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Camps of the Kiowa. At left, a painting by George Catlin depicts a Kiowa and Comanche encampment near the Red River of Texas which the artist visited in the 1830s. At right, a Kiowa camp, some 30 to 40 years later during the time in which the tribe was being moved onto reservation land. Photograph courtesy of the Center for American History, Frank Caldwell Collection (#10187), the University of Texas at Austin.
map of Kiowa lands
Migration of Kiowa peoples from the north in the 18th century to southern Plains in the 19th century. Shown are reservation boundary, raiding trails to south into Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, and locations of annual Sun Dance, the major Kiowa religious ceremony. (Map adapted from Levy 2001.)

The name "Kiowa" derives from the English spelling of "Ka'I gwu," meaning "principal people."

photo of Kicking Bird
Kicking Bird (Tene'-angp6óte), a Kiowa chief and grandson of a Crow captive. Interviewed in the late 19th century, the chief told of the Kiowa's origins far to the north and of a time before there were horses to help move families from place to place. Photograph by William S. Soule, circa 1870. Original image in National Archives.
drawing of Kiowa
The introduction of the horse to North America changed the lifeways of Plains Indians, making buffalo hunting, moving camp, and engaging enemies easier. 1875 drawing of a Kiowa on horseback and symbols denoting fired musket balls by Koba, a Kiowa imprisoned at Fort Marion, Florida, following the Southern Plains Indian Wars. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution INV 08547608.
painting of Teh-toot-sah
Teh-toot-sah, one of the Kiowa encountered by artist George Catlin, reportedly in an encampment along the Red River, Indian Territory, in the 1830s. The Kiowa was described by Catlin as the head chief of the Kioways (sic), " a very gentlemanly and high minded man, who treated the dragoons and officers with great kindness while in his country. His long hair, which was put up in several large clubs, and ornamented with a great many silver broaches, extended quite down to his knees."
photo of Big Tree
Big Tree, Kiowa leader involved in the attack at Howard's Well as well as in the Warren Wagon Train massacre in northwest Texas.
photo of Howard's Well
Howard's Well, a stage stop on the Southern Overland Mail route, was the target of repeated attacks by Indians throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The well-springs enclosed by limestone walls-was an important water source for travelers crossing the parched terrain. The jacal building shown above may date as early as the 1860s; a previous station on the site was destroyed by Comanches in 1861. Photo by Claude Hudspeth, TARL Archives.

The Kiowa originally lived on the northern Plains of Canada and moved south into the Southern and Rolling Plains of Texas and Oklahoma in recent historical times. Prior to their forced placement on a reservation in the 1870s they were, like other Plains tribes, semi-nomadic, moving in relatively large groups and frequently in the company of one or more tribes with whom they were allied.

“Kiowa” derives from the English spelling of Ka’I gwu, and in their language it means “principal people.” The Kiowa language is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan language family. Tanoan languages are those that were spoken in the Jemez, Piro, Tiwa, and Tewa pueblos of New Mexico. Linguists who study the history of languages, however, believe that Kiowa split from Tanoan branch over 3,000 years ago. Thus, at some time in the past they moved to the far north or the puebloan groups moved a considerable distance to the south prior to the arrival of the Kiowa in the Southern Plains.

Kiowa Migration

By the early eighteenth century the Kiowa were living in the area between the Platte and Kansas rivers well to the north of Texas. From there they slowly moved further south, eventually becoming roaming the lands north of the Canadian and Red rivers in Texas and Oklahoma. In the late 19 th century, elders could still speak of their lands far to the north. In the words of Chief Kicking Bird, in 1871:

The Kiowas, many years since, lived far to the north where it was very cold most of the year—far beyond the country of the Crows and the Sioux….They lived there, knowing nothing of ponies, but used dogs to carry their burdens, to draw their lodge poles, and remove all their fixtures from place to place.

He told a story of how the Kiowa were introduced to horses and to the possibility of better lands to the south:

In the process of time one of their [Kiowa] men, in his travels, went far to the southward, and after some years of roaming, was taken prisoner by a band of Comanches. They took council to put him to death, but one of their head men prevailed…on the plea that they had never before seen anyone like him or any of his people, and it might be that if they treated him well, he might befriend any of their men who might fall in with his tribe….The counsel of this chief prevailed, and [the Kiowa man] was fitted out with a pony, saddle, and bridle and was sent home. On his return [to the Kiowa people], his pony, saddle, and bridle were objects of general admiration and envy….He told them that in this country he had visited, the summer lasted nearly the whole year, and the plains were well stocked not only with game, but large herds of ponies such as he was riding.--Kiowa Chief Kicking Bird, 1871.

