Of Hunts and Horses
The Kiowas, along with their trading partners, the Comanches, created a unique horse and
buffalo hunting culture that has persisted in the old West legends as the quintessential
Native Americans. Their way of life has been romanticized in literature, eulogized in
movies, and extensively researched in history. When one thinks of the American Indian,
inevitably the Plains people come to mind.
However, the Kiowas were not originally from the southern plains. Having displaced the
Apaches, Wichitas and Caddos and their respective subgroups as they ventured south into
what is today's Oklahoma and Texas, they arrived in the Southwest about the time that the
Spanish and Americans laid claim to the same land. Hence, a relationship fueled by
suspicion and deceit, as well as trade and amicability, goaded both sides.
Creation of a Culture
As legend has it, the Kiowas emerged from the hollow trunk of a cotton wood along the
northeastern Rocky Mountain range. Their creator gave them the land, customs, and taught
them to hunt. Small animals, such as deer, antelope, and fowl, constituted their main
source of food, though as they began to follow the herds, the bison became their mainstay.
Thus, in all likelihood, the Kiowas ended up controlling the area that today encompasses
western Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and northeastern New Mexico, because they
developed a lifestyle so heavily reliant on bison.
Before they moved south, the Kiowas left the Rocky Mountains to live among the Crows in
the Black Hills. The Crows and Kiowas developed strong kinship bonds - 18th century
Chief Kicking Bird was part Crow. The Dakota tribe, though, waged war on the Kiowas and
Crows for control of the land.
Like the Comanches, this developing plains culture never could have existed as a
formidable empire of the Plains without the horse. As the Spanish brought horses to
America, the natives quickly realized the advantage of such an animal to the hunt, and
warriors would often raid Mexico and Texas to steal horses. The Kiowas learned quickly to
tame and handle the beasts, and they gained the reputation as being superior riders.
Life with the Kiowas
Being nomadic, Kiowa villages were constructed of animal hide tents which, though sturdy
and durable, could be hastily disassembled. They lived inside these shelters - what
Americans call "tipis" or "wigwams" - even in winter, erecting grass fences to ward off the
bitter prairie cold. They transported their stuff with sleds called "travois," pulled either by
women, children, or dogs.
Women were in charge of the day-to-day operations of the village. They reared children,
made clothing, set up tents, cooked meals, prepared jerked meat and pemican sausage,
created food preparation utensils, hauled water, etc, etc. The men enjoyed great status if
they proved themselves as warriors and hunters, and they took several wives to reflect
that. Marriage was rather quick and painless. After giving gifts to the father of the bride,
the newly wed couple would live with her family until the first child was born, then the man
would be able to have his own lodging (his wife usually stayed with her mother,
grandmother, sisters and aunts to raise the children). The Kiowas venerated their children
and did not believe in corporal punishment. Homosexual men were considered spiritual (as
they embodied both males and females), and they were in charge of the Scalp Dance, a
ritual cleansing ceremony conducted after a successful raid.
The Kiowas participated in many ceremonial dances, the most important one being the Sun
Dance. They marked off time with a calendar - along with the Dakotas, they were the only
Plains Indians to use such a device. James Mooney, a late 19th century explorer and writer,
wrote "Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians" in 1899 and surmised that the Kiowas did not
chart time the way Europeans did. Instead, seasons were marked off by a special names
and symbols, signifying what occurred during that time frame. Mooney identified three
calendars: the Sett'an (used 1833-1864); the yearly Anko, and the monthly Anko.
In spite of invading Wichita and Apache territory, the Kiowas forged kinship bonds with
them. The Wichita Confederacy (consisting of the Taovayas, Tawakonies, Wacos, and
Kiachais) went along on horse raids and traded agricultural goods for bison. The Kiowas
and Apaches intermarried and formed a separate group, the Kiowa-Apaches, who retained
The Caddos, on the other hand, were completely agricultural people and along with the
Tonkawas resented the Kiowa intrusion. Further, the Kiowas waged war with the
Cheyennes, Dakotas, Pawnees, Utes and Osages, often ambushing villages and taking
captives and scalps. Being a warrior culture, the Kiowas well knew that terrorizing their
enemies was an effective means to get their way.
