Oneota – The Name: Its Origins and Applications

Oneota – The Name: Its Origins and Applications

by Russ Baldner, Local Historian

The name Oneota, as it occurs in northeast Iowa, appears in a number of historical contexts, including geographical, geological, cultural and archaeological.

In the 19th century, Native Americans applied the name Oneota to the stream that is known today as the Upper Iowa River. Also bearing the same name was the prominent rocky bluff that rises on the Upper Iowa’s left, northern bank near its confluence with the Mississippi River at New Albin in the extreme northeastern corner of Iowa.

Given the word’s origins, the use of the name Oneota for a river in northeast Iowa is rather remarkable.

Oneida, the name of a Native American tribe most closely associated not with northeast Iowa or the Upper Midwest, but, rather, the Iroquois—Five Nations—Confederacy in New York state, is a variant of onyota’aka—“people of the standing stone”—the term by which the Oneida knew themselves. Onyota (Oneota)—“standing stone”—refers to a large grey syenite (igneous) boulder that was an Oneida tribal symbol and object of veneration central to the tribe’s religious and social life. According to Oneida tradition, the stone appeared at the time of the tribe’s origin and always reappeared at their main settlement whenever they relocated. The exact circumstances by which a stream in northeast Iowa acquired its name from such a rather unlikely source are not entirely clear. Nearby tribesmen far from their traditional home may have been responsible for the term’s application to geographic features in this corner of the state.

In the late 19th century, geologists applied the name Oneota—the river—to a prominent dolomite (limestone) rock stratum closely associated with the Upper Iowa River valley. The Oneota formation is easily visible in the high rocky bluffs and scenic mural escarpments rising above the lower reaches of the Upper Iowa River.

In the early 1900s, the name Oneota acquired yet another use, this time as an archaeological term designating a late prehistoric to early historic Native American cultural tradition indigenous to the Upper Iowa River valley—and beyond, throughout much of Iowa and neighboring Upper Midwestern states.

The Oneota culture people were semi-sedentary, lived in permanent villages, hunted and gathered wild foods, and also practiced corn agriculture. They were northeast Iowa’s early farmers. Characteristic Oneota artifacts include shell-tempered pottery, small finely worked unnotched triangular projectile (arrow) points, and red catlinite (pipestone) pipes and inscribed tablets. Late Oneota merged with the historic period about three hundred-odd years ago in northeast Iowa. At that time, the Oneota culture is identified with historic Native American tribes such as the Ioway and the Oto, the former being the tribe for whom the state was named.

More recently, Oneota has lent its historic name to a local golf course, a county care facility, and a number of area businesses, including . . .

The Oneota Community Food Co-op at 312 W. Water St. in downtown Decorah, Iowa