Two Cultures - Kaw Text




Sometime before the 1600's, the Kaws lived as one nation with a large number of Siouan-speaking people known as the Dhegiha Siouan group. Originating east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River, the Dhegiha tribes migrated west down the Ohio River. Although scholars differ as to exactly when this translocation occurred, it is clear that by the 1600s the Dhegihans had separated into the five tribes we now know as the Kaws, Quapaws, Omahas, Osages, and Poncas.

The Quapaws moved down the Mississippi River to the present east Arkansas area while the other four tribes went upstream to the present St. Louis area then headed up the Missouri River. By 1700 the Omahas and Poncas established a presence in the present eastern Nebraska–western Iowa area, and the Osages occupied present southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, northwest Arkansas, and northeast Oklahoma. Sometime in the later 1600s the Kaws established villages on the west side of the Missouri River in what is today Doniphan County Kansas.

The reasons for the Kaws' migration west are open to speculation. It is possible that the Kaws were subject to pressure from better-armed eastern Indians who, in turn, were being forced west by European colonists getting established on the eastern seaboard. The ravages of contagious disease among Native Americans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulting in tribal re-configurations and population dislocations may have affected the Kaws’ move west. Tribal factionalism, the ambitions of individual chiefs, or the pursuit of westward-trending bison herds may have been factors as well.

Scholars are unable to agree on the English meaning of the name of the tribe. One source of confusion is that there are over 125 different spellings of the tribal name including Can, Caw, Ka-anzou, Kancez, Kanissi, Kansies, Kantha, Caugh, Keniser, Quans, Escansques, Escanzaques, and Excnjaques. For generations, Kansas school children have been taught that the literal meaning of Kanza in English is "People of the South Wind," "Wind People," or "South Wind People." However, it is uncertain that the word Kanza means anything at all to the Kaws themselves, let alone possessing an equivalent in English. Mahlon Stubbs, long a teacher, agent, and friend of the Kaws, claimed the name of the tribe meant plum to the Kaws.

Everyday Life Topics:


Kaw men saw themselves primarily as hunters, trappers, and warriors. The pursuit and capture of small game and larger animals such as bison, deer, and elk was an essential activity that benefited the tribe both in terms of food gathering and as a means of commerce with Europeans and Americans.

The Kaws had many Indian enemies with whom they continuously engaged in raids and counter-raids. Boys and young men were encouraged and trained to be warriors to protect their tribe from enemy attacks and to win honors by demonstrating bravery in battle. Raiding other tribes, particularly the hated Pawnees, was considered a legitimate way of acquiring wealth and giving the booty away was a means of gaining stature within the tribe.

Ne-Ca-Que-ba-na (The One Who Runs Down Men) at different times ran down and killed eighteen Pawnees with a knife. Each time he returned to the Kaw villages with a drove of horses he captured. Once he distributed one hundred fifty horses to three Kaw chiefs.

Most of the men plucked their arms, chins, eyebrows, and most of the scalp with a wire apparatus. A narrow strip of hair was left on top and in the back and was

sometimes colored with vermilion or decorated with the tail feather of a war eagle. An important chief might attach a deer tail on the back of his neck.

Most males wore a blue or red breech-cloth which was held on with a girdle, plus leggings and moccasins made from deer skins. A blanket was used in cold weather. They decorated their ears with beads, tin trinkets, or porcelain sticks, and many had tattoos. Some of them had collars made from bear claws or metal buttons that they fastened around their neck or leggings. The warriors carried lances, swords, and bows and arrows.


"Stepping inside, we were greeted with a shouting sound, like "how? How?" The lords and masters we found smoking and card-playing, old and young. The squaws (ladies) were making or ornamenting leggins or moccasins. Some, old and young, sat around their centre-fires, tailor fashion, talking away lustily–very likely about their white intruders, and their pale, sickly appearance. Some of them had quite a number of buffalo robes, prepared and unprepared, which they were selling."

---Dr. C. H. Gran, Leavenworth Kansas Weekly Herald, July 21, 1855

Kaw women performed almost all of the domestic tasks. Women planted, tended, and harvested the crops such as corn, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, and squash and foraged for nuts, berries, and roots. They processed, stored, and cooked the food. They often accompanied the men on the bison hunts, butchering the animals where they had fallen. The women dried the meat and dressed the bison robes and other animal skins.

Prior to European contact, women made clothing from animal skins. They decorated the

clothing with porcupine quills, and later beadwork. Women were responsible for stitching the bison hides into tepee covers, putting up and taking down the tepees, and gathering the firewood.

They also looked after the children and trained the girls in the domestic skills.

Although their lives were filled with tasks of drudgery, Kaw women found ways to entertain themselves, usually while in the process of working. They would gossip, gamble, play games with their children, and make up songs. They also danced and trilled their approval of Kaw men who had performed deeds of valor.

Kaw women wore a coarse cloth secured to their waists with a belt. A loosely attached shoulder garment was sometimes worn, as were moccasins and leggings. They wore their hair in long braids often tinted with vermilion.


Kaw girls were expected to accept their roles as domestic servants and emulated their mothers and grandmothers in domestic skills. They worked hard. A ten-to-twelve-year-old could carry a one hundred pound load of firewood on her back for up to nine miles.

Boys were trained to be brave warriors. To facilitate the development of a headstrong disposition, Kaw adults seldom disciplined the boys.

When twelve or thirteen years of age, Kaw boys, like many youth of the central Plains tribes, under the tutelage of an elder, would go on a vision quest. The young boy would go off by himself for at least four days, without food or water. During this time he would invoke the spirits by introspection, wailing, and sometimes self-inflicted torture. Visions would appear to him that determined his identity and spirit helpers. Animals and supernatural phenomena appeared, having special meanings. The images of these beings were later painted on war shields and tipi covers to constantly remind the youth of his vision-derived powers and responsibilities.


Most Kaw families traced descent through the male line. No male could marry a kinswoman, no matter how remote the relationship. Chastity among unmarried females was guarded by the mother with great care. Polygamy was sometimes practiced among the Kaws, usually with a married woman’s younger sisters becoming her husband’s wives when they reached the proper age.

If caught in adultery, the woman might be whipped or even killed by her spouse. A male adulterer might be killed by the irate husband without fear of penalty. Divorce was reached by a mutual agreement, and both husband and wife were free to marry again.

Many of the prominent Kaw chiefs or warriors had daughters who married

French fur traders. The French believed that to accept the daughters of a chief was a prerequisite to negotiations for Kaw furs.

Thomas Huffaker, the Kaw Mission teacher, wrote the following account of a Kaw marriage:
"The relatives of the man go the relatives of the girl and agree upon the consideration. The groom moves his tent near the family of the girl. On the day of the ceremony, the tent of the groom is vacated by the family. The presents of the groom’s relatives are left in the tent, except the ponies, which are tied outside, and four women relatives of the groom remain in the tent. The bride is clothed in all the fine and costly things that her family are able to furnish. She is then placed upon the finest horse possessed by her family, it having been decorated with costly coverings. A gun is then discharged at her tent to notify the four women at the groom’s tent that the bride has started for the groom’s tent. The four women leave the tent to meet her. She is taken by them from the horse, wrapped in fine clothing and carried by the four women into the tent and seated upon the ground uncovered. The friends of the groom are then notified, and he is brought into the tent and seated near the bride, when they both partake of a wedding feast, seated back to back, "sight unseen." After the repast is ended the relatives and friends of both parties are admitted to the tent, a general feast is had, and the delivery of the presents. Thus the ceremony is ended."

Kaw Homes

When the Kaws resided in the heavily timbered valleys of the Lower Ohio and Missouri rivers, their lodges were patterned after the Eastern woodland style. They were constructed mainly of a pole frame covered with a thick, mat-like fabric of leaves, bark, and branches.

As the Kaws migrated westward onto the grass-covered plains, they tended to substitute earth or wood for at least the lower walls of their conical huts. Bison and deer skins covered the pole frame of the tepees, the form of shelter the Kaws employed during their twice-yearly hunting excursions to the High Plains. Tepees also appear to have been used in the permanent villages on the Council Grove Reservation.

White Americans periodically visited the Kaw village site near present Manhattan, known as the Blue Earth Village. Occupied by the entire Kaw tribe from 1795 until 1830, this village contained one hundred twenty-eight "earth lodges." These round, closely-spaced lodges had diameters ranging from thirty to sixty feet.

Timber piles arranged in a circle were driven into the ground with four to five feet of the timbers left above ground. Pole rafters were attached to these piles at an angle of six or seven degrees. Interior wooden pillars supported the roof. These rafters were joined together at the apex of the conical roof, leaving a small aperture to allow smoke to escape from interior fireplaces. The frame was covered by a layer of poles, mats, and bark which in turn was covered by slabs of sod.

Some of the Blue Earth Village lodges were rectangular, generally sixty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. They were constructed of stout saplings and poles arranged in the form of a common garden arbor and covered with skins, bark and mats. Along the interior walls were wood platforms, raised about two feet from the ground, on which were placed the skins, food, weapons, and other personal property belonging to the three to five families living under one roof. Adjacent to the platforms were the family fireplaces, which were simple holes in the earth situated to allow smoke an easy passage out of the common opening in the roof.


Kaw people provided food for themselves by hunting, raising crops, and foraging for edible wild plants. Of all the food sources, however, bison meat was the mainstay of the Kaw diet. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the entire Kaw tribe would travel west to present central and western Kansas to hunt bison.

Nearly every part of the bison flesh was used for food.. Preservation techniques involved Kaw women cutting bison meat into long strips, plaiting, and drying it, either on crude scaffolds or simply by wrapping it around short poles driven into the ground. Later the meat was cured with salt, most of which was obtained from the Saline River north of the Arkansas River. Even the fat was used, being preserved in casings fashioned out of the buffalo’s intestines.

Corn, beans, pumpkins, prairie potatoes, muskmelons, and watermelons were cultivated by Kaw women wielding simple hoes. George Sibley, who visited the Blue Earth Village in 1811, reported that about one hundred acres of corn, beans, and pumpkins had been planted near the village.

Corn was either roasted on the cob or cooked in a soup with beans and buffalo meat. Sometimes it was dried and wrapped in skins and stored underground for later use. It was cured in early fall before the semiannual trip to buffalo country. The Kaws shared their corn, even if in meager supply, with friendly tribes or travelers.

Fish, fowl, venison, berries, nuts, and tubers were also important elements in the Kaw diet.


Athletic competitions, horse racing, and gambling were popular diversions for Kaw men. Competitive displays of physical prowess included leaping, racing, and wrestling. Warriors raced their favorite horses, often for a wager against their opponent. Gambling was commonplace, especially for men with substantial wealth in horses, robes, guns, and other articles available as stakes. Meetings for these games, which included a rudimentary form of dice, were usually held in the lodge of a chief. For the Kaw warrior to ignore an invitation was to lose favor and suffer possible permanent exclusion from the chief’s lodge.

The few leisure moments Kaw girls enjoyed were spent playing with dolls and playhouses they fashioned themselves or simulating other domestic activities. Boys had more time to practice archery, running, lance throwing, and a sort of mimic hunting that soon involved the actual chase of small birds and animals. Both Kaw boys and girls engaged in indoor guessing games.

Music and Dance

Music was an important ceremonial aspect of Kaw culture and held great importance in the performance of the various tribal dances. A dominant feature was rhythm, which was maintained by thumping animal-hide drums and shaking deer’s foot rattles tied to strings. Sometimes Kaws played wooden flutes. Often a lively chant accompanied the instrument sounds, providing a great personal enjoyment to the Kaw participants.

The Kaws performed at least seventeen different dances, including some reserved exclusively for women and others for men. Family, thanksgiving, medicine, track-finding, hide, calumet, war and death dances were exceedingly popular.

