A Brief Overview of the Kaw or Kansa Indians

The state of Kansas and the Kansas River are named for the Kansa or Kaw Indians whose aboriginal territories once included the state and spread into southern Nebraska. Traditionally, the Kaws were village people who farmed as well as hunted.

Like most of the other tribes in the Central Plains area, the origins of the Kansa lie outside of the region. About four hundred years ago, The Kansa, Quapaw, Osage, Omaha, and Ponca lived as one people in the Ohio River area. These five tribes were united in language and culture. With regard to language, linguists refer to the five tribes as the Degiha Siouans.

The tribes migrated west to the Mississippi River where the Quapaw went to the south and the Osage and the Kansa went to the north. The designation Kansa means “people of the south wind.”

While the common stereotype envisions Indians living in tipis, in reality relatively few Indian nations actually used tipis as a primary dwelling. While the Kansa did use tipis, this is only one of five distinct types of houses which they used.

Like the other village agricultural people who lived along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the earthlodge was a common village house among the Kansa. The earthlodge was dug into the ground to a depth of about a foot or a foot and a half. A series of center poles – four, six, or eight poles – and exterior poles were used to support the roof poles. Often the perimeter poles slanted outward. The earthlodges were often 30-40 feet in diameter, though some are reported which exceeded 70 feet in diameter.

Similar to the Indian tribes of the Eastern Woodlands, the Kansa also used a rectangular wigwam which was about 25 feet wide and 60 feet long. The pole structure of the wigwam was covered with skins, bark, or mats.

Unique to the Kansa was a circular structure which was 30-60 feet in diameter with walls four to five feet high and covered with hide, bark, or reed mats. This structure is sometimes described as looking like a haystack. The interior floor of this type of lodge was excavated to a depth of 3-4 feet. This type of house was usually home to 30-40 people.

They also used a skin-covered hunting lodge with a semi-cylindrical roof.

With regard to dress and ornamentation, the Kaws were known for their distinctive hairstyle. Carl Waldman, in his book Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, explains:

“Tribal members plucked or shaved their entire head, except for a single lock in the back.”

During the nineteenth century, the Kansa were divided into three bands or villages. Each village elected its own chief. From these three chiefs, a tribal chief was selected. In addition, there were five hereditary chiefs who were sometimes female.

The Kansa had 16 patrilineal clans—these were named kinship groups in which membership was through the male line. Each person belonged to their father’s clan. Each clan had its own medicine bundle, taboos, and privileges. For example, members of the Deer clan were not allowed to eat venison and members of the Thunder clan were able to control the weather. Each of the clans was ranked in relation to one another with the Earth Maker clan having the highest rank, followed by the Sun Carrier clan.

Kansa clans were grouped into two moieties, each with eight clans. When camping the clans associated with the left moiety would camp on the left of the circle, while those associated with the right moiety would camp on the right.

Among the Kansa, the child was given a name shortly after birth. The name reflected both clan affiliation and birth order and was given in a ceremony conducted by a tattooed warrior. According to Garrick Bailey and Gloria Young, in their entry on the Kansa in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Additional names referring to some deed of valor might be assumed during an individual’s life, but these did not replace the original clan name.”

At the age of 12-13, Kansa boys would begin fasting to obtain a vision. They would go to an isolated spot where they would fast for up to four days. During this time, the boy might be contacted by an ancestor, an animal spirit, or by some other spirit. This contact would prophesy his future. Girls also fasted, but their visions were considered to be less important.

The Kansa had two sacred bundles which belonged to the tribe. In one of these bundles was the sacred clamshell which had been brought from the east by the ancestors of the Kansa.

The Kansa Calumet Dance was a ceremony used when adopting an individual or a tribe into the Kansa kinship network. The two pipes used in the ceremony were about three feet long. One pipe was symbolically male and was dressed with white eagle feathers, while the other pipe was symbolically female and dressed with black eagle feathers.

Among the Kansa, the dead were buried either in a sitting position with the deceased facing east or in a horizontal position with the head toward the east. Graves were usually located on a high point near the village or along a well-used hunting trail.

Vice President Charles Curtis

Indian citizenship and participation in American politics involves more than just voting: it also involves having Indians elected to public office. One of the first Indians to be elected to national office was Charles Curtis.

Curtis was born in 1860 near present-day North Topeka, Kansas. His mother was a descendent of Kansa (also called Kaw) chief White Plume. White Plume was the son of an Osage chief and had been adopted into the Kansa. Later, Curtis’s tribal affiliation would be listed as Kansa (or Kaw) or as Kansa-Osage.

In 1863, following the death of his mother, he was placed in the home of his paternal, non-Indian grandmother, Pamela Hubbard Curtis. In his biography of Curtis in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, William Unrau writes:

“A stern person who insisted that the Methodist Church and the Republican Party [were] the keys to salvation, she exerted a considerable influence on Curtis’s education.”

At age 6, he went to live with his Kaw grandmother, Julie Gonville Pappan, on the Kaw reservation in Kansas. He attended the Friends Mission School. When the Kaws were later removed to Indian Territory he was returned to the home of his paternal grandmother.

Following high school, Curtis read law under Topeka attorney Aderial H. Case and was admitted to the Kansas Bar at the age of 21. He soon entered politics as a Republican. In 1885 he was elected county attorney for Shawnee County and his political career began. Shawnee County at this time was dry and as county attorney, he shut down most of the bootleg bars in the county.

In 1892 was elected to Congress and began the first of eight terms in the House of Representatives. With regard to his political campaigning, William Unrau writes:

“His small talk of local affairs, family, and the weather was rendered all the more effective by his penetrating eyes, his engaging smile—and his Indianness, at a time when most whites nostalgically anticipated the demise of Indian America.”

Like many others of this era, Curtis felt that Indians had to be assimilated into American culture. Assimilation meant that traditional cultures and languages had to be destroyed. Sociologist Laurence French, in his book The Qualla Cherokee: Surviving in Two Worlds, writes:

“In Congress, Curtis used his Indian heritage as a mandate to speak for all American Indians in Indian Territory. Few American Indians saw him as their spokesperson.”

William Unrau writes:

“He championed the rights of Indian orphans and women even as he advocated the interests of the oil, gas, and coal companies that were cheating tribal governments of their natural resources.”

In 1898, Curtis wrote a bill to extend the provision of the Dawes Act over Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The Act—commonly known as the Curtis Act—stipulated that tribal governments would continue to exist only to issue allotment deeds to tribal members and to terminate any other tribal business. The Act is officially entitled “An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory and for other purposes.” In his book The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914, Kent Carter reports:

“The ‘protection’ part of the proposed legislation was intended to help all of the unfortunate whites (many from Curtis’s state, Kansas) who had entered Indian Territory, whether invited or not, but who had no voice in government, no schools, and no protection against criminals.”

One of the tribes for which the Curtis Act would have major impact was the Cherokee. The Cherokee objected to the bill and sent a delegation to Washington to testify but they were not allowed access to the rooms where committees were debating the bill. Corporate representatives, on the other hand, had free access to the committees.

While in the House, Curtis worked on a number of committees, including the Committee on Territories, the Committee on Way and Means, the Committee on Public Lands, and the Committee on Indian Affairs. His work for assimilation, allotment, and detribalization led to opposition by many of the tribal leaders in Indian Territory. Overall, his work set the stage for Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

With the 1902 Kaw Allotment Act, the Kaw Nation was officially dissolved. Since Curtis had not moved with the Kaw to their reservation in Indian Territory, his name had been removed from the tribal roles in 1878. He was returned to the tribal roles in time to share in the allotment of the Kaw reservation. As enrolled members of the tribe, Curtis and his three children received a total of 1,625 acres in Oklahoma.

In 1907, Curtis was elected to the United States Senate. He was defeated for re-election, but ran again in 1914 and served in the Senate until 1929.

While in the Senate, he attempted to prohibit the Indian use of peyote (a sacrament used by the Native American Church). His efforts on this matter, however, failed to pass.

In 1921, he supported the Secretary of the Interior’s efforts to minimize the sovereignty of Pueblo tribal governments. In his profile of Curtis in Notable Native Americans, George Abrams reports:

“Curtis was philosophically and politically antagonistic to some forms of traditional American Indian tribal government.”

In 1928 he made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. However, he ran as Herbert Hoover’s vice-president and was elected. At the inauguration in 1929, he had an Indian jazz band perform. William Unrau writes:

“As vice president, Curtis called for improving the life of American Indians, yet he provided no details as to how this was to be accomplished.”

George Abrams puts it this way:

“During his tenure, Curtis spoke for American Indians whenever the occasion arose. He has generally been viewed as having served a rather lackluster tenure of vice president.”

When he retired from public elected life in 1934, having been defeated for re-election, he had served longer in Washington, D.C. than any active politician. He was the last vice-president to wear a beard or mustache while in office.

In addition to promoting Indian assimilation, Curtis was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition. He died in 1936.