Sac and Fox
Sac and Fox
Sac and Fox. The French called the Fox people “Foxes” after the name of one of the tribe’s clans. The Fox called themselves Meshkwakihug or Mesquakie, meaning “red earth people” for the type of earth from which they believed they were created. The Sac called themselves Osakiwung, meaning “yellow earth people.” Before they united with the Fox people their tribe was also known as the Sauk.
The Sac and Fox tribes lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. One of the largest villages in North America was Saukenuk, located between the Rock and Mississippi Rivers in Illinois. At one time it included approximately four thousand Sac and Fox people. When the Europeans arrived the Sac and Fox inhabited southern Michigan and Wisconsin. The Sac and Fox people now live, for the most part, on reservations in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas.
The Sac and Fox were originally two closely related, but separate, tribes. There were 2,500 Fox and about 3,500 Sac in the early 1600s. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 3,168 people identified themselves as Sac and Fox. In 2000 that number had risen to 4,375.
Origins and group affiliations
Today’s members of the Sac and Fox tribe are descendants of the Sac and Fox peoples of the Great Lakes region. The Sac originally lived in the lower Peninsula of Michigan with their neighbors, the Fox. The Sac and Fox are now considered one tribe.
The Sac and Fox people have shared a close association for centuries. They were outstanding hunters who were also known for their bravery. The Sac and Fox culture was based upon respect for life, people, communities, and all of creation. Although the people living on Sac and Fox reservations today participate in mainstream American life, they are doing their best to retain aspects of their traditional culture.
The Fox people probably originated in southern Michigan and may have been a part of the Sac tribe centuries ago and then split off. When the French encountered them some time during the early to mid-1600s the Fox were divided into two groups. One group lived in central Wisconsin along the Fox River, and another lived in northern Illinois. The Sac people originated around Saginaw Bay in Michigan.
Early 1600s: The Fox make first contact with French traders.
1712: Losses in the French-Fox war drive the Fox to Wisconsin.
1733: The Sac and Fox tribes merge.
1833: The Sac and Fox are forced west of the Mississippi River.
1859: Members of the Fox tribe separate from the Sac and return to Iowa.
1993: The Sac and Fox Nation defines its reservation as a “Nuclear Free Zone.”
1994: The Sac and Fox of Missouri organize as a federally recognized tribe.
Trouble with the French
During the 1600s the Fox grew hostile to French traders moving into their territory, perhaps because the French traded with the Dakota (see entry), an enemy tribe. The Fox charged a toll for French traders to cross their land along the Fox River, an important waterway between Lake Michigan and Dakota lands. The Fox placed a flaming torch on the riverbank, marking their territory as a signal to the traders to pay up or suffer the consequences—death. The Fox, who were allies of the Iroquois, also traded with the British. Conflicts with the French resulted in the Fox Wars (1712–37), a war that had disastrous consequences for the Fox.
The First Fox War (1712–14) began as the result of an incident in 1712. The Illinois Fox and several other tribes friendly to the French had been invited to join a French settlement near Fort Detroit in Michigan. Misunderstandings developed among these groups, and the French and their Native American allies attacked the Fox, inflicting heavy losses on the tribe. The surviving Fox fled to join other tribe members in Wisconsin. There Fox harassment of French traders increased. The angry French sent two military expeditions against the Fox in the Second Fox War (1728–1737). They succeeded in winning all of the Fox tribes’ allies to the French side and then nearly destroyed the Fox tribe.
The Sac were driven out of their territory near Michigan’s Saginaw Bay at the same time as the Fox. They, too, relocated to Wisconsin. With the help of the Fox and other tribes, the Sac then drove the Illinois tribe from Illinois Territory on the Mississippi River and occupied that region themselves.
