Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


When first encountered by Europeans in the 1670s, some 15,000 to 20,000 Quapaws resided in four permanent villages near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers. They practiced a mixed economy of agriculture and hunting. Socially they were divided into a myriad of patrilineal clans and subclans. Known to their Dhegiha-branch Sioux kinsmen (the Osages, Omahas, Kanzas, and Poncas) as Ugaxpa, or "Downstream People," the Quapaws entered into trading and military alliances first with the French and then with the Spanish. The benefits of these relationships hardly compensated for the costs of altered lifeways, weakened social structures, and decimated population (they were reduced to 575 persons by 1800).

In 1803, when the United States acquired Louisiana, American authorities saw the Quapaws as impediments to national expansion. Thirty years later they forced the tribe, led by Chief Heckaton, to remove from its Arkansas homeland to a 150-square-mile reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. The traumatic relocation to Indian Territory divided the tribe into two main groups, one living on the reservation and the other along the Canadian River. Most tribespeople engaged in bison hunting; a few farmed successfully and sent their children to missionary schools.

Tribal fortunes changed markedly with the onset of the American Civil War. Although tribal chiefs War-te-she and Ki-he-cah-te-da signed a treaty with the Confederacy in 1861, within a year the bands had retreated to Kansas with other Indians sympathetic to the Union. There the refugees suffered four years of painful deprivation, resulting in the deaths of one-half of the tribe.

The post–Civil War years brought little relief. In an 1867 treaty with the United States, tribal leaders exchanged reservation land for annuity payments and educational stipends. Led by the last hereditary chief of the Quapaws, Tallchief, a majority of the tribespeople left the reservation to live with their Osage kinsmen. Those who remained leased the domain to non-Indian agriculturists and admitted "homeless" Indians to tribal citizenship. In 1893, fearing forfeiture of the reservation, Quapaw leaders John Medicine and Abner W. Abrams took the unprecedented action of allotting it in 240-acre parcels to 234 enrolled members of the tribe. Federal government approval came after the fact.

In the 1920s and 1930s the discovery of rich lead and zinc deposits on some individual allotments changed the course of Quapaw history. Because wealthy allottees were systematically defrauded, the federal government in 1908 revoked fraudulent leases, obtained higher royalties, and shielded Indian income from local, state, and federal taxes. But this intervention also brought federal control of mining royalties paid to individual allottees. The hated bureaucratic restrictions, however, did not prevent the Quapaws from engaging in uncontrolled spending that left most of them in poverty by 1940. Nor did it prevent a significant number of the wealthy allottees, led by Chief Victor Griffin, from embracing and supporting the Big Moon peyote cult, which had been introduced by John "Moonhead" Wilson in the 1890s.

Because the status quo served the Quapaw leadership well, it rejected the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and then refused to organize under the terms of the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act enacted two years later. The leadership did file a claim under the provisions of the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, an action that in 1954 resulted in a favorable judgment of nearly $1 million. In 1961 that money was divided among 1,199 individual Quapaws.

The commission award revitalized the Quapaws both as a people and as a community. Organized in 1956 as the Business Committee, the tribal government adroitly diverted termination pressures in the 1950s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century it manages varying enterprises ranging from a bingo parlor to a quick-stop gasoline station, a nationally acclaimed powwow, and a gleaming new office building southeast of Quapaw, Oklahoma.

W. David Baird

Pepperdine University

Baird, W. David. The Quapaw Indians: A History of the Downstream People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Baird, W. David. The Quapaws. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

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