Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma Seal
Image by Native American Seals/Logos
PROFILE AND CULTURE
Before the Kiowa people signed the Medicine Lodge Treaty and moved to the reservation, they; were grouped into two local divisions known as "To-kinah-yup" or "Men of the Cold," and "Gwa-kelega", in their association with the Comanches. These two names were local differentiation’s equivalent to the northern and southern division Kiowas. The northern division ranged along the Arkansas River and the Kansas frontier. Among the Kiowas, there were six sub-tribes, which formed the camp circle. The sub-tribes were based on extended family divisions, each having its own leader. Each divisional leader and his followers had their own particular dialect and special religious ceremonies.
The Kiowa camp circle faced east with each sub-tribe located in a clock-wise position around the circle in order of rank and importance. The first position was occupied by the largest and most important division of the tribe, which was assigned the task of providing the bison for the annual Sun Dance. The second position comprised a division comprised a division who led the war ceremonies. Next were the Kiowa proper, believed to be the original nuclei of the Kiowa tribe, who were the keepers of the Tai-me and were charge of the priest’s tipi at the Sun Dance ceremony. The forebears of the Kiowa-Apache formed the fourth position. A group named after a Kiowa mythical character held the fifth place. Occupying the last place in the circle was a division who was annihilated by the Dakota tribes in the late 1700’s in Kiowa history.
Status within the Kiowa tribe was ranked by a series of social classes with the wealthy families functioning as an aristocracy. A person could earn the right to move up in society if he or she acquired the abilities and skills meriting respect and honor required for achieving a higher rank. There were many instances of people rising to eminence from poor and unfavorable beginnings. There were also cases of status being lost as result of a dishonorable deed.
The bison played a significant role in the life of the Kiowa as the major source of food and raw materials for all living necessities. Although the bison was plentiful the Kiowa never killed the animals wantonly, or for sport. Bison were killed only out of necessity, whenever food, clothing or shelters were needed.
Generally speaking, Kiowa tribal society was male-oriented. Women gained prestige through the achievements of their husbands, sons, and fathers. Personal glory for women came through attractive appearance and diligence in learning skills such as tanning, skin sewing and beadworking.
There was another side of Plains American Indian life that was less frequently told. This was the women side; the side of the persons who get the warriors s ready for their expeditions. A Kiowa woman was in charge of everything and everyone in and around her tipi. Kiowa Men were in charge of everything else away from the tipi. Statistically, females form fifty-two percent of the American Indian population group. They probably comprised a higher percentage in most Plains American Indian tribes, for we know that polygamy was an economic necessity to them. The surplus of women and children in a fighting, hunting population must be cared for.
The Kiowa woman, or indeed the woman of any other Plains tribes, was a strong personality in her own right. A weak woman could not have lived with men as strong as those of the Plains, at any time. The Plains American Indian woman exercised absolute control within her home, and a considerable amounts outside it, and still does so today.
Of course a Kiowa lady did not push herself forward, raise her voice, or make a scene, any more than did her Victorian contemporary and counterpart. A wise Kiowa woman got her way and kept her household together as a wise woman does anywhere, by not asserting herself until such action was necessary by circumstances. But she got her way, and held her household together into her own old age, nevertheless.
The children raised in this culture-reflected behavior learned from each parent. Boys were left with their mothers and sisters until they were ten or twelve years old. Then, directed by older youths, they began to herd the family horses; take them to pasture and water in the mornings, and return them to camp at night. Gradually, imperceptibly, the boys moved out of the tipi world into the men’s. From herding they graduated to horsebreaking; then to buffalo hunting, and finally they were permitted to accompany raiding parties as horseholders and cooks. Like mediaeval pages and squires, they were learning a man’s responsibilities and attitudes by acting-out.
In the same way, girls drew back into the tipi world. They no longer fished in mud holes for crayfish, or twisted sticks into prairie dogs fur to draw the rodents out of their holes. Instead of carrying shawl-wrapped puppies on their backs, they slung small sisters or brothers between their shoulders. The first fumbling stitches with awl and sinew, which had produced a girl’s workbag and needle case, were tightened and perfected until she was skilled enough to make moccasins.