Fox join with Sac
As time passed the Fox formed a close alliance with the Sac. Outsiders considered the two groups a single tribe, but between themselves they retained their individuality, as they still do today. During the 1760s, with their numbers declining, the Sac and Fox moved south. By the early 1800s they occupied the land along the Mississippi, primarily on the eastern bank from the mouth of the Des Moines (pronounced duh-MOYNE) River to the Prairie du Chien (pronounced doo-SHEEN) in southern Wisconsin. Here they enjoyed abundant fishing and fertile farmland that produced plentiful harvests. They maintained a successful trading relationship with the French, Spanish, and British.
Division among the group
As the 1800s began the Sac and Fox encountered increased pressure from white settlers. Internal disagreements caused one Sac group to move south to the Missouri River. They became known as the Missouri Band. In 1836 this group relocated to a reservation in Kansas on the Nebraska border. They remained there in the mid-2000s as the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri.
In 1825 the Sac people who lived along the Mississippi divided into two groups. One relocated to southeast Iowa. The other, followers of the Sac warrior Black Hawk (1767–1838), stayed with him at Rock Island, Illinois. They tried to reclaim the land of their ancestors east of the Mississippi, but were stopped and defeated in the Black Hawk War (1832–33) by the U.S. Army and hostile Dakota Indians. The U.S. government then forced them to move farther west to a reservation in Kansas. Some refused to leave Iowa and hid from U.S. troops.
Disputes developed between the Sac and Fox who had gone to Kansas. By 1860, some of the Fox had left Kansas and gone back to Iowa where they bought land near the town of Tama. A smaller group moved in with the Kickapoo, then later moved to northern Mexico.
The remaining Sac and Fox sold their Kansas land and relocated to a 750,000-acre (303,514-hectare) reservation east of Oklahoma City. By 1891 the U.S. government had given most of this land to white settlers. The current Sac and Fox Reservation in Stroud, Oklahoma has less than 1,000 acres.
Members of the Sac and Fox Reservation in Iowa used their own money to buy lands that now amount to more than 7,000 acres. Although their official name is the Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa, they prefer to be called the Mesquakie Indian Settlement.
Views on creation and the earth
The Sac and Fox believed that the universe was divided into two halves. The Great Manitou spirit ruled the Powers of the Sky, or Upper Region. Lesser spirits, such as the Earth, sky, waters, forests, and intelligent animals, ruled the Powers of the Earth, or Lower Region. The Sac believed that the world was created by Gretci Munito, a powerful old man who lived forever.
Both the Sac and Fox visualized the Earth on which they lived as a woman, who provided them with all their food. The Fox practiced a ceremony of apology for taking life when they killed animals, cut trees, gathered plants, or took minerals. A Fox speaker in William Jones’s book, “Ethnography of the Fox Indians,” explains:
We do not like to harm trees. Whenever we can, we always make an offering of tobacco to the trees before we cut them down. If we did not think of their feelings … before cutting them down, all the other trees in the forest would weep, and that would make our hearts sad, too.
Death, spirits, and Christianity
The Fox believed that when a person died the soul traveled through a series of villages to a final resting-place beyond the sunset. Only the souls of the good went farther than the first village. Evil people were sent to the home of Machi Manitou, the chief evil spirit. Shamans (medicine men; pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz) could talk to the spirit world.
The Sac believed that the soul followed the Milky Way and crossed a river before entering the land of the dead. A figure called the “Brain Taker” tried to smash the head of anyone attempting to cross the river. If the soul naviagated the river swiftly and safely, there would be feasting and rejoicing when it entered the land of the dead. If it were caught, its brains would be destroyed.
The Sac and Fox believed that human beings were both helped and hurt by spirits. During the great Native American ceremony called Vision Quest, the tribe sought the aid of spirits.
Present-day culture is still based on respect for life and for all creation. More recent religious practices include the Drum Dance, the Native American Church, and Christianity. Many Sac and Fox today are Christians or members of the Native American Church. Founded in the nineteenth century, the church combines Christian and Native beliefs and practices and features an all-night ceremony composed of chanting, prayer, and meditation.