One of the most detailed accounts of a Kaw dance was made by Reverend Joab Spencer, who described a performance of a scalp dance in 1867 after the Kaws had successfully killed a Cheyenne chief and several warriors in a surprise attack near Dodge City. Although he had lived with the Kaws for over a year, Spencer’s narrative reflects the usual cultural biases and limitations of whites who observed Native American behavior and customs:

"When I reached the village the dance was in progress. The scalps recently secured were hung on a pole erected in the midst of the village. Only men [sic] dance among the Indians. The dancers arranged themselves in a straight line, or in a circle, one just behind the other, assuming a stooping position with the knees bent forward enough to balance the body. The dance consisted of a kind of shuffling moving and a spring up of a few inches from the ground. This gave them a bobbing-up-and-down notion, but did not move them from their position. An onlooker would see a line of men shuffling and jumping but not changing place. Their dances were very serious affairs and continued far into the night. The dancers had a grave and serious look, and seemed to give close attention to their work. If a dancer tired he would step out of line. If another wished to join, he stepped into line at any time. How men could endure such exercise for hours without recess, is hard to understand. This dance, as well as all others, was a religious ceremony, and was really a thanksgiving service for their late victory, which they regarded as proof that the Great Spirit was not angry, but pleased with them.

They danced to music, or rather with music. The performer accompanied the drum with an improvised song, in which he recited the brave feats of the warriors in the battle in which the scalps had been taken. I took a position by the interpreter and he explained the words of the song as it progressed. Of course they were without rhyme or measure. We remained for some time before going home, but long into the night we could hear the monotonous drum-beat and occasionally a yell from some dusty son of the prairie.

"The Cheyenne braves came into our wigwams;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye
They smoked with us the pipe of peace;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye
They said they were friends, but they were enemies;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye"

In this way the song would proceed until all of the incidents of the battle were described, or until singers and dancers were tired out."



Disease and death became frequent and devastating events for the Kaws, especially after they had been located to the Neosho Valley Reservation near Council Grove. When they arrived in 1848, the Kaws number sixteen hundred. When they were exiled from Kansas in 1873, only six hundred Kaws made the trip to Indian Territory. In response to the frequency of death among their people, the Kaws developed elaborate funerary practices.

Preparation of the corpse for burial was largely the responsibility of the women, especially members of the deceased’s family. After the face had been painted and the body covered with bark and a buffalo robe, an old man might talk to the corpse, giving directions to the world of the dead. The body was then placed in a shallow individual grave, usually located on a hill or bluff near the village. The body lie in a horizontal position with the head facing the life-giving east.

Other reports tell of the corpse being placed in a sitting posture, facing west, with arms crossed and knees flexed. In either case, the deceased person’s garments, weapons, utensils, pipe, and a supply of corn, beans, and dried buffalo meat were deposited in the burial pit, for use by the deceased during the journey ahead.

Finally, after earth and rock slabs had been placed over the grave, the dead man’s horse might be killed (usually by strangulation) and left on top of the grave. Soon after burial the Kaws believed that the spirit of the deceased would travel to live in a spirit village. These spirit villages were believed to be located at or near the site of the Kaw village occupied immediately preceding the present one.

A widow fasted, scarified her face and hands, covered her person with clay, and became negligent in her dressing habits for one year. Then, without ceremony, she usually became the wife of her deceased husband’s eldest brother. However, if the deceased left no brother, the widow was free to marry whom she pleased. If the wife died, the husband was expected to undergo a lengthy period of mourning - up to eighteen months. Mourning rituals included fasting from sunrise to sunset, wailing, scarifying the body, and rubbing mud on the face.

The death of a warrior or prominent person often precipitated an expedition against a tribal enemy, apparently to place the Kaws - as opposed to the enemy - on an equal footing with the Great Spirit.

Kaw Mission teacher Thomas Huffaker observed:

"I have listened to their wailing and heard these words used on some occasions. They were simply praising the dead, referring to their good deeds in life, etc., as we who are enlightened speak in praise of loved ones when they have left us. This hired mourner leaves his home and lives in the woods alone, eating one meal a day during the period of mourning. He does not communicate with anyone during the time. The relatives of those who do not employ a mourner visit the grave for the same period and go through the same ceremony."


