Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A little time with Mahaska

OK, so what I really wanted to do Friday afternoon was play with the carillon at St. James Church, although I’m told it can’t really be called a carillon because there are only 10 bells and therefore a somewhat limited repertoire. Still, I’ve wanted to hear those bells ring out over downtown Oskaloosa --- and still do. Episcopalians just have no sense of play some days.

What I did instead, before the South Central Chapter meeting at St. James began, was to visit old friend Mahaska in the city square park. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve done that and in that time the old boy has been restored, polished up and looks brand new. If I remember correctly, he had turned distinctly green by the last time I saw him, desirable in an environmental policy but not necessarily so in a work of sculpture.

After lamenting some time ago the shortage of Ioway place names, markers and monuments in that tribe’s namesake state, I overlooked the statue’s 100th birthday in May. So now I’ve revisited this rarity in a land dominated by remembrances of the Sauk and Meskwaki. Too bad the sun wasn’t shining. Mahaska would have looked much better on a sunny day with autumn-colored leaves in the background.

Organized in 1843, less than 10 years after Mahaska’s death, Mahaska County was named for him, the chief also called White Cloud. Although born near the Iowa River ca. 1784, Mahaska reportedly spent some of his youth along the Des Moines in what became the county that bears his name. Some say he is buried along the Des Moines, too, although farther upstream.

Mahaska’s story is a relatively familiar one in Iowa, where few of us actually are familiar with our Native American heritage at all. When young and inexperienced, his father, Chief Mauhawgaw (or Wounding Arrow), was killed by Sioux. Foregoing his hereditary right to claim the title “chief,” Mahaska set out to avenge the death and proved his skill and courage and worthiness.

Some years later, while imprisoned in St. Louis for killing a French trader, Mahaska reportedly promised William Clark, then superintendent of Indian affairs, that he would not take up arms again and eventually did precisely that.

After becoming a man of peace, he did his best to live companionably with the flood of Euro-American settlers who pushed his people west and to live as those Euro-Americans thought Native Americans should --- in a cabin on a farm on Ioway land in extreme northwest Missouri --- and to encourage other Ioways to do the same.

He and his wife Rantchewaime, or Female Flying Pigeon, were part of an 1824 delegation of Ioways, Sauk and Meskwaki to Washington, D.C., where they met President James Monroe and had their portraits painted by Charles Bird King. Although the portraits were destroyed in a fire, lighographs survive so we actually know what Mahaska looked like. He reportedly was tall, perfectly formed and remarkably handsome and Rantchewaime, of great beauty.

But Mahaska came to a sad end 10 years later while camped on the banks of the Nodaway River in what now is Cass County. After discouraging young Ioway men from seeking revenge against Omahas who had killed members of the tribe, he helped the Euro-American authorities capture six Ioways who had ignored his advice. One of those young men escaped from prison at Fort Leavenworth in 1834, tracked Mahaska to his camp and assassinated him.

According to some reports, Mahaska’s body was brought back to central Iowa and buried near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers in what now is Des Moines city.

Quite naturally, Iowa’s rapidly-growing Euro-American population thought all Native Americans should behave as Mahaska had, giving away gracefully to their advances and attempting to live as they did. His death at the hands of a fellow Ioway came to signify for whites the perceived contradiction between savagery and nobility in these strange not-white tribes they fully expected to disappear before too many more years passed. Naturally, the Euro-Americans conveniently overlooked that contradiction in their own natures.

By the turn of the 20th century, although Native Americans had not disappeared and would inconveniently decline to do so, abstract sentimentality among Euro-Americans about Native American nobility was peaking, so it isn’t surprising that James Depew Edmundson, casting about for a way to commemorate his father, William Edmundson, a Mahaska County pioneer, alighted upon the idea of a statue of Mahaska in the county seat of the city named for him.

The commission went to Sherry Edmundson Fry, a young Creston, Iowa-born sculptor then studying and working in Paris. Fry no doubt studied the 1824 King portrait, but also returned to Iowa to sketch, since no Ioway were conveniently available, Meskwaki at their settlement in nearby Tama County.

The cast bronze statue, dated 1907, was displayed in Paris and won prizes, including the Prix de Rome, before it was shipped to Oskaloosa, installed in city square park and dedicated on May 9, 1909.

Native Americans apparently were not invited to participate in dedication of Mahaska’s likeness. Instead, members of a local chapter of a bizarre fraternal organization (still in existence) called the Improved Order of Red Men, which at the time denied membership to anyone who was not white, were featured.

As the years passed the statue of Mahaska became endangered by the air that had surrounded it --- pitted, discolored and corroded. Oskaloosa in the 1990s invested much time and many thousands of dollars in its restoration and the result is there at the west edge of the park, facing west, for all of us to see.

Despite the peculiarities of its conception and dedication, the statue is a beautiful piece of work and I want a better photo of it. I like to think of Mahaska as a man of honor and integrity attempting to live and promote peace in a world where then as now peace is rarely given a chance, especially by white folks.

So I’m going to go back one day soon when the sun is shining and the leaves have turned and try for better photos, taking time this time for a cup of coffee at Smokey Row and a visit to the Book Vault. I suppose it’s unlikely they’ll let me play with the carillon during that visit either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the paintings Charles Bird King made of Mahaska, or MaxuThka as he was known in his own Baxoje language, in 1824 is in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For more information on Mahaska, see Lance Foster's new book, The Indians of Iowa (2009), Greg Olson's The Ioway in Missouri (2008), The and the documentary Lost Nation: The Ioway by Fourth Wall Films (2007)

Greg Olson