Like other oral history accounts, some of this may not be exactly how events unfolded. However, we do know that among tribes on the northern Plains in the 18 th century there existed relatively fierce competition for buffalo and other resources. Some tribes may have felt the need to venture further south where resources may not have been as scarce. To transport their camps from place to place, dogs were used as pack animals until horses became available from the Spanish settlements to the south. Following buffalo herds into the Southern and Rolling Plains of Oklahoma and Texas, the Kiowa established a lasting bond with the Comanche and other tribes.

Over the ensuing decades, the Kiowa began to raid south into the Plateaus and Canyonlands, along with their allies, the Comanche, and other native people. By the late eighteenth century, they may have been present in small numbers in the San Antonio area. One Spanish document from 1784 lists the Sciaguas among the various native peoples that were then present at Mission San Antonio de Valero. While the name may be an aberration of one of the many groups from Coahuila, its spelling appears to be a variant of the word Kiowa (Caigua or Ka’I gua).

In the 19 th century, the Kiowa frequently traveled through the Plateaus and Canyonlands going to and from Mexico. By the 1820s, the Kiowa were raiding into South and Central Texas usually in consort with the Comanche. As the nineteenth century progressed, the two tribes were often encountered in the Southern and Rolling Plains regions of Texas. Josiah Gregg’s 1844 Map of the Indian Territory, Northern Texas and Mexico, showing the Greater Western Plains depicts all of the Texas Panhandle as well as part of Central Texas to be the territory of the Kiowa and their allies, the Comanche.

George Catlin, an artist who traveled in the west in the 1830s and painted portraits of the Indian tribes he met, encountered the Kiowa while he was staying near modern Lawton, Oklahoma. He described them as “much finer looking race of men than either the Comanchees [sic] or Pawnees—[they] are tall and erect, with an easy and graceful gait—with long hair….They have generally the fine and Roman outline of the head.

In 1844, Texas Indian commissioner Robert Neighbors was told that, while the Kiowa lived well to the north, when the leaves fell they would be found in the vicinity of San Antonio. Neighbors reported he found them between Pecan Bayou and the San Saba, the northern portions of the Plateau and Canyonlands, in 1847 and 1848. He stated that, with their allies, “they number (sic) 5,000 strong.” A map in the National Archives shows the Kiowa and Comanche as the principal tribes ranging from the Rio Grande to the Red River and between the Pecos and Laredo, including the Plateau and Canyonlands. During those years, the Kiowa were often part of the cohort in Comanche raids. In addition to capturing horses, the Kiowa likely were gathering peyote on these raids to the southwest. Peyote was important to the Kiowa spiritual practice, and the plant could only be found far from the Plains, in the desert areas to the southwest. The Rio Grande River represents the northern-most limits of the plant’s growth.

Kiowa presence in the Plateaus and Canyonlands waned in the succeeding decades. After 1860, the Kiowa rarely ventured into the region, remaining to the north in the lands for which they are better known. Notable exceptions occurred in 1860, 1872, and 1873. In 1860, a member of a Kiowa band on its way to raid in Mexico was killed while attempting to steal horses near the Pecos River. Then, in 1872, a Kiowa/Comanche raiding party attacked a government wagon train at Howard Wells near the Devil’s River, and another Kiowa/Comanche band traveled to Mexico below Eagle Pass. On their return via the Devils River, they encountered an Army scouting party that killed two of their members. This battle may be immortalized in the rock artat 41VV327, a site located on a tributary of the Devil’s River.

Other names for Kiowa:
Ka'i gwu, Caygua Caigua, Kioway, Kinway Ga'taqka, Cataka, Gatacka Ka-ta-ka, Padouca

painting of Smoked Shield
Kots-a-to-ah, or Smoked Shield, as painted by George Catlin on the Red River of Texas circa 1830s. The frontier artist described the Kiowa leader as "another of the extraordinary men of this tribe, near seven feet in stature, and distinguished, not only as one of the greatest warriors, but the swiftest on foot, in the nation. This man, it is said, runs down a buffalo on foot, and slays it with his knife or his lance, as he runs by its side!"