The languages spoken by the Sac and the Fox were Central Algonquian dialects (varieties) closely related to each other and to the language of the Kickapoo. During the early part of the twentieth century, much effort went into preserving the early language and tales of the people. As a result there is a Sac-Fox dictionary, a Sac-Fox alphabet, and there are many books of Sac and Fox tales. Nevertheless, in the early twenty-first century the language was considered endangered because many speakers were elderly, and the reservations were located so far from one another. The Sauk language, in particular, was only spoken by a few people.
The early Sac and Fox were governed by a clan system. (Clans are groups of related families.) Some clan names were Fish, Ocean, Thunder, Bear, Fox, Indian Potato, Deer, Beaver, Snow, and Wolf. Separate societies were formed for games, ceremonies, and warfare. Members of those societies did not have to be of the same clan.
Three types of chiefs led the Sac and Fox tribes: a peace chief, a war chief, and a religious leader known as a shaman. Leadership roles were sometimes passed down from generation to generation. Other leaders were chosen based on their merits. The tribal council made the final decision as to who would serve as chief. The chief who gathered the most followers had the greatest influence.
Women were not permitted to be chiefs in the early days, but they participated in public meetings and gave advice on matters of importance. Times changed, however, and in the late 1990s Principal Chief Dora S. Young headed the Sac and Fox Tribe on the Oklahoma reservation near Stroud, Oklahoma. A committee operates as the elected governing body for enrolled members of the tribe and transacts business on the tribe’s behalf. The Sac and Fox Court, begun in 1885, tries cases involving members of the tribe.
The early Sac and Fox were village dwellers who followed an annual cycle of hunting, farming, and trading. Every year they traded thousands of dollars’ worth of beaver pelts to the Europeans in exchange for horses, animal traps, firearms, blankets, and cooking utensils.
In the nineteenth century the Sac and Fox who lived on the reservation in present-day Oklahoma traditionally owned communal land. In 1887, the U.S. government adopted an allotment policy and insisted that the people adopt the custom of individual land ownership. Most of the Native Americans could not raise sufficient food on their individual lots, particularly because they did not own the appropriate tools and had no money to buy them. Many ended up selling their property to whites.
The tribe suffered economic hardship well into the twentieth century. Their homes often lacked heat and water, and medical and educational opportunities were very limited. Many ended up working as laborers on land they once owned.
Even in more recent times, unemployment remained a problem. In the mid-1990s unemployment on the reservation in Oklahoma ran about 22.5 percent, more than one-fifth of people who wanted to work could not find a job. Per capita income was about $6,204, only one-third of that of most white Americans. (Per capita income is the average income one person earns in one year.)
In the early twenty-first century individual members of the Oklahoma Sac and Fox leased their land for farming and grazing purposes. An important business operation was the tribe’s Indian Country Bingo facility located in Stroud. In the mid-1990s members of the Sac and Fox Reservation in Oklahoma reacquired more than 4,000 acres of land that houses the Cushing Industrial Park. That complex included a 25,000-square-foot (2,322-square-meter) building and a warehouse facility. The tribe also operated an arts and crafts outlet, a grocery store, a tribal museum, and a modern campground.
By 2005 the tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, which owned 80 acres in 1857, had increased its land holdings to more than 7,000 acres and had set aside an additional 700 acres off-reservation for farming and a wildlife refuge. Employment opportunites available on the reservation included the Meskwaki Bingo-Casino-Hotel, the tribal government, a convenience store, and the settlement school. Many tribe members also worked in nearby communities. But statistics published in 2003 showed that 58.4 percent of the population was unemployed compared to an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent for the surrounding areas.
Women played an important role in Sac families and in tribal life. The society was matrilineal (tracing kinship through the mother), so children took on the tribe and clan of their mothers. Mothers took charge of their homes and everything in them. They also owned the fields. Women of the tribe decided whether a son could inherit his father’s role as chief.
