The First Kansas Americans [1]

See also:
Massachusetts Indians
New Hampshire Indians
Oregon Indians
Pennsylvania Indians
South Carolina Indians

Two groups of Indians have lived in Kansas, the native tribes found by the first white men who entered the Territory and the emigrant tribes. The latter were from the East, settled on reservations in Kansas by treaties with the Federal Government.

Wandering tribes like the Cheyenne and Arapahoe inhabited sections of the Kansas region, but their culture is not as representative of Indian life in the State as that of the Kansa (Kaw), Osage, and Pawnee. These tribes lived in villages of large and semi-permanent earth lodges, and cultivated maize, beans, and squash. There were significant differences in their social organization, religious ideas, and mode of life, but the Kansa may be taken as an example, since it is from them that the State derived its name. The Kansa belonged to the Siouan linguistic group and were closely related to the Osage. Their economy was based upon the cultivation of crops and hunting of buffalo or other game. Agriculture was women's work, while hunting was that of the men. Each lodge was a self-contained economic unit providing all its own material needs.

The tribe was governed by five hereditary chiefs. Each office was controlled by a gens a group of kin related only through the male line. A chief was generally succeeded by his eldest son, but it was possible for a woman to hold office if no son were living. In recognition of an outstanding achievement, a man could be elected chief, and the new chieftainship thus created became hereditary in his gens.

The Kansa lived in earth lodges in permanent villages, which they left periodically on organized buffalo hunts. Because of its great economic importance the buffalo hunt was carefully controlled and the hunters were restricted in many ways. They were divided into three bands, each of which lived as a unit for the duration of the hunt. An announcer informed the village of the day of departure and, as soon as the place for the hunt had been agreed upon, each band chose a prominent warrior as leader. He paid for a feast and was thanked by the chiefs for his services. Then, for police, twenty men were chosen from those who had proved their courage in war by taking a scalp, or slaying an enemy, or in other ways. They were in charge of the hunt, prevented any individual from attacking before the signal was given, policed the camp, and punished offenders by whipping them. When the hunters returned to camp, the police shared the meat as payment for their services.

The most sacred objects possessed by the tribe were the medicine bundles, which contained many objects believed to be imbued with magical powers. The bundles used in war were the most prominent because warfare held the most important role in tribal life. Each gens had its war bundle, and among its number were certain men privileged in its ownership and use. These privileges were obtained by acquiring the proper vision through fasting and prayer. Once a man had been granted his vision, he went to a former owner of the bundle and paid him for instruction in its uses. Thereafter he was a potential war chief.

The custom of scalp taking, which was regarded by the whites as a mere act of savagery, was practiced primarily as a memorial of victory and was an outgrowth of the more ancient form of head hunting. But it also had a ritualistic significance as the scalp-lock was held to be the seat of life, or the spirit of the warrior. It was believed that the scalped victim, being physically incomplete, could not enter the Happy Hunting Ground and consequently could have no rest in the hereafter, but must continue as a spirit-servant to the victor. Therefore, the more scalps a warrior took, the better; he would have more spirit-assistants and fewer enemies when he himself entered the future life.

Boys began about the age of twelve to fast in order to obtain dreams and guardian spirits. A father painted his son's face with clay and sent him to a lonely spot so that he might receive power to do a brave deed. Warrior ancestors appeared to the boy and prophesied his future exploits, and from them he generally acquired war powers. His dreams were primarily concerned with future acts of greatness in war, and were recited whenever he joined a war party. Although this was the fundamental type of vision, others were peopled with the spirits of bear, buffalo, or thunder, one of which became his special protector throughout life. When the boy returned he received a new name, usually based on his vision, and became a member of the tribe.

The great interest of the Kansa and other tribes of the Plains area was warfare, and only by his achievements in war could an individual attain social position. The warrior's preeminence was shown upon every possible social occasion. He was permitted to sit upon a stuffed hide pillow at a feast, to ride ahead of the police to the buffalo herd, and hunt without fear of punishment. He acted as an intermediary in marriage, took charge of dances, and functioned in the naming ceremony. The greatest honor that could be bestowed on a warrior was to have his breast tattooed; and this was accorded only to those who had slain seven enemies and stolen six of their horses.

