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Kiowa Calendar

The Oklahoma Historical Society has an unbelievable amount of photographs that only occasionally see the light of day. Their photos, however, reveal history that simple words cannot. This photograph from the OHS collection was taken in 1875 and depicts "Comanche and Kiowa men painting their history on a buffalo robe." It stems from the collections of Dr. C.W. Kirk and was posted on the OHS Facebook feed today.

Buffalo robes were individualistic for their wearers. Women tanned the hides, then the tanned side was painted in bright colors to depict events in the wearer's life. Some men were buried with their robes, while other robes were traded with non-Natives or were produced specifically for the trade.

The Kiowas used tanned hides as calendars. These calendars were usually made by tanning both sides of the skin to allow for easier transport between camps and to use in story telling rituals. They became valued keepsakes for individuals and families. The Kiowa calendars did not mark the future, which our calendars do now, but major events of the artist's life and stories told by family members. The owner drew the calendars in curved lines or spirals, with symbols indicating the winters.* The calendar recorded successful hunts and coups (attacks on other tribes and on non-Native groups), meetings of foreigners, visits to areas beyond territory, attendance of the Sun Dance (which wasn't called annually but dependent on certain conditions), meteor showers, and other unique events in the owner's life.

It is unknown if Kiowa women also kept calendars as both the tribes and the ethnographers tended to ignore women's experiences.

One of the most well-known Kiowa calendars belonged to Sett'an (Little Bear), son of a long-serving chief and the elder of his clan. His calendar was photographed by James Mooney, an ethnographer, in 1895. Mooney colored the photograph in his ethnography and recorded the significance of the symbols and art painted on the hide.

* Winters should not be counted annually but from the appearance of the season and where the wearer was located.

If you'd like to learn more about the calendar traditions and literacy of the Kiowas and want to while away your Sunday in fascinating reading, Project Gutenberg has transcribed Mooney's ethnography and scanned the illustrations in its entirety. It can be enjoyed by following this link:

A Kiowa Calendar as depicted in the 1895 ethnography.

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