The basic unit of the Fox tribe was the extended family, made up of parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives. It usually consisted of between five and thirty members. Children spent most of their time playing. Boys were taught hunting skills, while girls learned cooking and sewing.
When first encountered by the Europeans the Fox lived in summer camps consisting of several rectangular frame lodges surrounded by a fence of large pointed stakes. Their houses, called lodges, were very similar to those of the Sac. Lodges were up to 60 feet (18 meters) long and housed several families. They were covered with elm bark matting and had two entrances. The eastern door was called “where daylight appears” and the western door on the opposite side was called “where the Sun goes down.” Wide benches covered with bark lined the sides of the walls and were used for sitting and sleeping.
Personal possessions and objects belonging to the clan were either hung from the ceiling or stored under the benches. They stored food in bark-lined holes in the ground. Although the tribes sometimes made campfires in the lodge, they did most of their cooking in temporary brush shelters set near the lodge.
In winter, as food became scarce, Sac and Fox families usually left their villages and settled in smaller encampments. Their winter homes were small wigwams, no more than 15 feet (4 meters) wide, built of poles and covered with reed mats. Round roofs allowed snow and rain to roll off easily. They covered doors and floors with bearskins and buffalo robes and used a central fire pit to prepare food and provide warmth.
While villages were usually small, a European visitor to a Sac village in 1766 described it as having ninety houses, many sheds for smoking meat, and regularly spaced streets.
Clothing and adornment
The Sac and Fox wore clothing decorated with buffalo hair or plant fibers woven in arrows or zigzags. Some garments were decorated with quills and ribbon work. In summer the men usually wore moccasins and a breechcloth (a piece of material that went between the legs) of tanned deerskin or elk skin. Women wore wraparound skirts also made of tanned deer or elk skin with thong belts and moccasins. In colder weather the men usually added leggings and a shirt. Women wore ponchos and leggings. Both sexes wore garters and belts. Summer clothing included lightweight robes made of deerskin or elk skin. Painted buffalo robes were worn in winter.
Accessories such as hawk and eagle feathers, long sashes worn around the waist, and animal-skin pouches were very popular. Grizzly bear claw necklaces were highly prized because they were so hard to win. Both sexes pierced their ears and wore rings, hoops, and feathers through them. The use of body paint was common. Although the two tribes dressed similarly, they used different designs and colors when they painted their bodies so they could be told apart.
Some Fox men dyed their hair blue. Warriors of the Sac and Fox often shaved their hair Mohawk-style (see Mohawk entry) or shaved off all their hair except for one long lock on the top of their heads. Some men wore porcupine roaches, headpieces made from porcupine or deer hair, often dyed bright colors. The women of both tribes wore their hair long, holding it in place with a decorated hair binder.
The Sac and Fox hunted waterfowl, deer, and moose, following the animal herds during the winter months. Women farmed and gathered berries, nuts, honey, wild potatoes, fruits, and herbs, to supplement their diet. Crops included corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, and melon. They collected sap and made maple syrup in winter to flavor their food. They wrapped food in bark and stored in a hiding place near the lodge.
The Fox held two organized buffalo hunts each year. When they found a herd, the hunters surrounded it and started a grass fire. Meanwhile a skilled archer killed the lead buffalo. With the herd leaderless and unable to escape because of the fire, the panicked buffalo were easy to kill. When the men returned with the carcasses, the women stripped, cleaned, packed, and dried the meat, and prepared the hides for making clothing and for trading.
Sac and Fox boys were taught to make bows and arrows and to hunt. Girls learned to cook, sew, and tend a garden.
In the late 1800s the U.S. government built boarding schools on the reservations. They separated children from their parents and taught them to live like whites. The students learned to build fences, sew, and tend cattle. Many parents did not like the system or its emphasis on manual labor so they did not permit their children to attend the schools. Christian missionaries who taught at the schools tried, with little success, to convert the children to Christianity.