When a marriage was being arranged, the boy's parents asked a tattooed warrior to be the intermediary. With three other braves of his choosing, he visited the girl's parents and made the proposal. If the parents consented to the marriage, all the warriors recited their exploits in war, and recounted them again on the way back to the boy's lodge. (If they returned in silence, the boy knew that his request had been refused. ) At the lodge they announced the result of their mission. Then the boy, if accepted, formally presented a number of horses to the girl's father. On the date set for the marriage the girl, dressed in her finest clothes, went to the groom's lodge, taking many presents. Here the boy's parents dressed her again in a costume they had provided, and seated her upon the ground inside the lodge. Seated back-to-back, the boy and girl partook of a marriage feast. Relatives and friends were then admitted to a general feast, presents were delivered, and the ceremony was ended.

As a tribe, the Kansa were aloof and independent, having little friendly intercourse with any of the neighboring tribes, except the Osage, with whom they were closely related by linguistic ties and intermarriage. They did not penetrate far into what is now Kansas. At the time of the coming of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, they occupied narrow strips of territory on both sides of the Missouri River, approximately from the mouth of the Kansas to the Nebraska line. Two hundred years later they were in virtually the same location. In 1724 de Bourgmont reported two Kansa villages on the Missouri one a few leagues above the mouth of the Kansas, the other at the mouth of Independence Creek in Doniphan County. It is thought that the latter point was the limit of their ascent up the Missouri, and that they were driven back from there by the Pawnee. Lewis and Clark, in 1804, found no trace of the lower village and only the remains of the upper; the Kansa were at that time established on the Kansas River, with one village in the vicinity of the present Topeka, the other at the mouth of the Big Blue. By 1806 the former village had been deserted, and all the Kansa were collected at the Big Blue.

In 1815 they made their first treaty with the Government, one of peace and good will and involving no land transaction. But at St. Louis on June 3, 1825, they relinquished claim to all land in Missouri, southeast Nebraska, and northeast Kansas, accepting instead a reservation beginning twenty leagues up the Kansas. By 1830 the settlement on the Big Blue had been abandoned, and three villages established near Mission Creek in Shawnee County. These villages were occupied until 1846, when, by a treaty signed January 14, the reservation was diminished, and the Kansa were removed to Council Grove. On October 5, 1859, another treaty reduced their lands to a small tract nine miles wide and fourteen miles long, which was appraised and sold for the benefit of the tribe, when the Kansa were moved to a reservation in Oklahoma about 1873.

Never very numerous, they were reduced by smallpox and liquor introduced by traders. In 1835 they were estimated at 1,606 and in 1872 at hardly more than 200. From a once proud tribe, they had degenerated to a poverty-stricken handful. Yet from these people, through the Pappan family at Topeka, was descended one of Kansas' most distinguished citizens Charles Curtis, late Vice President of the United States.

The Osage, also of the Siouan family, resembled the Kansa in religious observance, social organization, and tribal customs, as well as in physical appearance. Both have been described as tall and well formed. George Catlin, the painter, visited the western tribes about 1835, and reported that the Osage were the tallest Indians in North America, being from six to six and one-half feet tall and well proportioned. They called themselves Wa-zhe-zhe, which became Osage when French traders attempted to render the name in writing. They were divided into two bands, the Great and the Little Osage, when first known to the whites, and were collected in two villages on the Missouri River, each village having its own chief and local government. Prior to 1796, the trade along the Missouri and all its tributary branches had been competitive, and Pierre Chouteau enjoyed a monopoly with the Osage. Superseded by Manuel Lisa, who obtained an exclusive right to trade in this territory from the Governor of Louisiana, Chouteau laid plans to regain the profitable Osage business. He induced the young men from both divisions to bring their families and follow him south to the Verdigris, and later to the Arkansas River, establishing villages along the latter stream. This migrating band was known as the Arkansas and comprised about one-half of the Osage Nation.

Meanwhile the Great and Little Osage had removed from the Missouri to the Osage River. In 1806 the Pike expedition found them in an upper and lower village on the Little Osage. Two years later the Government erected Fort Osage (afterwards Fort Clark), at the site of Sibley, Missouri, presumably for their protection against neighboring tribes, with whom they were in constant warfare. Within a month, Chouteau appeared at the fort with a treaty, prepared without consultation, by which the Osage were obliged to relinquish virtually all the land they had in Missouri; and in 1815 they moved into new villages on the Neosho. In 1820 the Great Osage had one village on the Osage River and one on the Neosho, while the Little Osage had three villages on the latter stream. All five villages totaled about 2,600 inhabitants. From then until the close of the Civil War the Osage lived mainly in Kansas, hunting about the Neosho, Osage, and Arkansas rivers.

