On a forested bluff that overlooks the Missouri River and a historic site of the Ioway people, a small Indian tribe is creating the nation’s largest tribal national park.
The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska recently transferred 284 acres of unique bluff property to the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska.
The tribe plans to use that land, plus an adjacent tract of 160 acres the conservancy donated two years ago, to establish just the second such “tribal national park” in the country, located just southeast of Rulo on the Nebraska-Kansas border.
Lance Foster, the vice chairman of the tribe, said the 444-acre park will allow the tribe to tell the story of the Ioway people (spelled with a “y” to avoid confusion with non-Native Iowans) and provide a rustic getaway for people to hike, primitive camp and bird watch.
“We’ve been here for a thousand years now and, unlike other people who can buy and sell land and move away, we can never move away,” Foster said. “This is our land forever. And we’ll be here for another 1,000 years.”
The only other tribal park in the country is on the shores of Lake Superior, on the northern tip of Wisconsin. The Frog Bay Tribal National Park was established by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in 2011 and now spans 180 acres.
The land being donated to the Iowa Tribe hosts several species of animals and plants not found anywhere else in Nebraska. Timber rattlesnakes, southern flying squirrels and the cerulean warbler inhabit the plot that includes pin oaks, hickory, pawpaw and basswood trees. There’s also some showy woodland flowers, such as yellow lady’s slipper orchids and jack-in-the-pulpits.
The site has an interesting history as well. It was owned for 60 years by botanist Ray Schulenberg, who once tried to carve out a “Walden’s Pond” existence on the unique tract of hardwood forest and prairie grasses while living in a shack there. But Schulenberg’s larger goal was to restore the existing tallgrass prairie, and to preserve the natural habitat.
He donated the land in 1989 to the Nature Conservancy, a charitable, environmental organization that has preserved nearly 120 million acres of unique land worldwide.
In Nebraska, the group owns and manages 66,081 acres of land, most notably along the Niobrara River, and has another 26,871 acres under conservation easements — as was done with the Iowa Tribe — to ensure that it will remain in its natural state.
Mace Hack, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of the Conservancy, said that his organization had worked with the Iowa Tribe as neighbors for several years and was aware of how well it managed property.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Hack said. “We wanted to help the tribe connect even more deeply to their ancestral lands and heritage.”
The conservancy, which had established the Rulo Bluffs Preserve on the property, will continue to assist the tribe in managing the property.
Foster, who is also the Iowa Tribe’s historic preservation officer, said the idea of a tribal park came out of a brainstorming session of how to best utilize the property while preserving it. He envisions not only campers and hikers, but the tribe utilizing part of the property for “regenerative agriculture,” growing crops such as hemp or raising cattle for upscale markets.
“We’re trying to combine agri-tourism, eco-tourism and heritage-tourism in a total package,” he said.
Acquiring the land also fits with the tribe’s goal of restoring tribally owned lands on its reservation, which once spanned 12,000 acres on both sides of the Nebraska-Kansas border southeast of Falls City. But an 1887 federal “allotment” act subdivided the reservation to individual families, resulting in the selling off of 90% of the land to local farmers.
The tribe, which is headquartered in White Cloud, Kansas, has now bought back about one-third of the original reservation, Foster said.
The new Ioway Tribal National Park, he said, overlooks a historic trading village utilized by the Ioway people to barter buffalo hides and pipestones with other tribes from 1200-1400. That site includes three burial mounds that date back 3,000 years.
Foster said the tribe also has purchased a former Masonic Lodge in nearby Rulo and is working to convert it into a combination trading post, Indian store, museum and office building.
The museum, he said, would tell the story of the tribe and the so-called “Half-Breed Tract” that was established in 1830 along the Nemaha River as far north as Auburn. Members of the Oto, Iowa, Omaha and Santee Sioux tribes who married French trappers and other whites were granted property there.
Access to the new park, for now, will be with tribal permission, Foster said, while a plan is developed for the property.
“We’re a small tribe. We don’t have a multi-million dollar casino like other tribes. It will take some time to put some things together,” he said.
NEBRASKA STATE AND NATIONAL PARK GEMS