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Meskwaki man educates, builds understanding through his art

Dawson Davenport, a 2019 Bicultural Iowa Writing Fellow from the Iowa Writers’ House, answers a question as he sits in the future location of his art studio in Iowa City on Monday, Mar. 11, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Dawson Davenport, a 2019 Bicultural Iowa Writing Fellow from the Iowa Writers’ House, answers a question as he sits in the future location of his art studio in Iowa City on Monday, Mar. 11, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A Meskwaki Nation man attending the University of Iowa wears many hats — writer, poet, sculptor, activist, clothing entrepreneur, graphic designer, jewelry maker, radio host — but through each medium he tells the story of his culture.

Dawson Davenport, 38, a senior who grew up on the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama and has been living in Coralville while attending the UI, is educating others on the history of his people and other indigenous people at a time when understanding each other is most critical, he said.

“We are being erased,” Davenport said. “We are being whitewashed, and people don’t seem to care because they don’t know about us. I think if people knew about all of the cultures and the land we sit on we could heal as a nation and a society.”

Davenport was named one of three 2019 Bicultural Iowa Writing Fellows selected to write the “next chapter of Iowa, stories that intertwine global history, migration in present day America, and the bicultural experiences of living in Midwest” through the Iowa Writers House. He’s in the final stages of a book, which focuses on his experiences growing up from age 8 to 16. It’s due out in June, he said.

“Iowa is known as a welcoming state, a place to raise a family, a farming state, but it was a different perspective for me growing up a Native person,” he said. “There was racism, prejudice, hatred. All of those things shaped who I am today.” He recalls shopping in Tama and being stared at because he looked different. Attitudes toward Mexicans are equally troubling, he said. Mexicans and Native Americans have been on this land for centuries, yet are treated as the immigrants, he said.

More recently, as a university student, he has had to explain his culture and background semester after semester, class after class. He’s struggled to explain to teachers assistants when he has to miss class due to a death in the family, which requires a two-day ceremony, he said.

Davenport, who has six children, said in Meskwaki culture, men generally stay home and work, while women leave to earn a degree. He credits his family and the mothers of the children for allowing him to pursue a degree. It takes a village, he said.

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In his book, Davenport, who took part in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, also discusses a troubled past, including a lengthy rap sheet, and how he has tried to turn a corner.

“I wanted to live a better life,” he said. “I had kids, and I owed it to them to be a good father. I don’t regret my past because it has made me who I am today. I have worked hard at changing my life, being sober for five going on six years; being a part of AA has really helped me. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I am still working at being a better person. Still trying to improve and help people along the way.”

Meanwhile, he is opening the Indigenous Peoples Gallery and Cafe, 119 1/2 E. Washington St., hopefully before April 20, the date of the next University of Iowa Powwow, he said. He said it will be an education hub about indigenous people, featuring products of various populations, vegan pastries, poetry series and more.

Davenport is due to graduate with a bachelor’s in fine arts in May, and he’s contemplating continuing his education seeking a doctoral degree in Native American art history, he said.

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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