Partly agrarian, they planted their crops in April, gave them one cultivation and left their villages in May for the summer hunt, from which they did not return until August. Then they harvested the crops usually from ten to twenty bags of corn and beans, and a quantity of dried pumpkin for each family and feasted. In September they started on the fall hunt which lasted until Christmas.

On June 2, 1825, preceding the Kansa by one day, the Osage ceded all land in the State south of that claimed by the Kansa to the United States, which thus acquired undisputed title. In return the Osage accepted a diminished reserve, beginning twenty-five miles west of the Missouri Line and extending west fifty miles. This reservation was again reduced by a treaty, signed at the Canville Trading Post in Neosho County on September 29, 1865, which provided that the Osage lands should be sold for their benefit if they agreed to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. They so decided and settled on land bought from the Cherokee in 1870. The Caddoan family, represented in Kansas by the Pawnee and the Wichita, is believed to have migrated from the southwest at a period so remote that only confused accounts of the migration exist in the family traditions. Unlike the Siouan, the Caddoan family did not come as a whole but in tribal divisions extending over a long period; the general direction of the movement was north and east. Caddoan tribes were distributed in a diagonal belt reaching from Louisiana to North Dakota, where the northernmost division, the Ankara, settled along the banks of the Missouri. Members of this division called themselves Chahiksichahiks, "men of men." But to the whites they were known as the Pawnee (from the Caddoan word, "pa-rik-i," meaning "horn"), because of their scalp-locks, which were so plastered with grease and paint that they stood erect like horns.

They were a powerful tribe, originally estimated at 25,000, divided into four subtribes: the Grand Pawnee on the Platte River in Nebraska; the Loup on the Loup branch of the Platte; the Republican on the Republican River; and the Tapage, or Noisy Pawnee, on the Smoky Hill River. Each village was ruled by a hereditary chief, whose power was more or less absolute, depending on the personality of the individual; and the villages were held together in a confederacy composed of the reigning chiefs, with a superior chief over all.

Their first contact with white men was in 1541, when the "Turk" led Coronado into Kansas, although not all historians agree that Coronado reached "Harahey," as he called the Pawnee country. It is said that he sent for the Pawnee chief, Tatarrax, and that the chief came to Quivira with 200 warriors, "all naked, with bows, and some sort of things on their heads." They were well-known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the French traders.

Their numbers were steadily decreased in battle, as they were in constant conflict with surrounding tribes, especially the Kansa and Osage, whom they considered their hereditary enemies. However, as with all other tribes, their most formidable enemies were drink and disease. An epidemic of smallpox carried off nearly one-half the nation in 1831. Writing of that calamity, their agent reported them "dying so fast ... they had ceased to bury their dead, and bodies were to be seen in every direction, lying in the river, lodged on the sand bars, in the weeds around their villages, and in their old corn caches."

In September 1825 they acknowledged the supremacy of the United States and agreed to submit all grievances to the Government for adjustment. This agreement they faithfully kept, even when the offenses were committed by white men. Their cessions of land were insignificant, as much that was rightfully theirs by prior claim and occupancy was ceded by the Kansa and Osage. In 1876 the Pawnee their numbers reduced to 2,500 relinquished what was left to them in Kansas by a final treaty and moved to Oklahoma.

Of all the Indians of Kansas, the Pawnee have yielded the greatest bulk of songs and folk tales to ethnologists. The beautiful ceremonial dance, The Hako, formerly observed by the Algonquian, Caddoan, and Siouan families, was faithfully preserved by the Pawnee and has been recorded by Alice C. Fletcher in the Twenty-second Annual Report (1900-01) of the Bureau of American Ethnology. This ceremony, observed in the spring at the mating season, was a prayer for children that the tribe might increase and be strong; and the people might have long life, enjoy plenty, and be happy and at peace. It was distinguished by its dignity, rhythmic variety, and symbolic concept.

Although the Wichita spoke a Caddoan language related to Pawnee, little is known about them. Catlin could find no resemblance between the two groups in language, physical feature, or custom. The Wichita he described as dark-skinned, clumsy and ordinary, although excellent horsemen like the Comanche. Their dress, too, was similar to that of the Comanche; and like them they wore their hair long, while the Pawnee shaved and painted their heads.

