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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
|A recreated Kiowa tepee, made of canvas and not
hide to reflect Wichita adaptation, was once on
display at the now-defunct Indian Nations Museum
|Kiowa Chief Santana
(White Bear), who defied
the white settlers to the
bitter end. He is buried
at Fort Sill.
|Kiowa warrior Elk Tongue and his
daughter, A'ke, in 1891 (LOC).
|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