History for Lunch: Great Depression Work Relief and the Landscape of Meskwaki History

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In 1856, a few Meskwaki purchased 80 acres of land near Tama, Iowa. The tribe has continuously expanded the settlement since then, purchasing land in a process unique in the history of Native North America. Needless to say, land plays a significant role in Meskwaki political culture, and the tribe has utilized this resource to bolster their economy, defend their self-governance, and assert their sovereignty repeatedly over the past 150 years. This lecture looks to the 1930s, when tribal members used the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID) to survive the economic hardships of the Great Depression and capitalize on the political shifts of the Indian New Deal. These “Busy Meskwaki,” as their CCC-ID work group came to be known, mended the tribal cash economy, strengthened the land base that is their community’s center, and leveraged political authority to influence Bureau of Indian Affairs decision making in relief projects and personnel matters. Essentially, this lecture asks: What was the relationship between Meskwaki land and sovereignty during the Great Depression?


Eric S. Zimmer is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Iowa. After college, he spent a year as a journalist, researcher, and public historian. He also spent six months working under the tribal liaison in the Office of U.S. Senator Tim Johnson in western South Dakota. Eric’s historical interests focus on the twentieth century United States, especially relating to Native Americans, politics, and federal/state Indian policy. His dissertation examines the relationship between land ownership, sovereignty, and self-governance among the Meskwaki Tribe in central Iowa since 1856. He also deeply interested in public history and works to connect to the broader audiences whose stories academic historians tell.