In 2007 children living on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma attended public schools in neighboring communities. The tribe sponsored a summer camp that taught the Sac and Fox language to children. The Mesquakie Indian Settlement in Iowa had its own elementary and secondary school, where children could learn about their culture.
Tribal members learned religious prayers and dances from shamans, who led ceremonies to ensure success in war and farming or to cure illnesses. Medicine men and women were both respected and feared, because even “good” shamans had the power to put bad spells on people. Good shamans cured people by sucking out the illness-causing objects injected by bad shamans or witches. The Fox feared witches, who became active at night, passing through the forest disguised as balls of blue-green light. Shamans gave their patients advice, charms, and remedies to counteract bad spells cast by witches; they also dispensed herbal remedies for illnesses.
The Sac and Fox were known for combining form and beauty in everyday objects. They used feathers, plant fibers, wood, and stone to adorn bags, boxes, and even weapons. The Fox made ribbonwork panels out of several layers of different colored ribbons and cutout floral or geometric shapes. After encountering Europeans, the Native Americans added European goods to their designs, including colored beads, woven cloth, and metal.
In 2007 the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma operated the Sac and Fox Gallery, a retail store that sold arts and crafts made by members of the tribe.
A Fox Tale
The Sac and Fox enjoyed gathering around a fire during the winter months to hear short tales about tribal practices and morality. Many of their stories, including the following selection, have been preserved.
Once upon a time there was a youth who blackened (his face) and fasted. He had been blessed by the manitous. And when he was visited by his father, “Come, O father, do let me eat!” he said to his father. Four days had passed since he had eaten.
“My dear son, I want you to fast two days more, but no longer.” Then the old man went back home. He was implored by his son to let him eat, (but) he could not be prevailed upon by him.
So in the morning when the old man went to take another look at his son, lo, the youth had disappeared from the place where he was staying! There was a spring at the brook near by. There the old man went. He went there to look over the bank, and behold! Lying there, on the flat of his belly, and drinking water, was his son. As he looked at him, lo, (his son) changed partly into a fish! He ran to his son to catch him, but he slipped hold of him and he lost his son.
Thereupon was the spring swollen with water, and the place where (the youth) escaped became a lake. For many a year it was common for the people, as they went canoeing about, to see catfishes down in the water. One catfish was white; it wore yellow ear-rings; that one was the youth who had fasted overmuch. One catfish was black, and that was his wife. And there were also four other tiny little catfishes; they were (all) white, (and) they wore yellow ear-rings. These went swimming past side by side, abreast and in line, these the offspring of him that had fasted overlong.
Jones, William. “Fox Tales.” Publications of the American Ethnological Society. Vol. 1. Leyden: E. J. Brill, 1907.
The Fox celebrated a successful harvest at great festivals that involved horse races and an early version of the game we know as lacrosse. (Lacrosse is a game of Native American origin played on a field by two teams of ten players each. Participants use a long-handled stick with a webbed pouch to put a ball into the opposing team’s goal.) They also played a ball game between two teams in which one hid a ball or stone under a blanket; the other had to find it.
The Sac and Fox tribes of Oklahoma host an annual powwow in mid-July that features Native American dancing and arts and crafts. They also host tribal feasts. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Sac and Fox Reservation in Tama County, Iowa, has hosted an annual powwow that celebrates their heritage and spirituality.
As part of the puberty ritual Sac and Fox boys were sent out to begin their vision quest. A vision quest involved praying and fasting alone, waiting for a special vision from a spirit, and collecting special objects, like stones and feathers, to represent the newlygained power. Boys also had to accomplish a heroic deed. Males were considered full adults around age twenty. Female rituals began at first menstruation. The girl was sent to a lodge by herself and was allowed no visitors for ten days.
