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The Kiowas of the Oklahoma Plains

A Kiowa tipi at the former museum "Indian City USA" museum.

The Kiowas of the Oklahoma Plains, 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 villages 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 of the Kiowas was part Crow. The Dakotas, though, waged war on the Kiowas and Crows for control of the land, and the Kiowas removed further south, where they encountered horses.

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 modern horses to America (a minature horse lived in North America during the large ice age), nomadic people quickly realized the advantage of such an animal. Kiowas warriors led raids into Mexico and Texas to steal horses, especially if they did not like a particular ranch or village, but they also engaged in trade. The Kiowas learned quickly to tame and handle the beasts, gaining 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 "tepees" 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 camps, 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 and/or Transsexual men and women 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. In "Calendar if the Kiowas Indians" (1899), explorer James Mooney surmised that the Kiowas did not chart time the way Europeans did, instead marking, seasons with 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.

Public Relations

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 Kiowa culture.

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, a method that they took to the Americans.

American Contact

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 sported long, flowing hair and were heavy-set. 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 — "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.

The Last of the Buffalo

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 them. 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 mountain opened. 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.

Wooden trevois
Kiowas used simple trevois to transport their items as they followed the bison herds.
Father and daughter
Elk Tongue and his daughter, A ke, demonstrate their culture at Fort Sill, showing their adaptation with European-made fabrics and a cross talisman (LOC).
Stone marker
The Kiowas were hurt politically and economically and socially by the wholesale slaughter of the bison herds that occurred in the 19th century. This marker, made by Jack Loftin, explains the north Texas bone road, today's US 82.

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Ann Lucas
Ann Lucas
Nov 02, 2023

A Kiowa Apache friend, an elder in the 1990s, told a harrowing story of how his mother was divested of her allotment near Anadarko by a county official who initiated seizure for non payment of taxes. Taxes she had no idea of.

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