The Wichita, it is surmised, originally accompanied the Pawnee to the Platte and Republican Rivers, and later, because of some dissatisfaction, retraced their steps to the Arkansas River where they lived for centuries. Coronado found them there in 1541 and called their land Quivira; and succeeding Spanish explorers visited them in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. When they left Quivira is not known. Probably they were forced out by the southern advance of the Siouan family, and settled along the Cimarron River and on south into Texas. They returned, however, to the old Quivira region during the Civil War and established a village on the site of the city of Wichita. Before the period of land cession they again retreated south, leaving their land to more aggressive tribes.

The Arapahoe and Cheyenne were of the Algonquian family, which originally occupied territory about the Red River in northern Minnesota. At some time in their history they had formed an alliance, which has continued to the present time. They were forced west by the northern Siouan movements the Arapahoe going first into Wyoming; the Cheyenne moving at a later date into the Black Hills of South Dakota, and settling about the Cheyenne River, where they were found in 1804 by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Divisions of each tribe drifted south and west, forming the Northern and Southern Arapahoe, and the Northern and Southern Cheyenne. But these divisions were only geographical, for they combined forces to carry on warfare against all the neighboring tribes. In 1840 they made peace with the Comanche, Kiowa, and Sioux, but continued hostilities against the Pawnee, Ute, and Shoshoni until all were confined on reservations. According to their traditions, they were once a sedentary people, living in fixed villages, cultivating the soil, and practicing the arts of pottery and weaving. On the Plains they developed into nomadic hunters, living in portable skin tents (tipis) and ranging from the Black Hills to the Arkansas River and into the Rocky Mountains. They were fierce and daring horsemen and the most dreaded foes of the early Mexican traders and California gold-seekers. Although they had many similarities to the Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee, they fit the popular conception of the Plains Indians more exactly. By a treaty at Fort Laramie, in 1851, the boundaries of the southern divisions were fixed, giving them a large tract in western Kansas and eastern Colorado, which the Government promised to protect. However, the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 brought such hordes of white men into the territory that the Indians were forced out of the mountains onto the plains about the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Angered by this breach of faith, and aided by the Sioux in the north and the Kiowa in the south, they began a series of uprisings that lasted until 1878. They figured in the Chivington massacre in Colorado and that of Custer in Wyoming. On February 18, 1861, they ceded all their lands in Kansas, except a small tract lying between the Arkansas and Purgatory Rivers, but continued depredations over all their former territory. The treaty of October 28, 1867, gave them a reservation in Oklahoma, but they refused to accept it until forced to do so by the final treaties of 1874-1875. In 1876 the northern divisions were settled in Wyoming and Montana. The Arapahoe and Cheyenne participated in the Sun Dance, the annual rite of worship performed by nearly all the Plains tribes and especially by the Siouan, who accompanied it with sacrifices. The Arapahoe were leaders in the Ghost Dance movement, originated about 1888 by Wovoka, a member of the Paviotso tribe in western Nevada. This dance was the ceremonial expression of the "Messiah" religion in which the Indians, realizing the futility of further resistance and resigning themselves to the fate of the conquered, took refuge. It was a mixture of Christianity and Indian mythology, based on the belief that God had sent white people to punish the Indians for their sins. When these sins were fully expiated, it was believed, God would return to destroy the whites and reunite in heaven all Indians, living and dead. To hasten His return, the elaborate ceremony of the Dance, lasting four to five nights, was observed once in every six weeks.

Contrary to popular belief, the Ghost Dance religion did not advocate war on the whites, although it did give indirect impetus to the Sioux outbreak in the spring of 1891. The fundamental teachings of the "Messiah" were "not to tell lies, to harm no one, to do right always, and not to cry when their friends died." It was the most pacific religion ever adopted by an Indian people.

Hopefully the elated converts looked forward to the dates set for the return of their God and the destruction of the whites; when these dates passed without fulfillment of the prophecy, the Indians lost faith and the Ghost Dance faded out.

The Kiowa have the distinction of being the sole representative of their linguistic family. The word, Kiowa, comes from their "Kiowagan," meaning "prominent people." They were a true Plains tribe, having come originally from the upper Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Forced out by the Sioux, they drifted south along the base of the Rockies to settle along the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers.

Shortly thereafter they formed an alliance with the Crow, and in 1840 they made a similar agreement with the Arapahoe and Cheyenne, with whom they were associated in border uprisings. They were war-like and predatory and are credited with having killed more white men in proportion to their numbers than any other tribe. They made their first treaty with the United States in 1837 and removed to their present reservation in 1868, although, together with their confederates, they continued depredations until the last outbreak in 1878.

