Did you know… the Kaw tribe?

Tales of the Old West

White Plume, Kaw leader

In the mid seventeenth century, a large group of Native Americans began a westward migration. The exact reason for the move is not known – some say it was to escape pressure from the Europeans in the east, some say bad weather and unfavorable harvest, yet others say to escape disease or enemies. Whatever the reason, they drifted west, until they reached the Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas Rivers. At that point, they split. The Osage and some of their kin went north, others went south, and the Kaw, or Kanza group settled just west of the Missouri River. It is estimated that there were about 1500 in the group. They were hoping for a new life, for prosperity – but it was not to be.

In their old home, they were agricultural, but in their new environs, the buffalo were plentiful. They became part of the Plains hunter culture. They built a city, near present day Manhattan, Kansas, with lodges sixty feet long, twenty-five feet wide. Passing by them June 5, 1804, William Rogers Clark makes this note in his journal: “the Kanza Nation hunted on the Missourie last Winter and are now persueing the Buffalow in the Plains “.

The Louisiana Purchase meant a flood of new settlers over the next several decades, all desiring the land, killing the buffalo and bringing disease. Smallpox wiped out many. To the west, the more powerful Sioux and Cheyenne resisted any effort to expand, as did their traditional enemies, the Pawnee, to the north. The coming of the settlers left the Kaw with little place to go. War was continually upon them, from all sides. Floyd of the Lewis and Clark estimated that between smallpox and depredations of their neighbors, the Kaw were reduced to about three hundred adult men.  

“The traveler George C. Sibley gave a favorable description of the Kaw in 1811. He visited their village at the junction of the Big Blue River and Kansas Rivers. “The town contains 128 houses, or lodges, which are generally about sixty feet long and twenty-five feet wide…They are commodious and quite comfortable….” The Kaw “are governed by a chief and the influence of the oldest and most distinguished warriors. They are seldom at peace with any of their neighbors, except the Osage, with whom there appears to be a cordial and lasting relationship. The Kansas are a stout, hardy, handsome race, more active and enterprising even than the Osage. They are noted for their bravery and heroic daring.”[14] The Kaw lived in their village about one-half the year. The women tended corn fields. The other half year they journeyed to western Kansas to hunt buffalo while living in teepees. Horse racing and hunting were said to be the two passions of the men. They were, in the words of Sibley, “homeless wanderers and such is the stubbornness of their Nature that they will rather remain as they are”.

In 1825, hoping for protection and peace, a treaty was signed with the United States government calling for the Kaw to cede most of their lands and move to a reservation near Council Grove, in return for an annuity of about $3400 each year. The annuity either didn’t come, came late, or found its way into the pockets of dishonest agents. In response, the tribe split into three groups, with White Plume leading a group that wanted to continue to try for rapprochement with the United States.

In 1844, a huge flood washed out the Kaw crops, and put the tribe on the brink of starvation. They ceded more land to get funds to live on. Then in 1860, the government arbitrarily reduced the reservation to 80,000 acres.

With the coming of the Civil War, some of the Kaw were pressed less than voluntarily into the 9th Kansas Cavalry. They served in the pursuit of Quantrill after the sack of Lawrence.

When the war ended, so ended the government’s concern for the Kaw. Pressure increased to remove them from Kansas. Finally, in 1873, the government force them to move to a new reservation in Oklahoma, departing forever the state named for them.

In Oklahoma, they declined further, swindled and pushed on all sides, until finally one of their own broke the tribal government – Charles Curtis, one-quarter Kaw, elected Vice President under Herbert Hoover, pushed for the assimilation of Native American tribes and the breakup of tribal governments. Each Kaw was given 400 acres. In 1959, the Kaw reorganized, and founded a tribal government, achieving tribal recognition. In 1960, the government created the Kaw Reservoir, flooding most of the Kaw land. According to Dorothy Roberts, full-blooded Kaw women were subject to sterilization by the Indian Health Service in the 1970s.

Today there are no longer any full-blooded Kaw, or living native speakers, though the language remains available through recordings online. A proud people have mostly passed into history. Descendants maintain the Kaw Nation near Kaw City, Oklahoma.

Topeka is a word from the Kaw language that means “good place to grow potatoes”.

Kaw head chief, Al-le-ga-wa-ho, 1870

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