The same virtues were held up before both boys and girls. Speak quietly. Don’t hurry. Wake early so the sun will not see a lazy child. Remember to say your prayers and wash your face at night and morning. Always be respectful to the old people, and go out of your way to help them, for they are your memory and your conscience.
Ideal behavior was not the same as real behavior, naturally. But the ideals existed plainly for anyone to emulate. Even today, Kiowa parents hush their children when older people are speaking, and expect them to do a share of housework and work around the home.
Plains American Indian women were the day-to-day craftworkers of their people. A Kiowa woman made her home (and owned it); she was dressmaker, tailor, carpenter, cobbler, grocer, and cook for here family. She worked steadily and with pride in here achievements, day after day, year after year.
At the age of eight to ten years, Kiowa boys were called upon to perform the Rabbit Dance of their special society. After their initiation into the first society, the youngsters advanced through the following orders of military societies depending on their sub-tribe or family: "Adal-toyui", or "Young Wild Mountain Sheep", named for the daring and aggressive deeds of the young warriors in battle; "Tsain-tanmo", or "Horse Headdresses," were comprised of five warrior societies; the Wild Horse, the Black Horse, the White Horse, the Buckskin Horse and the Wise Horse Society which usually indicated men who were considered strong in the ways of the Wise Horse or physically and mentally mature. The Tiah-peah", or "Gourd Clan"; the "Tone-kone-gya" or "Black Leggings" and the Eagle Shields comprised the top military societies. The highest-ranking society was the "Koi-eet-sen-ko" or "Kiowa Dog Soldiers"; comprised of ten men picked for outstanding bravery. These men acted as camp police and leaders in tribal ceremonies with the distinction of taking first position in hunts and in battle. The Omaha Tribe gave the Oh-ho-ma Society to the Kiowas in the late 19th century.
Warfare required utilization of shields painted with individual emblems of protection. Women, because they had their own special powers, were not allowed to touch the shields and special covers were fashioned to protect the shield from view.
Among the early Kiowa people, Although clothing was simply made and decorated, the Kiowa, like other tribes, had their own designs that identified them. The specific style of dress carried through the cut of shirts, leggings, and moccasins. For example, the Kiowa man’s shirt consisted of a slipover garment fringed along the shoulders and decorated with a minimal amount of beaded or fringed designs. Kiowa men had a distinctive moccasin style with full-flowing fringes applied down the center of the moccasin. Women’s leggings or boots had small individual designs and no fringes. Boots were worn during the winter months while moccasins were worn during summer. Women’s clothing consisted of a skirt and pullover blouse made of soft buckskin. Women wore their hair in braids and, on special occasions, painted the part of their hair as an added adornment. Pride in the care and length of one’s hair was foremost in personal vanity. During mourning, the mother or wife of the deceased cut her hair to a very short and unattractive length as personal sacrifice for the loss of a loved one.
In accordance with early customs, Kiowa men also had a unique hairstyle. The hair on the right side was cut short on a level with the base of the ear, leaving the left side to grow to a full flowing length that was braided and often wrapped in otter fur. Hairstyle was a means of identifying themselves as Kiowa people to other tribes. This was also accomplished through sign language, using a quick motion of the right hand close to the right side of the face with the back of the hand down, fingers closed and slightly curved, moving the hand in a quick, circular motion from the wrist away from the cheek.
The manner in which children received names are one interesting aspect of Kiowa culture. Names given newborn babies might be acquired several ways. A name could be given as a result of a certain deed or act performed by the father. Sometimes, a notable occurrence at the time of birth, or the first thing either of the parents saw after the birth, gave them an idea for the child’s name. In certain instances, an older tribal member gave names to a younger person as a means of honoring a respected name.
Linguistic similarities between the Kiowa language and that of other tribes; have never been fully established. The failure to establish linguistic relationships may be partly due to the fact that their last known homeland of the Kiowa was in the north around the British Columbia area. Migrating southward in their nomadic wanderings, the Kiowa brought with them an unknown language. Another reason for difficulty in pinpointing the linguistic origin of the Kiowa from everyday language, was the taboo against saying any word that might suggest the name of a deceased person. Because of this taboo, another word, substituted for the offending word, introduced a new combination of the existing roots.
