116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Jean Adeline Morgan Wanatee — whose last name is now attached to a Linn County park and creek — was the great-granddaughter of two Meskwakis who, in the 1850s, acquired the land for the tribe’s settlement west of Tama.
A member of the Wolf Clan, she was born on the settlement Dec. 9, 1910, to Annie (Waseskuk) and Earl Morgan. Her father died Sept. 15, 1911, at age 23. She and her mother moved in with her grandmother.
When she was 3 years old, the tribe decided to open up some of its traditional powwow ceremonies to the public. Chief Pushetonequa organized a weeklong event on the banks of the Iowa River that included native dancing and games of lacrosse.
When the chief died in 1919, management of the tribe transitioned to a business council, later known was the Tribal Council. In 1957, Wanatee would become the first woman to serve on the powwow committee and the first woman elected to the Tribal Council.
But first came school.
Adeline, as she was called, attended the Sac and Fox day school in Tama and then went to a government boarding school in South Dakota, the first from her tribe to do so.
She returned home at age 13 and enrolled in the Tama public schools. While in high school, she was one of the first members of the Ne-No-Tal 4-H Club, founded in 1927 for Indian girls and women.
Wanatee then graduated from the Haskell Indian Industrial Training School in Lawrence, Kan., in 1931, and then worked for two years at the Toledo Sanatorium.
In 1932, she married Frank Wanatee when she was 21 and he was 23. Frank had been a student at Drake University, earning his way through school as a night watchman at the State Historical Department. Frank’s father, a member of the Thunder clan, was the great-grandson of famous chief, Che-Meuse, aka Johnny Green, who was known as a friend to white settlers.
The Wanatees would have nine children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
The Meskwaki settlement
Unlike most Native American tribes, the Meskwakis owned the land where they lived, but it was held in trust by the Department of the Interior and supervised by a federal commissioner of Indian affairs.
In 1934, Congress passed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, in gratitude for the service of Native Americans in World War I. The act granted tribes a level of home rule, with more control over their governing and finances. After that, the Meskwakis no longer had to rent out the settlement’s prime farmland.
In 1955, Wanatee was elected president of the Cedar Rapids Presbyterial Association of the United Presbyterian Church, the first Indian woman to hold the office. She belonged to the Robert Morgan American Legion Auxiliary.
On the settlement, she taught cooking, sewing and the Meskwaki language at the Sac and Fox school. She was secretary-treasurer of the tribe’s recreation committee and, in 1957, helped organize the centennial of the Meskwaki settlement on the Iowa River.
In October 1957, Wanatee, then 46, became the first woman in Meskwaki history to be elected to the Meskwaki Tribal Council, where she served two four-year terms.
“I was a candidate at the last election two years ago but was defeated,” she said after her election. “I understand that I missed winning by only a few votes. However. I didn’t really run this time. At least, I didn’t campaign. I was nominated and elected, that’s all.”
In fact, while the election was going on, she was helping with a Halloween party at the school.
The Meskwaki people (sometimes spelled “Mesquakie”) are of Algonquian origin from the Eastern Woodland Culture areas. The Meskwaki spoken language is similar to the Sauk and Kickapoo.
The tribe has been historically located in the St. Lawrence River Valley, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.
In 1845, the Sauk and Meskwaki lost all their lands and were removed to a reservation in east central Kansas. Meskwaki ancestors longed to reclaim their Iowa woodland homeland.
On July 13, 1857, the Meskwaki purchased their first 80 acres in Tama County, which gave formal federal identity to the Meskwaki people as the “Sac & Fox In Iowa.”
Because their ancestors had the tenacity and foresight to purchase their land, the Meskwaki Settlement is not an Indian reservation. It is private purchased property, a sovereign nation.
The tribe currently owns 8,100 acres in Tama, Marshall and Palo Alto counties in Iowa.
Source: Meskwaki Nation, meskwaki.org/about-us/history/
One of the first things she did as a council member was appeal to Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton, asking him to ban Mormon missionaries from the settlement and prevent a white farmer from renting the part of tribal land called Whiskey Bottoms.
“We want our lands to stay just the way they were when our forefathers came to Iowa from Kansas,” she said.
“I am proud that my people never left Iowa, never became prisoners. They are the reason I want to help.”
Always mindful of the welfare of her people, Wanatee attended Red Cross home nursing classes so she could help the doctor who visited the settlement and could care for those who were sick.
She also worked to preserve her tribe’s history. Her mother had given her a book, written in Meskwaki, that listed the tribe’s chiefs, told of the times the tribe had been forced to move and related how the Meskwaki finally bought land and settled in Iowa.
When the tribe was considering entering into a bingo business in 1984, Wanatee and her husband were opposed, thinking gambling would bring trouble to the settlement.
Wanatee, who was widowed in 1985, was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She was the first Native American to be inducted, and her lifelong advocacy for Native Americans and women was cited, as was her work as a Meskwaki language specialist and resource for the Smithsonian Institution.
Asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said, “Where I came from. I am proud that my people never left Iowa, never became prisoners. They are the reason I want to help.”
Wanatee died Oct. 15, 1996, at age 85, survived by her seven children and three brothers.