.
The Meskwaki gained control of the Fox River system in eastern and central Wisconsin. This river became vital for the colonial New France fur trade through the interior of North America between northern 'French Canada' to the French ports on the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the Fox–Wisconsin Waterway the Fox River allowed travel from Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes via Green Bay to the Mississippi River system.
At first European contact in 1698, the French estimated the number of Meskwaki as about 6,500. By 1712, the Meskwaki were down to 3,500.
The Meskwaki fought against the French, in what are called the Fox Wars, for more than three decades (1701–1742) to preserve their homelands. The Meskwaki resistance to French rule was so effective that the King of France signed a decree commanding the complete extermination of the Meskwaki—the only edict of its kind in history. The Sauk and Meskwaki allied in 1735 to fend off the Europeans and other Indian tribes.
The First Fox War with the French lasted from 1712-1714. The first Fox War with Europeans was purely economic in nature. The French wanted rights to use the river system to gain access to the Mississippi. After the Second Fox War of 1728, the remaining 1,500 Meskwaki were reduced to 500 people. They found shelter with the Sac, but French competition carried to that tribe. In the Second Fox War, the French increased their pressure on the tribe to gain access to the Fox and Wolf Rivers.
Members of the Meskwaki tribe spread through southern Wisconsin, and along the present day Iowa-Illinois border. In 1829 the US government estimated there were 1,500 Meskwaki (along with 5,500 Sac, or Sauk). Both tribes moved southward from Wisconsin into Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The Anishinaabe peoples called the Meskwaki Odagaamii, meaning “people on the other shore,” a name which the French adopted into their pronunciation system as “Outagamie”. This name was used to designate today's Outagamie County of Wisconsin.
They were forced to leave their territory by land-hungry American settlers, and President Jackson signed the “Removal Act of 1830”, which removed them from their land. They refused and many were cowardly murdered by Lieutenant Jefferson Davis and militia volunteers in 1830.
Some Meskwaki were involved with Sac members in the Black Hawk War over homelands in Illinois. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, the United States officially combined the two tribes into a single group known as the Sac & Fox Confederacy for treaty-making purposes. Through a series of land cessions under the name of “Sac & Fox”, the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes lost all their lands. Soon after, the U.S. government forced the Sauk to a reservation in Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma.
The United States persuaded the Sauk and Meskwaki to sell all their claims to land in Iowa in a treaty of October 1842. They moved to land west of a temporary line (Red Rock Line) in 1843. They were removed to a reservation in east central Kansas in 1845 via the Dragoon Trace. Some Meskwaki remained hidden in Iowa, with others returning within a few years.
In 1856 the Iowa legislature passed an unprecedented act allowing the Meskwaki to purchase land, Indians were not usually permitted to do so in the U.S., allowing the Meskwaki to stay. Government officials declared that the Meskwaki could not own land because legally Indians were not US citizens.
In 1857, the Meskwaki purchased the first in Tama County; Tama was named for Taimah, a Meskwaki chief of the early 19th century. Many Meskwaki later moved to the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa, which was started in 1857.
The U.S. government tried to force the tribe back to the Kansas reservation by withholding treaty-right annuities. Ten years later, the U.S. finally began paying annuities to the Meskwaki in Iowa. They recognized the Meskwaki as the Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa. The jurisdictional status was unclear. The tribe then had formal federal recognition with eligibility for Bureau of Indian Affairs services. It also had a continuing relationship with the State of Iowa due to the tribe’s private ownership of land, which was held in trust by the governor.
For the next 30 years, the Meskwaki were virtually ignored by federal as well as state policies. Subsequently, they lived more independently than tribes confined to regular reservations which were regulated by federal authority. To resolve this jurisdictional ambiguity, in 1896 the State of Iowa ceded to the Federal Government all jurisdiction over the Meskwaki.
By 1910, the Sac and Meskwaki together totaled only about 1,000 people. By the year 2000, their numbers had increased to nearly 4,000.
In World War II, the Meskwaki were engaged not only as fighters but code talkers, along with Navajo and some other speakers of uncommon languages. Meskwaki men used their language against the Germans in North Africa. Twenty-seven Meskwaki, then 16% of Iowa's Meskwaki population, enlisted together in the U.S. Army in January 1941.
The modern Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County, Iowa maintains tribal schools, a public works department, tribal courts, and tribal police.
Today the federally recognized Sac and Fox tribes are: