CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE KAW/KANZA
Formerly known as the Kanza (or Kansa) people, the Kaws are a federally recognized Indian tribe officially known as the Kaw Nation. Presently, there are 3,460 enrolled members who, under a legal agreement with the United States Department of Interior, conduct tribal business from their tribal headquarters at Kaw City in northern Oklahoma.
Starting in the spring of 2009, the Constitution Committee set out the task of revising the Constitution. Over the next two years, the committee held nearly a dozen public meetings for tribal citizens to solicit comments, sent out two surveys, and drafted a new constitution. A signed petition was presented to the Chairman at the April 2011 General Council meeting. This petition was certified by the Kaw Nation District Court, and a vote was set for Aug. 20, 2011, for the Kaw people to vote for or against ratification. The Kaw people voted 58 percent to 42 percent to accept the new Constitution as the organic law of the land.
Shortly thereafter, the Kaw Nation Tribal Council, formerly known as the Executive Council, began diligently working to implement the new Constitution. The 2011 Constitution calls for several actions to be voted on by the General Council, and these are currently being prepared for future General Council meetings.
Like most Indian tribes of North America, several Kaw creation accounts have been preserved through oral tradition and the written language of the Euro-American invaders. The American scientist Thomas Say, for example, based on contacts with the Kaw people at their Blue Earth Village near present-day Manhattan, Kan., in 1819, noted that the “Master of Life” first created Kaw man. His solitary life, however, caused him to cry out in anguish, so the “Master” sent down a woman to alleviate his loneliness. Another early 19th-century account stated that Kaw men who simply emerged from the earth became boastful of their long tails, whereupon the Great Spirit (Wakanda) removed the tails and created nagging women from them, and then sent swarms of mosquitoes to remind all Kaw people that modesty was a virtue.
The most popular account, however, recalls that overpopulation on a small island created before the main part of the earth caused frustrated Kaw fathers to drown unwanted children, thus prompting more compassionate Kaw mothers to ask the Great Spirit to provide more living space. Their prayers were answered when beavers, muskrats and turtles were sent down to enlarge the island from the floor of the great waters, and in time the earth assumed its present form. Flora and fauna thrived, the population crisis was averted, and “the entire circle of the world was filled with life and beauty.”
Historians and ethno historians have determined that the Kaw, Osage, Ponca, Omaha, and Quapaw — technically known as the Dhegiha-Siouan division of the Hopewell cultures of the lower Ohio Valley — lived together as one people in the lower Ohio valley prior to the white invasion of North American in the late 15th century.
Sometime prior to about 1750, the search for better sources of game and pressure from the more powerful Algonquians to the east prompted a westward migration to the mouth of the Ohio River. The Quapaws continued down the Mississippi River and took the name “downstream people” while the Kaw, Osage, Ponca, and Omaha — the “upstream people” — moved to the mouth of the Missouri near present-day St. Louis, up the Missouri to the mouth of the Osage River, where another division took place. The Ponca and Omaha moved northwest to present-day eastern Nebraska, the Osage occupied the Ozark country to the southwest, and the Kaws assumed control of the region in and around present-day Kansas City as well as the Kansas River Valley to the west.
The tribe used at least two different types of homes. Accounts by French observers refer to the “cabanas” of the Kanza, which were bark-covered lodges. The portable skin-covered tipi was customary when the tribe was on the move. This form of structure, of course, continued to be an indispensable part of the hunting period.
The first detailed description of the bark houses indicated they were 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, constructed of stout poles and saplings arranged in the form of an arbor and covered with skins, bark and mats. The place for the fire was a hole in the earth under the ridgepole of the roof, where an opening was left for the smoke to pass. All the larger lodges had two to sometimes three fireplaces, one for each family dwelling in it (Pike, 1810).
In 1819 Major Long’s party gave a different description of their appearance and construction. They were circular in plan, with the floor excavated one to three feet below the adjoining surface. The Chief’s house, differing only in size, had 12 posts set just within the excavated area, and eight longer ones forming an inner circle. In smaller houses four posts were sufficient.
Beams ran from post to post around each of the circles, and other poles, their butts resting on the outer series of beams, ran inward and upward to meet at the summit. Slender rods were laid parallel to each other and laced with bark, and these were covered with matted grass, reeds or bark slabs. A steeply sloping wall was built in similar fashion, with the whole structure banked and covered with earth. A covered tunnel-like passageway to the east formed the doorway. The fireplace was an unlined circular basin in the center, where smoke found its way out through the hole left in the summit. Against the wall, between the outer circle posts were raised bunks, padded with buffalo robes and screened mats. To some of the mats, medicine bundles were attached. Beside the fireplace was an upright pole with an inclined arm to support a cooking pot over the hearth (James, 1823).
The men wore a blue or red breechcloth with a belt, deerskin leggings, moccasins with no ornamentation, and sometimes a blanket over the upper part of the body. Shells, beads, or metal ornaments were attached to the rim of the ear, sometimes to great profusion, and long slender hair pipes were common. Kaw men shaved their heads, leaving only the scalp lock uncut. Sometimes the edge of the lock was colored with vermilion, or an eagle feather was inserted. On top of the head a roach (headdress) might be worn, made of deer tail, dyed red and parted longitudinally by a silver spreader (James, 1823). Kaw women wore moccasins, knee-length leggings of blue and red cloth, a skirt and occasionally a cloth thrown over one shoulder. The hair was worn long, parted in the middle, the part colored with vermilion. Like the men, many of the women tattooed the body (Thwaites, 1906).
Each winter was spent in buffalo country. When a bison was killed, all parts were used. The meat was used for food, the hide for clothes, and the bones for tools. A buffalo robe was produced from winter kills, while buffalos killed during the summer were stripped of their fur and made into leather (Spencer, 1906).