Courtship and marriage
Most young men married by age twenty; their wives were three to four years younger. To court his intended bride, the man offered services and gifts. If the bride-to-be and her parents accepted, the couple married and moved into the bride’s family home. The young man then fulfilled his promises to the family. After two or three years, the couple usually moved to their own home and began having children. Marriage to more than one wife was allowed; usually a man married a sister or cousin of his first wife.
Death and mourning
Sac and Fox who died were either buried or placed on a platform. Sometimes a warrior might be buried lying or sitting on top of an enemy. Occasionally the tribes sacrificed a dog and buried it with the dead person to be a companion in the afterlife. The mourning period for family members of the deceased lasted from six months to a year. During this time, the mourners blackened their faces and wore shabby clothing to demonstrate their grief.
If an enemy tribe killed a Sac or Fox, the victim’s family might organize a raid to get even. The man who led a raid would fast (stop eating). He also built a special lodge and hung a strip of red cloth in front of it to signal that he planned a raid. Those who wanted to participate came in and smoked a pipe with him. Sometimes wives accompanied their husbands on a raid. As they approached the enemy, the leader rode in front carrying his sacred pack (a container with items such as animal teeth and eagle feathers that gave him special powers). If the raid was not successful, the warriors returned to their village separately. If it was successful, they returned together, sending a messenger ahead to announce their victory.
Sac and Fox warriors wore special headdresses into battle. They were made of animal hair dyed red and tied to a strip of hair on their scalps. The warriors shaved the rest of their heads and painted them with colorful designs. Unless the weather was very cold, they left their upper bodies bare. They sometimes painted human hands on their backs or shoulders with white clay. The hands showed how many enemies they had slain. After a successful raid, the Fox painted their tribal symbol on a tree near where the enemy had fallen.
Current tribal issues
In 1992, 75-year-old tribe member Grace Thorpe, the daughter of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe (1888–1953), led a fight against the construction of a storage site for highly radioactive material. Using research that showed the harm that exposure to radiation could cause, Grace Thorpe began a movement opposing the facility. In February 1993 her tribe, the Sac and Fox Nation, voted against having the storage site built on their land. In so doing, they turned down $2.8 million that the U.S. government would have paid them and became the first tribe in Oklahoma to declare a “Nuclear Free Zone” on their tribal lands.
Recent Sac and Fox tribal leaders have asserted certain rights as a sovereign (self-governing) nation. Those rights include taxing businesses, issuing license plates, maintaining control over lands and resources, and governing according to Sac and Fox modern law.
Sac leader Keokuk (1783–1848) rose to power because of his skills as a warrior, politician, and orator. He signed many treaties giving Sac and Fox land to the American government, against the wishes of his rival, Black Hawk. He later skillfully defended Sac land interests against Sioux claims of ownership.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1888 on the Sac and Fox Reservation in Oklahoma. He played both professional baseball and football and made the hall of fame in both sports. In 1950 the Associated Press voted Jim Thorpe, an Olympic champion, the greatest athlete in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1954, a year after Thorpe died, a town in Pennsylvania was named in his honor.
In 1993 Jim Thorpe’s daughter, Grace, known as Wind Woman, founded the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans (NECONA) to fight the dumping of nuclear waste on Native American lands.
Bernotas, Bob. Jim Thorpe: Sac & Fox Athlete. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Bonvillain, Nancy. The Sac and Fox. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.
Drake, Benjamin. The Great Indian Chief of the West: Or, Life and Adventures of Black Hawk. Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2006.
Jones, William. Ethnography of the Fox Indians. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1939, p. 21.
McDaniel, Melissa. The Sac and Fox Indians. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1995.
Von Ahnen, Katherine. Charlie Young Bear. Minot, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994.
“Sac and Fox Culture and History Links.” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting Indigenous American Indian Languages. (accessed on July 16, 2007).
Sac and Fox Nation. (accessed on July 16, 2007).
“The Sauk (Sac) and Fox (Mesquakie) Nation.” Minnesota State University–Mankato. (accessed on July 16, 2007).
George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute