Review: Douglas Foley's The Heartland Chronicles

Reviewer Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) is a writer and policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. Here Tom reviews The Heartland Chronicles by Douglas Foley published by the University of  Pennsylvania Press in 1995, then again in 2005.

heartland-chronicles-140The Heartland Chronicles
by Douglas Foley (Philippines 1962-64)
University of Pennsylvania Press
1995; 2005 with Epilogue
264 pages

Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

Another book that really meets the Peace Corps’ Third Goal of bringing it all back home, let me here applaud Douglas Foley’s THE HEARTLAND CHRONICLES.

In 1995 when Foley published the book he was an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. Now he be a full professor.

“A tale of Indians and whites living together in a small Iowa community,” this tidily laid out book relates how Foley got inside Iowa’s tiny but old Meskwaki  Indian culture just at the moment that the tribe’s civil rights struggle and its new casino changed all the old relationships as these tribal people-with their noble traditions-came into modernity. Foley writes in the Introduction:

To pry open my racial memories, I went back to my hometown and spent a year rooting around. I interviewed old friends, studied the existing ethnographic record, read old newspapers, went to tribal council meetings, powwows, adoption ceremonies, burials, basketball practices, school board meetings, casino feeds, and family gatherings. Every night I wrote down what I saw and heard. . . .

Some readers might rightly ask why a book like this is needed. Above all, I would like to tell a story that teaches whites and Indians a little something about each other. I left town in search of interesting, different cultures only to find such a culture in my hometown. I invite whites to cross that cultural border and be real neighbors with the Meskwakis.

Yes. And isn’t that what our PC experience is all about? You know that your wells have collapsed, your school burned in a civil war but you got stories to tell and reflect upon, people and events to introduce us to- this is the proper work of memoir as well as ethnology. But remember, we want more than your diary recollections-reflect upon what you saw and did. Give us lessons learned, maybe with some fun? I do seem to like RPCV writers who nicely combine accurate ethnography with honest memoir, like Foley:

And where to anthropological border-crossers like me fit into all this? Lots of people questioned my sincerity and asked if I was going to disappear like most researchers do. One memorable discussion of this topic occurred with Jay WhiteHawk and Jonas CutCrow. We were loafing around at the tribal center one day, and they began complaining that researchers came all friendly and full of questions but never returned. Jonas had one solution for the problem. He chipped in, “We oughta have our own pet anthropologist who stays and dances at the powwow. The Sacs and Chippewa have one with a Ph.D. and everything.”

I protested that Bill and Red [two other white Meskwaki “wanna bees”] already dance at the powwows, and he retorted, “Ya, but they don’t have Ph.D.s.” That got Jay going on the utility of white guys with doctor’s degrees. He told this fanciful tale about a dog he got from a Mexican who spoke Spanish to it. Unfortunately, the Mexican also screwed his dog, so Jay was stuck with one confused puppy. He continued, “She needs a psychiatrist Doug. You are a doctor. Maybe you can help my dog out, give her some counseling.”

Jonas and he went on telling dog stories, several with interracial themes, for example, the story of the rich white lady whose fancy pedigreed dog got screwed by a Meskwaki mutt at the powwow. At the time, these stories made me feel a little guilty about being an “anthropological drifter.” So maybe I will have to come back to visit the settlement from time to time. It is the least I could do for my old pal Jay and his dog.

That’s what I mean, reflect upon what is important.


Doug Foley responds to the reviewer’s draft:


Being the crusty old professor, I like to think I’ve seen and heard it all. But out of the blue comes this unexpected commentary about my beloved Heartland Chronicles. In 1963, upon leaving my Philippine fishing village unchanged, I decided that the real point of the Peace Corps was to bring it home. Eventually, I wrote this commentary on Indian-white race relations in my hometown in Iowa. This review from a former PCV, who has spent years working with native peoples, is a touching affirmation of that effort. All I would to add is that the original study was updated in 2005. The recent copies of HC contain an epilogue on the impact of the Casino on the Meskwaki community. If you do check out HC, get the version that has the new epilogue. Lots of interesting political and cultural change occurred from 1995 to 2005, stuff I could not have dreamed up like a woman’s movement, a political coup, a huge casino expansion, and hot debates over enrollment and per capita payments! In the face of such changes, the Meskwakis continue to see the world in the wry, ironic, ribald way that Tom highlighted. They continue to reinvent themselves in unpredictable, interesting ways.”

Ps: Tom, I enjoyed talking with you. Do send me the info on this idea of yours for a Casino-based Indian-style horse racing program with Indian ponies.


Boy, did I ever send Foley information! He is still reeling! You see, no American Indian tribe has brought back its old war horses or has a horse program where kids can learn to ride (and then better succeed in life) or a horse racing program that could make big bucks for a tribe. You never know….

Their horse tradition?

Googling around and working their website (, I found that indeed they have a rich horse tradition but one which is rarely referred to any more. Ripe for racing and kids on horseback?

I learned that in the 1730’s or so, the Tribe got horses and then “went to buffalo” on the Great Plains. By the 1750’s and early 1800’s Meskwaki warriors and traders were traveling south to Santa Fe, New Mexico and north to the Mandan villages in South Dakota to trade, raid, or buy horses. They eventually bred up their own style of horse (unknown at this time), keeping a herd that soon numbered up to 700 hundred head. The horses remained with the tribe during their removal to Kansas and came back with them to Iowa. With the money they made from trading, in 1856 they bought land for their initial small Iowan settlement in Tama County, which became their lasting home. But to keep the Tribe from wandering the state, by 1900 the Federals had shot most of them. But of course, they hid a few and these they used for horse racing as late as 1912 at their annual meets. By World War II the last Meskwaki ponies and horses were gone. I wonder . . . what did they look like? I would love to know.

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