Kaw people had a profound respect for the spiritual dimension of the universe and placed considerable importance on bringing their lives into harmony with this greater presence. The Kaw name for this Great Spirit that pervaded all things was Waucondah. Waucondah was more a quality than a definite entity. Waucondah existed in the sun, light, darkness, heat, cold, rivers, woods, hills, wind, mists, stones, plants, and animals. This meant that everything that the Kaws came into contact with contained a spiritual dimension and so respect and consideration were to be given to all places and things. This sensibility imbued the Kaw culture with an intimacy with the landscape that Euro-Americans have never really understood.

The Kaws had no symbol for Waucondah because they believed that a particular image could not contain or convey Waucondah’s all-powerful and pervasive presence. However, some Kaws intimated that Waucondah’s voice was sometimes manifested in the sound of thunder.

Of special religious importance to the Kaws and other tribes of the central plains was a spring located near the confluence of the north and south forks of the Solomon River near present Cawker City, Kansas. In August of 1866 David E. Ballard, a surveyor, provided a description of this unique and spiritually-potent land form:

" . . . is a remarkable Salt Spring. Known among the Indians and hunters that frequent that region, as the Wac-an-da or Great Spirit Spring. The Spring itself is a natural curiousity, it being located on the summit of a cone shaped limestone rock. The rock is circular, about 200 feet in diameter at the base and about 30 feet high, upon the summit of this, rests the spring, the basin being circular and about 30 feet in diameter, its outlet is a trough apparently formed by the action of the water upon the rock. The water in the spring is about 20 feet deep and exceedingly strong with salt, . . ."

A clear understanding of both the spiritual meaning of Waconda Springs to the Kaws and the rituals they performed there will always elude us. And Waconda Springs will never be seen again. A few weeks before the waters of the Glen Elder Reservoir inundated the site in the early 1960s, this remarkable earth feature, revered by generations of Kaws, was bulldozed into oblivion.

Apparently the Kaws offered prayer-songs to deities lesser than Waucondah. In an 1885 article, Mourning and War Customs of the Kansas, author J. Owen Dorsey included a chart drawn by a Kaw spiritual leader, Pa-ha-le-gaq-li, son of the great Kaw chief Al-le-ga-wa-ho. This chart served as a guide in singing prayer-songs to spiritual entities. There are twenty-seven figures in all, with from one to ten lines beside each figure representing the number of songs of praise and propitiation offered to each deity. Among the deities are the sacred pipe, winds, the planet Venus, big rock, wolf, moon, crow, buffalo bull, and owl. Dorsey writes:

"Paha le-gaqli said that there should be a representation of fire in the middle of his chart, but he was afraid to make it. The songs are very sacred, never being sung on ordinary occasions, or in a profane manner, lest the offender should be killed by the thunder-god."


Relations with Other Tribes

The presence of Euro-Americans had a profound impact on the Kaws’ relations with other Native American tribes. The Spanish brought horses to the central plains and by the early 1700s the Kaws had become accomplished equestrians. Horses afforded the Kaws and their Indian neighbors greater mobility over longer distances which increased the frequency of both peaceful trade but also raids and counter-raids between the tribes.

Horses became enormously important as a means for men to attain wealth and stature. Like all of the Indians living in this area, the Kaw warriors took considerable pride in being able to steal horses from their enemies. Upon returning from a successful raid, a Kaw warrior would be subject to much praise if he were to have captured and herded home a dozen or more of the enemies’ horses. Once the great Kaw warrior, Ne-ca-que-ba-na, returned to the Kaw villages near Council Grove with a drove of one hundred fifty horses he had captured from the Pawnees. Ne-ca-que-ba-na distributed the horses to the three principal Kaw chiefs.

Another European-induced factor which strained relations between the Kaws and their Indian neighbors was competition in the fur trade. From about 1700 on the Kaws had become dependent on European and American-provided trade exchanged for animal pelts delivered by the Indians. Competition was keen, sometimes becoming violent, between the tribes vying for the best hunting and trapping grounds. Often the white traders played tribes off against each other and at times promoted intra-tribal factionalism to gain a commercial advantage.