The Comanche, of the Shoshonean family, also ranged across sections of western Kansas. They fought intermittently with the Spanish for 200 years and for nearly half a century with the Texans, who, they felt, had taken their best hunting grounds. They were close confederates of the Kiowa and joined them in all border warfare.

On October 18, 1865, together with the Kiowa, they ceded all land to the Government, that in Kansas being west of the Osage and south of the Arkansas River. By the 1867 treaty at Medicine Lodge they were given a reservation in Oklahoma; but, like the Kiowa, they refused to accept it until general peace was effected. Although covering a great deal of territory, the Comanche were never as numerous as they seemed. In 1904, wasted by war and disease, they numbered only 1,400.

The movement of emigrant tribes into Kansas began with the Shawnee in 1825 and ended with the Wyandot in 1842. At the insistence of the Government these tribes, twenty-eight in number, gave up their ancient lands east of the Mississippi, or land they had acquired by settlement west of the Mississippi, and were given in return small reservations in eastern Kansas, mainly in that portion ceded by the Kansa and Osage. The majority of the emigrant tribes had lived in long association with missionaries and white settlements. They had intermarried with the whites and their leaders were often white men adopted into the tribe, or descendants of mixed blood. Under these combined influences, they had adopted many of the ways of the whites and, to some degree, arrived at their way of thinking. This was particularly true of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Wyandot. The first printing press in Kansas was brought to the Shawnee; and on it was printed the second newspaper ever published in an Indian language. The code of laws adopted by the Delaware would have compared favorably with that of any group of white people in similar circumstances. The Wyandot more than three-fourths white, generally educated and in some instances highly cultured established the first free school in Kansas and played a significant part in the State's territorial history. But these tribes, brought into the lusty crudeness of a border country and repeatedly deceived by meaningless promises of the Government, deserted the teachings of missionaries and adopted the worst habits of their conquerors. Drink, supplied by the ubiquitous trader, became a general habit. The Delaware, enticed to the Plains by the buffalo, became embroiled with the Pawnee and burned the Pawnee village on the Republican River in 1832. The Potawatomi also fought with the Pawnee until the latter were defeated.

Eventually these emigrant groups shared the fate of the native families. In 1854, when Kansas was opened to white settlers, a period of land cession was inaugurated and continued until about 1880. At its close virtually all Indian titles had been extinguished. Of the thirty-six tribes, remnants of only six, distributed on small reservations, are now to be found in Kansas. These are the Chippewa and Munsee in Franklin County; Iowa in Doniphan; Potawatomi in Jackson; and the Sauk and Fox and Kickapoo in Brown County. In 1930 their combined numbers totaled 2,454.

Indian farmers in Kansas today live in much the same manner as their white neighbors. Though there are a few impressive buildings, their houses are usually small; many have telephones and other modern conveniences. It might appear that these people have completely lost their racial heritage, but this is not so. During the summer months, especially, they return to their tribal costumes, not only for festivities but for everyday wear; and few Indians fail to attend the religious dances and games held on Kansas reservations at customary intervals during the year.

In this way they manage to preserve much of their native culture. The Prairie Potawatomi, more than any of the other Kansan Indians, still adhere to their tribal customs and conduct traditional ceremonies on their reservation. The Religious Dance is the most important of these. It represents the fusion of Indian and Christian religious concepts and is held at least five times a year, out-of-doors in spring and summer, and indoors during the winter months. It is conducted by an organization of men and women which functions like a priesthood. Vigorous singing and drumming are sustained for most of the day and night for a period varying from one to eight days, depending on the amount of food available. The entire tribe attends, but only the men dance. Peyote meetings, so named from the stimulant drug, are also held each year for several successive nights and days, for the formal purpose of worship and general thanksgiving. Men and women attend; all eat or drink some peyote and contribute food. Other rituals include the Dance Ceremony for the deceased, the Adoption Ceremony, and the Clan (or Gens) Ceremony.

Games are also played lacrosse, for men only; woman's ball game, or squaw hockey, for women only; and moccasin game for both men and women. Indian dice, archery and blow-gun games are sometimes played with a neighboring tribe, like the Kickapoo. The promotion of friendship, rather than rivalry, is the objective in these games, for the Indian believes that "All games are gifts from the Good Spirit for the enjoyment of life."

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Kansas, State Department of Education, Kansas: A Guide to the Sunflower State, American Guide Series, The Viking Press, 1939.


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