Influences of the modern world linger outside, but for two hours twice a week, mothers and girls are sitting with elder women in the Meskwaki Senior Center sewing traditional clothing and learning the Meskwaki language.
The Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, is a community of 1,300 members. The settlement headquartered in Tama, west of Cedar Rapids, is boosted economically by the tribe’s full-service Meskwaki Casino.
Amid the buzz of today’s technology, sewing traditional outfits is not a skill that most women know, and the native language is not the first language of the younger generations, although the words of the past generations are finding new life with a tribal after-school program and language preservation roundtables.
The mini-grant of $628 is enough to buy supplies for sewing classes from January to June 2011, especially since the Meskwaki Nation will match the grant dollar for dollar with Tribal funds.
“This support will make a difference in the Tribe’s effort to maintain one of our many artistic styles,” said Christina Blackcloud-Garcia, Executive Director of the Sac and Fox Tribe.
The classes are taught by Marge Mauskemo and Hilda Young Bear, both of whom are tribally recognized as fluent Meskwaki speakers and artists. Geneva Papakee, who coordinates the senior center, oversees the project, which convenes Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Instructor Hilda Young Bear had been “doing a lot of sewing for the seniors at the center,” she says, and then started making “little dresses for the girls and little Indian shirts for the little boys.” One day, Alan Kline, a planner and grant writer for the tribe since 1987, saw what she was doing.
“He asked me, ‘would you be willing to show these younger women how to make all this?’” Young Bear recalled.
“I said, yeah, that’d be fine with me; I’m glad to pass along what I do, because there are a lot of women who want the pieces for the kids. I’m usually flooded with orders for dress shirts for the pow-wow in August,” she said. “So we got the idea that maybe if we show these women how to do it, they can make these for the kids.”
On the average, about 22 women have been showing up. “I figured there would be maybe eight. It really exceeded what I had thought,” Young Bear remarked after one recent class.
Moccasins will be the last accomplishment that the students work up to. The instruction is starting with two-piece women’s outfits that will be worn for religious ceremonies or pow-wows. The skirts, the ribbon appliqué shirts and woven yarn belts are of a style that distinguishes the people.
“You can look by the way we dress and know where we’re from, Woodland Indians,” Young Bear noted.
Experienced at age 70, she uses no pattern. “I just make them. I do not use measuring sticks; I don’t use rulers. I look at their size and just judge.”
Sewing machines, however, are employed at the center. Otherwise, “it would take me forever,” Young Bear said.
She is self-taught. “I had to learn, because my kids, I had four boys and then two daughters, and they danced all the time; they all danced at pow-wows. We didn’t have that much money, so I had to learn to make them.”
At the class, the mood is fun, and the women also come to socialize. The elders bring the conversation back around to the native language. “I say, ‘hey, we’re supposed to be talking Indian over here, so let’s talk Indian,’” Young Bear says. “I tell them the Indian word for straight pins, needle, ruler, material, scissors.”
The teachers listed a few translations (the hyphenated separation of syllables is customary form for written Meskwaki): “fabric” is ba-ki-wa-ya; “sewing” is a-tti-ga-so-wa; “thread” is a-sa-da-bi; “needle” is da-do-ni-ka-ni; “garment” is o-de-ki-ta-ka-ni; “dress” is me-ko-te-we-ni; “shirt” is di-se-ka.
“Most of the elders, they all speak our language, but it’s the younger generation we’re having problems with,” Young Bear said of recent language preservation efforts at the Meskwaki Settlement. Television in the homes is speaking English, she pointed out, and too often “the TV is like a babysitter. Right now there’s a lot of kids that don’t know how to speak Indian.
“We got it in our mind that we need to do something, so we started language classes.”
The elder remembers the native language being spoken in the home when she was a child. “Then in school, we were expected to learn English overnight. They called us illiterate because we weren’t speaking English. I said, I wonder how their kids would do if they had to speak Indian overnight?”
On behalf of the Meskwaki people, Tribal Council Chairman Adrian Pushetonequa thanks the Iowa Arts Council for awarding the grant.
“As an artist myself, I understand the important role that art plays in enhancing our quality of life,” the tribal council chairman said. “As a Meskwaki, I know that the preservation of our culture, language and traditions are essential components of ensuring our existence as a tribe.”
Many of the projects will be worn or displayed at the Meskwaki Annual Powwow, August 10-14, 2011 on the Meskwaki Settlement.
“It’ll be something to really be proud of,” added Young Bear.