The Iowa, or Ioway, originated in the GreatThe Iowa, or Ioway, originated in the Great Lakes region. They are thought, along with the Ho-Chunk, Otoe, and Missouria tribes, to have once been a single tribe. In the 16th century, the Iowa, Otoe, and Missouria broke away from that tribe and moved to the south and west. The first recorded contact between the Iowa and Europeans was in 1676, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they lived among the Ho-Chunk people.

Traditionally, Iowa society was divided into two moieties, the Buffalo and the Bear clans, who would govern the tribe on an alternating, semiannual basis. In face of European-American encroachment, the Iowa moved east in what is now Iowa and Missouri, but in 1839 the tribe ceded their lands and moved to the Ioway Reservation on the Kansas-Nebraska border. There factionalism broke out between the mixed blood and full blood Iowas. The mixed bloods advocated assimilation, while the full bloods wanted to follow their traditional way of life.