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Of Palimpsests and Northwest Iowa

April 21, 2010

A palimpsest is a word neither easy to pronounce nor to spell. Originally meaning a parchment or paper overwritten or erased, it has come to mean more generally a multilayered thing–a document, a landscape, a life.

I was reminded of the word, and its meanings, by Karl Jacoby. In his innovative account of the Camp Grant Massacre in Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History (New York, Penguin Press, 2008), he comes at the 1871 event through four narrative threads, based on the four groups involved: the Nnee (Western Apaches) and the allied attackers, the O’odham (Papagos), los Vencinos (Spanish-Mexican-Americans), and the Americans. “In the end,” writes Jacoby, the Camp Grant Massacre, like so much of the past, is best understood as a palimpsest of many stories” (p. 278). (For more on the event and the book, see Ramaker Library also has the book: E83.866 .J33 2008 New Books.)

Northwest Iowa is also a palimsest–or many palimpsests. A case in point: Blood Run.

Big Sioux River

Today, this site is part cultivated, part uncultivated. There are signs, though, of layers from earlier times. As the Iowa State Historical Society link notes, Blood Run National Historic Landmark is on both sides of the Big Sioux River. It is just south of the Iowa border with Minnesota.



Some archaeological work has been done–enough to indicate that this is a major American Indian site, of more than local significance. Some 176 mounds have been documented at the site. At its height, this locale in northwest Iowa which is today typically pastoral was around A.D. 1700 occupied by perhaps as many as 10,000 people. The main American Indian users of Blood Run in its heyday were those of the Oneota culture. Contemporary tribes that stem from this cultural tradition are the Omaha, Winnebago, Ioway, Oto, and Missouri.

What other layers of peoples and land uses are there in northwest Iowa?

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