The Mexicans had dealt with the Kiowas since the 17th century, and the French had traded
furs with them since La Salle's journeys. However, the Kiowas' first contact with Americans
occurred at the beginning of the 19th century. While Lewis and Clark did not meet them,
they did note that they heard of them. Zebulon M. Pike met the Kiowas and Comanches in
present day Oklahoma in 1807, but the first prolonged meetings occurred with the Stephen
Long Expedition in 1820. The Long Expedition split into two groups; Edwin James and
Stephen Long were supposed to explore the Red River Valley, while Captain John R. Bell
was to cover Arkansas.
Bell wrote in his expedition journal how he twice
met Kiowa couples who were eloping, leaving
their villages to begin life anew among kindred
groups. He also provided physical descriptions -
the men being tall and strong, with braids over
each ear and in the back, and the women had
long, flowing hair and were invariably fat. Bell
seemed to be an agreeable sort and was well
received by Kiowa chiefs, who gifted him a
horse - the highest honor a Kiowa could bestow.
James and Long got confused and ended up following the Canadian, which took them back
to Arkansas. They also met with Kiowas, though their interactions were not near as friendly.
The American party demanded food and water from the Kiowas, who gave so begrudgingly,
and several disputes over horses arose. Both the Bell and Long expeditions came to the
conclusion that the area west of Arkansas - what we refer to today as the "Great Plains" -
was "wholly unfit for civilization, and uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture
for subsistence." They, along with Zebulon Pike, called it the "great American desert."
Long's party already began to witness increasing hostility between the Americans and the
Indians. As time permits, I will take you into the Kiowa's ever-shrinking world of the late
19th century until today.
Memories by Old Lady Horse, a Kiowa
Everything the Kiowas had came from the buffalo.
Their tipis were made of buffalo hides, so were
their clothes and moccasins. They ate buffalo
meat. Their containers were made of hide, or of
bladders or stomachs. The buffalo were the life
of the Kiowas.
Most of all, the buffalo was part of the Kiowa
religion. A white buffalo calf must be sacrificed in
the Sun Dance. The priests used parts of the
buffalo to make their prayers when they healed
people or when they sang to the powers above.
So, when the white men wanted to build railroads,
or when they wanted to farm or raise cattle, the
buffalo still protected the Kiowas. They tore up
the railroad tracks and the gardens. They
chased the cattle off the ranges. The buffalo
loved their people as much as the Kiowas loved
There was war between the buffalo and the white
men. The white men built forts in the Kiowa
country, and the woolly-headed buffalo soldiers
shot the buffalo as fast as they could (...)
Then the white men hired hunters to do nothing
but kill the buffalo. Up and down the plains those
men ranged, shooting sometimes as many as a
hundred buffalo a day. Behind them came the
skinners with their wagons (...) Sometimes there
would be a pile of bones as high as a man,
stretching a mile along the railroad track.
The buffalo saw that their day was over. They
could protect their people no longer. Sadly, the
last remnant of the great heard gathered in
council, and decided what they would do.
The Kiowas were camped on the north side of
Mount Scott, those of then who were still free to
camp. One young woman got up very early in the
morning. The dawn mist was still rising from
Medicine Creek, and as she looked across the
water, peering through the haze, she saw the last
buffalo herd appear like a spirit dream.
Straight to Mount Scott the leader of the herd
walked. Behind him came the cows and their
calves, and the few young males who had
survived. As the woman watched, the face of the
Inside Mount Scott the world was green and
fresh, as it had been when she was a small girl.
The rivers ran clear, not red. The wild plums were
in blossom, chasing the red buds up the inside
slopes. Into this world the beauty of the buffalo
walked, never to be seen again.
Alice Marriott and Carol K. Rachlin, American Indian
Mythology (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968),
169-70. Quoted in Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains
Indians Views on How the West was Lost, ed. by Colin G.
Colloway (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 129-30.
|The old Buffalo Road - Highway 82 west of
Wichita Falls - carried hides and bones into
Dallas and Fort Worth. Within twenty years,
the great bison herds of the Southern Plains
were completely decimated.
|Kiowa Chief Santana (White
Bear), who defied the white
settlers to the bitter end.
|The Kiowas - Home on the Plains
|Travois are sleds that women pulled behind them to
carry their items as the tribe pursued the bison.
Kiowa women were hard workers, and tribes relied
on them to do the majority of the work.
|Kiowa girls pose for photographs in their native
costumes for George Addison at Fort Sill.
Photographers sold these cabinet cards to
people back east, who were interested in the