The main enemy of the Kaws were the Pawnees, a large tribe living in present-day north-central Kansas and central Nebraska. Throughout the 1700s the Kaws had captured Pawnee people and sold them to the French as slaves. In 1812, the Pawnees attacked the Kaws’ Blue Earth Village. Under the brilliant leadership of Burning Hart, the outnumbered Kaws defeated the Pawnees, who lost eighty of their best warriors and nearly all of their horses. The Kaws attacked the Loup River Pawnees in late 1812 and lost thirty of their most prized warriors. This reduction in warrior numbers made it hard for the Kaw to compete for a fair share of the natural fur and skin supply.

In addition to the Pawnees, Kaw adversaries included at various times the Iowas, Sac and Fox, Otoes, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and even the powerful Osages. After an American-arranged truce between the Osages and the Kaws in 1806, the two tribes retained peaceful relations and Osage-Kaw marriages became commonplace.

In 1825 the Kaws gave up considerable land in present-day Kansas and Missouri for a smaller reservation. Much of the land vacated by the Kaws was divided among other Indian nations that had been forced to abandon their eastern homes. Among these tribes were the Cherokee, Chippewa, Delaware, Iowa, Iroquois, Kaskaskia, Kickapoo, Munsee, Ottawa, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi,Quapaw, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, Stockbridge, Wea, and Wyandot. These tribes, often referred to as "emigrant Indians," competed with the Kaw in hunting and trapping the dwindling bison herds and other fur-bearing animals.

Raids between other tribes and the Kaws continued almost to the time the Kaws were removed from Kansas. On June 3, 1868, seeking to avenge a defeat they had suffered at the hands of the Kaws the previous winter, a large contingent of Cheyenne warriors in full war regalia approached Council Grove from the west. Part of them rode down Main Street, terrifying a good many whites, some of whom barricaded themselves in the Kaw Mission.

The Cheyennes engaged the Kaws about three to four miles southeast of Council Grove. The Kaws dug in along the creek banks and timber while the mounted Cheyennes rode back and forth in open country, shouting and bluffing charges while staying out of range of the Kaw rifles. Many shots were fired during the four-hour skirmish, but only one Kaw and one Cheyenne warrior were wounded. The Cheyennes retreated late in the afternoon, looting a few area farmsteads as they went.

Charles Curtis

One of the residents of the Kaw reservation at the time of the Cheyenne Raid was eight-year- old Charles Curtis, who had been living with his maternal grandmother on the Council Grove reservation since 1866. Following this attack, Charles, who was one-eighth Kaw, made a journey to Topeka with a group of Kaw adults. Charles Curtis never returned to live with the Kaws, but went to establish a very successful political career. He held the office of U.S. Senator from Kansas for many years and was elected vice-president of the United States in 1928, serving in the administration of Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933. Charles

Curtis was the first person born west of the Mississippi River to be elected vice-president and the only person of Indian descent to hold the nation’s second highest office.


Due to political, social, and economic pressure from Euro-Americans, internal Kaw politics evolved considerably during the period of white contact. In 1724 Etienne de Veniard Bourgmont, a representative of the French government, reported that the Kaws were governed by seven "chiefs" and twelve "war chiefs," the latter possessing autonomy in times of crisis or war.

At times the Kaws lived in several different villages, each having a head man. The tribe as a whole was a loose confederation with the village chiefs possessing the most power. In earlier times these headmen were elected by a council of the people. Later the chieftainships became more hereditary. However, the Kaw leaders had to continually prove themselves worthy of their power by deeds of valor and demonstrations of generosity and wisdom.

When the United States began to negotiate a series of treaties with the Kaws, the government commissioners sought to identify a head chief of the entire tribe. In the 1820s and early 1830s the government considered White Plume the Kaw chief. This designation was not accepted by many Kaws, and led to power struggles and factionalism.

By the time the Kaws came to the Neosho Valley Reservation in 1848 three brothers ruled three villages. Kah-he-ge-wah-che-ha (Hard Chief), Peg-gah-hosh-she (Big John), and Ish-tah-lesh-yeh (Speckled Eye) were the head chiefs until the 1860s. When the Kaws left Kansas in 1873, this triumvirate had been succeeded by Wah-ti-an-gah, Ka-he-ga-wah-ti-an-gah, and Al-le-ga-wa-ho, who from 1867 was considered the head chief of the tribe.

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