PERKINS, Okla. – We had trouble reaching the chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, known to be leery of the Keystone XL pipeline, so a friend suggested contacting Janice Rowe-Kurak, the head of the Iowa Nation and a friend of the Sac and Fox chief.
Rowe-Kurak spent 23 years working for the federal government in the Washington area, but she returned to Oklahoma and was elected chairman of the Iowa Nation (which is pronounced eye-uh-way and means “gray snow.”). The top tribal job doesn’t get handed down to a hereditary chief and Rowe-Kurak is only one-quarter Iowa. She is also part Cherokee and Shawnee. But her family tree has ties to Tecumsah, White Cloud, Chief Big Bear Two Hands (aka Frank Kent) and Solomon Kent, the last sitting chief before elections began.
The Iowa Nation does not oppose the pipeline, which runs a bit north of its jurisdiction. But Rowe-Kurak sympathizes with the Sac and Fox Nation’s concerns. She says that sometimes companies and the Bureau of Indian Affairs neglect to give Native American tribes the proper respect when planning such things. “I know there’s a lot of dependency on foreign oil, but talk to us. Don’t run over us again,” she says. “Remember, we are people leery of broken promises.”
With good reason. Here is a bit of history from the tribe’s Web site:
With the encroachment of white settlers into western lands, the Iowa Tribe ceded their lands in 1824 and were given two years in which to vacate. Additional lands were ceded in 1836 and 1838, and the Tribe was removed to an area near the Kansas-Nebraska border. The Iowas, once a proud nation whose native lands encompassed an area of the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys in what is presently Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, now found themselves with a strip of land ten miles wide and twenty miles long. Subsequent treaties would find this land even further reduced.
Dissatisfaction with their conditions and treatment resulted in a number of Iowa tribal members leaving the Kansas-Nebraska reserve in 1878 and moving to Indian Territory [now known as Oklahoma]. In 1883 an Iowa reservation was created there, but Iowas who wished to remain on the land in the north were allowed to do so. Today, the two are recognized as separate entities.
That wasn’t all. In 1890, whites decided that Oklahoma wasn’t as worthless as they thought it was when they dumped Indian tribes there. So they gave “allotments” to individual tribal members and the rest was given to white settlers.
“All we’re asking for is repect, respect for us as a people,” said Rowe-Kurak, who later took us to see the original allotment given to her great grandfather and the small cemetery next to a house where a cousin lives.
What’s left of the Iowa Nation after early 19th century small pox and forced removals and intermarriage is about 750 people, only a few of whom still speak the original tribal language and only a few of whom are full-blooded tribal members. The main source of revenue for the tribe is its casino, and it is looking at opening two others. They won’t be big sources of jobs, Rowe-Kurak concedes, because so few of the tribe’s members can pass the background checks required of people working in casinos. About 25 members of the tribe are working in them now, accounting for about a quarter of the casino workforce.
Rowe-Kurak has a list of issues she’s had to deal with. She says the federal government wants to tax the tribe’s health benefits. She had to oust the tribe’s feared and disliked police chief with the help of federal marshals. And a majority of her people live below the poverty line.
One point of pride: An aviary the tribe runs for injured bald and golden eagles. Very few of them – only eight so far – ever recover enough to return to the wild, but most of them can fly a little bit. There are 41 of them there now. One large cage alone has nine bald eagles.
Victor Roubidoux, a Vietnam veteran who is of Indian and French ancestry, runs it. He said that one of the injured bald eagles was hit by a truck in 2002 and had a wing amputated. Another was found on the ground with a broken collar bone. Still another was found with a broken wing, floating on a log with a turtle after a flood. Roubidoux is creative in dealing with the birds’ problems. For one with tendon damage in a wing, he cut the feathers so that the wing would be lighter and he built handicap ramps to help the eagle navigate the cage more easily.
Another thing that Rowe-Kurak is enthusiastic about is President Obama. She caught his attention at a meeting of Indian leaders in Washington and when Obama visited nearby Cushing, Okla., to voice support for the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, Rowe-Kurak was the only tribal leader invited to attend. She called Sac and Fox chief George Thurman, who was offended. Ultimately Thurman ended up going and got a one-on-one meeting with Obama, while Rowe-Kurak got a handshake along with others.
Still, she is a fan. She says “I believe that President Obama has done more for native people than any other president.”