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Who is Maria Pearson?

by Courtney Stucker

photo of Maria Pearson posing with Gov. Terry Branstad and peace pip
Photo of Maria Pearson posing with Gov. Terry Branstad and peace pipe/Source: Ames, Iowa History Museum

Before we started the filmmaking procedure, most of us at Simplex Stories were probably just like you; none of us had heard of Maria Pearson. At the beginning of our research process, we knew right away that her story was the one that we desperately wanted to tell. It was that feeling of, “Wow, this woman has experienced challenges and barriers that we could never imagine. We have to make sure her story gets the justice it deserves.”


So that brings us to this question: who is Maria Pearson? Why should you care?


Maria Pearson and her family were a part of the Turtle Clan of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and her parents were also sure to give her daughter a name that was also fitting to their tribe. Pearson’s Yankton name was Hai-Mecha Eunka, which translates to “Running Moccasins.” Born on July 12, 1932, she grew up throughout a period of time that Native American rights were not talked about and their perspectives were not acknowledged in government decisions.


Thanks to Maria Pearson’s work from the 1970’s up until her death in 2003, Indigenous remains and burials now have stronger protections from people who want to study, sell or display them. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990, which upholds these protections, was created from her influence and refusal to back down for her people.


While Indigenous people’s beliefs about death and bodily remains vary from tribe to tribe, Maria Pearson knew that her people should have the right to decide what happens to their ancestor’s remains. They represented more than some bones to her. She did not want them to be studied like animals or anything less than human. However, repatriation was not the only cause that she cared about. She fought for awareness around Native American substance abuse on reservations as well as their right to receive equal education opportunities.


The Inciting Incident


The first significant example of Pearson’s ability to fight for her beliefs occurred in connection with the Glenwood Incident. When her husband returned home from work, he had explained to her that 26 white settlers’ remains had been discovered and reburied. The part he knew Pearson was not going to want to hear was that they had also found a Native American girl and her baby’s remains, but those had been sent off to be studied by state archaeologists.


Furious and upset at this news, Pearson went outside to connect with nature. In the wind, she could hear her grandmother’s voice telling her that now was the time to stand up and protect her ancestors. She would consistently tell Pearson, “Girl, someday you are going to be called upon to stand up for what you believe in. You better know what you believe.” It did not take long before she made the long journey to the Iowa capital, as she had been residing in Marne, Iowa, with her family.


“Girl, someday you are going to be called upon to stand up for what you believe in. You better know what you believe.”


Once she made it to the state capitol, she started creating waves. Pearson used her voice to make people like Governor Terry Branstad and Governor Robert Ray listen to the concerns of Native Americans in Iowa. Before she spoke with these governors, she dressed herself in her buckskin dress and beaded breastplate where she said to Governor Robert Ray, “You can give me back my people's bones, and you can quit digging them up.”


To keep learning about Pearson’s story, blog updates will be posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


Sources:

Ames History Museum, retrieved from https://ameshistory.org/content/maria-pearson

Round, P. (2015). Iowa's Place in Repatriation. Retrieved from http://www.the-repatriation-files.org/?p=129

Schlarbaum, P. (2014). “Maria Pearson.” KHOI 89.9 FM


Courtney Stucker is the Digital Producer for Simplex Stories. Originally from Danville, IA, she has around three years of experience in content management, social analytics, and web development. Feel free to reach her at courtney.stucker@wartburg.edu.


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