Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Kiowas believe that they originated in the Bitterroot Mountains of present-day Montana. They now call themselves K'oigu, the "Principal People." Earlier names, Kwuda, or T'epda, "Coming-Out People," commemorate the Kiowa creation story, when Saynday, the Kiowa trickster, transformed the subterranean- living Kiowas into ants, then commanded them to populate the earth's surface via a hollow cottonwood log. A pregnant woman became lodged in the log, preventing the majority of the ant-people from emerging; hence the small nineteenth century population of approximately 1,000 to 1,100 Kiowas.

Besides Saynday, other mythological culture heroes include the Zaidethali, or "Split Boys," who slew numerous monsters before one disappeared forever and the other transformed himself into the eucharistic Thali-dai, or "Boy Medicines," known today as the Ten Medicines. During the height of the horse and buffalo culture (ca. 1750 to 1875), these sacred bundles were possessed by ten keepers whose main duty was to pray for the well-being of the people and to settle civil disputes.

Sometime in the mid.eighteenth century, the Kiowas and culturally a.liated Plains Apaches migrated from the Yellowstone River region southeastward toward the Black Hills and befriended the Crows. Between 1775 and 1805 the Kiowas and Plains Apaches were pushed farther south of the Black Hills by Lakotas and Cheyennes. Migrating south to the horse-rich Southern Plains, they initially came into conflict with the more numerous Comanches. After about 1800, however, the Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches (later referred to as KCA Indians) made an alliance and followed the migratory bison herds between the Arkansas and Red Rivers.

Mid-nineteenth-century Kiowa society consisted of ten to twenty hunting bands, each composed of several extended family groups, or kindreds. Each kindred was led by the oldest of a group of brothers, and each band was led by the most prominent man among the coalesced kindreds–the topadok'i, or "main chief." The Kiowas recognized four classes: ondedau, or "rich" people; the ondegup'a, "second best"; the kwwn, "poor"; and the dapom, or "worthless." Relatives were separated by sex and generation; for example, all cousins were classified as "brothers" and "sisters."

Until about 1847 the Kiowas and Plains Apaches occupied present-day western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle. Winter and summer camps were located on branches of the Red, Washita, South Canadian, and North Canadian Rivers. From this core region, intertribal war parties raided south into Texas and Mexico and southwest into present-day New Mexico. Pawnees, Navajos, Utes, Mexicans, and Texans were common enemies. In the Treaty of Fort Gibson of May 26, 1837, for example, signed by ten Kiowa leaders, including the famous Dohausan, principal Kiowa chief between 1833 and 1866, the Kiowas agreed not to raid the Santa Fe Trail and to guarantee safe passage of all Americans crossing the Southern Plains.

Between 1848 and 1868 the Kiowas expanded their territory north and west into central Kansas and southeastern Colorado. During this period, winter and summer camps were located along the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in Kansas and at the confluence of Wolf Creek and the North Canadian River in northwestern Oklahoma. This northward migration resulted from the expansion of Texas settlements and the arrival of immigrant tribes in eastern Kansas and the Indian Territory. Conflicts with the Pawnees and immigrant tribes were inevitable, because population pressures, dwindling bison herds, and shrinking territory in the Central and Southern Plains created competition for scarce resources. As raiding into Texas and Mexico for horses and plunder continued unabated, the Kiowas began kidnapping children to replace their own children, who had fallen victims to infectious disease. Many Kiowas today remark about the large amount of "captive blood" in the tribe and maintain that all Kiowas are part Mexican.

On October 21, 1867, the KCA Indians signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek and agreed to a reservation in present southwestern Oklahoma, bounded on the north and south by the Washita and Red Rivers. Although the Kiowas abandoned Kansas and Colorado in the fall of 1868, they continued to raid into Texas, which precipitated military action against them. By the end of the 1874–75 Red River War they had capitulated. Renowned Kiowa leaders and warriors were dead or in custody. The remaining topadok'i were demoted to "beef chiefs," in charge of annuity distributions to the former bands, which were now confined in a single village near Fort Sill. The Southern Plains bison herds were extinct by the late 1870s, leaving the Kiowas completely dependent on the government for their subsistence. Most attempts to transform Kiowas into stock herders and farmers failed, so famine persisted during the 1880s and 1890s. Further changes occurred after the Jerome Agreement of 1892, which brought about the allotment of KCA lands. Since the "opening" of the Kiowa Reservation to homesteaders on August 6, 1901, the Kiowas have lived on individual allotments north of the Wichita Mountains, bounded on the west by the town of Lone Wolf and on the east by Anadarko.

Nineteenth-century Kiowa cosmology was based on the concept of daudau, or "power," a spirit force that permeated the universe and all natural entities, such as earth, air, mountains, plants, and animals. Power seekers endured vision quests in the Wichita Mountains and other high elevations; the fortunate few who received power visions became great warriors, or curers who painted power symbols on their shields. Before the reservation period several shield societies were in existence, but they died out after 1875. The Sun Dance, the most important Kiowa ceremony, was performed to regenerate the Kiowas and the bison herds. Held in mid-June only if pledged by ondedau men, the four dancing days of the ceremony culminated in the final day when the sacred Taime, or Sun Dance bundle, was hung in the forked pole of the Sun Dance altar to bless all tribal members.

Government intervention brought about the demise of the Sun Dance. Although the aborted 1890 Sun Dance "when the forked poles were left standing" marked the death of the Sun Dance religion, the Kiowas turned to the Ghost Dance, which ended in 1891, but was brought back between 1894 and 1916. Missionaries came to Kiowa country in 1887, and by 1918, when the Native American Church of Oklahoma was chartered, most Kiowas were either Christians or peyotists. Today, there are a handful of Kiowa peyote Roadmen, but most Kiowas are Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal. Medicine bundle inheritance broke down in the twentieth century, but the eleven tribal bundles–the Thali-da-i and Taime– are still sought out with prayer requests. Despite vast cultural and religious change in the last century, the Kiowas believe that daudau still exists in many guises, and that Dauk'i, or "God," is in everything.

Approximately 4,000 Kiowas now live in western Oklahoma, and another 6,000 live elsewhere in the United States. Kiowas are very much involved in intertribal powwows and cultural activities that promote their tribal identity. Tribal offices are located in Carnegie, Oklahoma, and at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anadarko. Kiowa tribal government, chartered by a constitution, consists of a business committee and a tribal chair. Contemporary Kiowas of note include N. Scott Momaday, 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, and Everett Rhoades, former assistant surgeon general of the United States.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Momaday, N. Scott.

Benjamin R. Kracht Northeastern State University

Mishkin, Bernard. Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians. 1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Mooney, James. Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians. 1895–96. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Richardson, Jane. Law and Status among the Kiowa Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1940.

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