Not so long ago, as well as here and now, the Plains American Indians have always been people to appeal to the imagination. Say "Indian" to the average American, and certainly to the average European, and the picture you conjure is that of wild, red-painted warriors, mounted on frantic, flashing horses; men and mounts alike adorned with eagle feathers and the colors of quills, beads, painted buckskin, crimson and navy trade cloth, and the dull sheen of German silver. This would be a good description of the Kiowas.
You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: The Kiowa Tribe was bound together in its legendary beginnings, when the earth was empty of people. Saynday, known to American Indians as Trickster, wandered alone on the sunless earth until he discovered the Kiowas living underground. He enabled the people, as ants, to crawl upward through a hollow cottonwood tree and pulled them through an owl hole upon the surface of the earth. They were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwu-da, "coming out." Saynday spoke in a language understood by animals and by people. No distinction existed between the Kiowas and other living creatures. All are of nature’s whole, part of the earth maker’s creation. When a Kiowa says "Behold, I stand in good relation to all things," he reflects his feeling of oneness with the universe.
The Kiowa, in later years, have also referred to themselves by the name "Kom-pa-bianta", or people of the "large tipi flaps", a distinguishing feature of their tipis. This name was known among the tribes long before their affiliation with the Southern Plains tribes. Today, they call themselves "Koi-gwu" which identifies them as a tribe. A Band of Apaches, later called the Kiowa Apaches joined up with the Kiowas, nobody knows when, and have been with the Kiowas ever since.
The earliest historic knowledge of the Kiowa Tribe tells of them as living along and around the upper Columbia River in the Kootenay Region of British Columbia, Canada. They lived where the springs flowed westward. Up to this time, the Kiowa had no horses and they used only dogs and the travois for travel. Later they acquired horses, which revolutionized their lifestyle. The traders of Canada’s British Columbia gave the first written account of the Kiowa in that area in the 17th Century.
They migrated from the Arrow Lakes area in the late 1600’s to the Upper Yellowstone in an area described as a region of great cold and deep snow. The mountains in the area, which is now western Montana, are to this day called Koi-kope, or "Mountains of the Kiowa", by the Kiowa people. In this part of the country a decisive dispute between two Kiowa chiefs over a mountain goat killed during a hunt resulted in one chief withdrawing his band to the northwest. These lost people are called "A-az-tan-hap", or "those who went away suspiciously."
The other chief and his followers traveled to the southeast and, for the first time, met the Crow tribe. The Kiowa from the Crow during this alliance acquired the present Tai-me or Sun Dance medicine and the sacred arrow lance. During this time the Kiowa also acquired horses. While in the vicinity of the Missouri River, the Kiowa also became friendly with the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa. After obtaining permission from the Crow people, the Kiowa group settled east of them, then on into the Black Hills about 1780. It was here that the Lewis and Clark Expedition came across large Kiowa encampments. During this time, they came to know the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and later, Dakota tribes invaded the area.
The Kiowa continued downward through Nebraska and Kansas to Oklahoma and Texas. In moving into the Southern Plains area, the Kiowa became allied with the Comanche tribe, and together they became the dominant inhabitants of the Southern Plains. The Kiowa made long expeditions into Mexico, establishing headquarters in the Sierra Madre, from which they made trips all directions, even as far south as Oxaca, Chiapas and even to Guatemala. Some of these journeys are known to have taken as long as two years.
The Kiowas were fierce warriors and are credited with stopping the progress of the Pacific Railroads westward for 40 years. They are also credited with killing more U.S. Soldiers than any other tribe. The Kiowas and Comanches stopped the northern expansion of Spain, France, Mexico and the Republic of Texas at the Red River. The Kiowas started with good relations with the U.S. in the late 18th century until later in the 19th century when greedy special interest groups bankrolling corrupt politicians in state and federal governments began double dealing and passing laws to steal Kiowa rights as a sovereign nation, lands and money that started the conflicts, treaties and legal battles that still continue to this very day.
Sign language is often attributed as an invention by the Kiowas for trade, and spread among the Plains Tribes. The further away from the Kiowas you go, the less Sign language is used or is unknown among some American Indians.
Currently tribal records show that there are approximately 11,500 enrolled members of the Kiowa tribe and still growing strong. While a majority of the people still lives in the vicinity of their original land allotments in western Oklahoma, many Kiowas left the state in search of employment under Federal relocation programs to the major cities during the 50’s and 60’s.
Many Kiowa people are extremely skilled in making a wide variety of arts and crafts products that provide their family with supplemental income. Documentation of the history and development of contemporary Kiowa art formulates one of the most unique records in American Indian culture. As early as 1891, Kiowa artists were being commissioned to produce works for display at international expositions. In 1918, a selected group of young Kiowas were given formal art instruction through the auspices of a mentor, Mrs. Susan Peters, who later would be instrumental in seeing the same group enrolled as special students at the University of Oklahoma’s school of Art. This group which included Spencer Asah, Stephen Mopope, Jack Hokeah, James Auchiah and Monroe Tsatoke, became known as the "Five Kiowa Artists," a term which has remained popular use to this day. The "Five Kiowa Artists" were the first American Indian artists to receive international recognition for their work. The influence of this group upon succeeding generations of American Indian artists, not only among the Kiowa, but among their fellow Southern Plains American Indian tribesmen as well, has been of inestimable importance.
Traditional craft skills are not lost among the Kiowa people today, many of whom are extremely talented craftsmen working in a variety of media including buckskin, beads, featherwork, and German (nickel) silver. The quantity and quality of craftwork produced by Kiowa people places them solidly in the foreground of American Indian arts and crafts today. As a result of the steady production of fine arts and crafts products by Kiowa people, a highly successful enterprise, the Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Cooperative has flourished during its 20-year existence. The Cooperative, an American Indian owned an operated crafts enterprise housed in the Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center, draws approximately one-third of its membership from the Kiowa tribe.
In addition to their achievements in the fine arts, Kiowas are gifted musicians and dancers. Noted among Kiowa composers of contemporary music include the Cozad family, noted for their contributions to American Indian culture. The Kiowas have always had their traditional style of war dance, call the Straight Dance. Although the fancy war dance did not originate among the Kiowas, Kiowa dancers must be credited with many refinements in dance steps and costume embellishment.
In 1968, the Kiowa Tribal Council was organized to govern tribal affairs in specific areas such as health, education and economic development. In order to alleviate the problems of inadequate and outdated tribal housing, a Kiowa Housing Authority was organized with tribal members serving as a governing board. Many Kiowa people qualified for the housing program and today are living in new homes provided by the Kiowa Housing Authority. However, their are still many, especially the elderly, who need new housing and live in old structures dating back to territorial days because of lack of funding because of cutbacks, despite the housing provisions promised in the Medicine Lodge Treaty and Government Trust Relationship, "as long as the grass grows and the water flows".
Other advancements have been made in higher education with an increasing number of Kiowa students attending colleges and universities under Federal grant programs. Having taken advantage of the educational opportunities provided to them, many Kiowa young people are today preparing themselves for professional careers. With the higher education of young Kiowa tribal members lies the prospect of the bright future of accomplishments and advances for the entire tribe as it continues to grow and thrive into the 21st century.
Today the Kiowas are openly giving recognition to their traditions. There are many Kiowa champion drum groups and traditional dancers in the Pow Wow world. In the 1950s the Kiowas revived two of their old warrior dancing societies – the Kiowa Black Leggings (Ton-kon-ga) and the Kiowa Gourd Clan (Tia-Piah). By the late 1970s the O-Ho-Mah Society showed signs of new life. All three organizations have revived their traditional ceremonial dances with the ancient songs and rituals. The growing strength of the Kiowa Native American Church with its traditional ceremony now protected by the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1994 also reinforces the resurgent enthusiasm in continuing religious traditions.
Although the tribal members have established their roots in Kiowa traditions, they have not ignored the present. Kiowas can be found today in all walks of life and around the world. As revealed through language, dance and song, Kiowa culture is healthily growing in the present while tenaciously preserving the culture for the future.