The Kiowa are a "much finer looking race of men than either the Comanchees [sic] or Pawnees-[they] are tall and erect, with an easy and graceful gait-with long hair..They have generally the fine and Roman outline of the head."-George Catlin

painting of Kiowa
Moving camp. The Kiowa, like other Plains tribes, depended on dogs hitched to wooden sleds, called "travois," to move their camp equipment from place to place. Inset of painting by Nola Davis, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Original mural at Lubbock Lake Landmark, Lubbock.
map of Kiowa territory
By 1844, the territory of the Kiowa was interspersed with that of their allies, the Comanche, and the two groups raided from the Texas Panhandle to the Gulf coast. Inset from Map of the Indian Territory, Northern Texas and Mexico, showing the Greater Western Plains by Josiah Gregg. Click to enlarge.
drawing of herding Kiowa
Kiowa herding horses captured during raid in Mexico? An 1875 drawing by Koba, one of the famed Fort Marion, Florida, prison artists. Click to see full image.
woodcut of Toro-Mucho
Toro-Mucho, chief of a band of Kioways. Woodcut made in 1854 during the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey. Courtesy Texas State Historical Association, in Emory 1987:88.
paiting of Kiowas
Wun-pan-to-mee (the white weasel), a girl; and Tunk-aht-oh-ye (the thunderer), a boy; who are brother and sister. As described by the artist, George Catlin, the two are Kioways (sic)who were purchased from the Osages, to be taken to their tribe by the dragoons (with whom Catlin was traveling in the 18302-1840s.).
painting of Kiowa camp
Indian encampment, Comanche or Kiowa, dressing skins by George Catlin, circa 1846-1848, Red River. According to a Mexican captive who was assimilated into the Kiowa tribe, buffalo hides "intended for the wigwam are dressed on both sides by the squaws. They scrape off the hair on the outside, and the inner, fleshy lining on the inside by a tedious process with bone instruments manufactured from the larger bone of the buffalo or beef."

After finding sufficient water, Andres (the captive), the women, and other youth were told to stay in their camp while the older, experienced Kiowa traveled south to steal horses. Ten days later some returned with horses and the long three-month march back to the Kiowa camp on the Washita River began.

drawing by Kiowa
Son Kia Do-Te chased by a wounded bull. Drawing by Silver Horn Kiowa, 1891. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (Manuscript 4252; NAA09062900).
photo of Lone Wolf
Lone Wolf, head chief of Kiowas during the Indian War period. Following the death of his son in Texas in 1873,he led a rebellious faction against the whites and refused to return to reservation life. The chief's skill as a hunter was legendary. Click to enlarge and read more.
drawing of courting scene
Courting scene of Wild Horse (Koba) visiting Sepinta. Drawing by Kiowa artist Koba in 1875, Fort Marion, Florida. National AnthropologicalArchives, Smithsonian Institution (NAA INV 08547615).

Kiowa Life and Customs

Insights into Kiowa life and traditions can sometimes be found in a variety of sources, including period art by observers such as George Catlin and ethnographer James Mooney, and in the works of Kiowa artists who painted depictions based on personal recollections or tribal stories. Other sources are interviews with tribal elders as well as the narrative accounts written by persons taken captive during Indian raids on ranches or small settlements in Texas, New Mexico, and elsewhere. Such individuals, if they return to their homelands, sometimes wrote of their lives among the Kiowa. These stories often reveal insights about the daily lives, customs, and perceptions of the people with whom they lived.

One such narrative is that of Jose Andres Martinez, who told his story to Reverend J.J. Methvin (a Methodist missionary working with the Kiowa) in the 1890s. Andres was ten years old when he taken captive by the Mescalero Apache in 1866 while tending cows on his family’s land near Las Vegas, New Mexico. A few months later, he was exchanged to the Kiowa for a mule, two buffalo robes and a red blanket. Andres was reared by a Kiowa family in Oklahoma, traveling with them into Texas on numerous occasions. In the 1880s as an adult, he tried to re-assimilate into his birth family, but returned to Kiowa in 1889 because, in his words, “his interests were all identified with the Kiowas, and he had learned to love them.” Like other Kiowa captives, he remained among them until his death in the 1930s.

According to Andres’ story, when he was welcomed into the Kiowa, he traveled with them to a place near the confluence of the Pecos and the Rio Grande. It is difficult to discern exactly where he was, but he described the region as an area of very little water. After finding sufficient water, he, the women, and other youth were told to stay in their camp while the older, experienced Kiowa traveled south to steal horses. Ten days later some returned with horses and the long three-month march back to the Kiowa camp on the Washita River began. When he arrived in the camp on the Washita, Andres was surprised by the large number of tepees present.

As Andres learned while living among the Kiowa, much of the tribe’s tradition and economy centered on the buffalo. In addition to food, the animal provided hides for their homes and their clothing. The Mexican captive said that the buffalo killed in the spring and early summer were used to provide meat for their camp, and their hides were tanned and used for tepee covers.

For a small tepee, about eight buffalo hides were used. For the ordinary size, twelve were used, but sometimes the head chief used as many as 20, thus making a very large tepee…25 or 30 feet in diameter. The hides intended for the wigwam are dressed on both sides by the squaws. They scrape off the hair on the outside, and the inner, fleshy lining on the inside by a tedious process with bone instruments manufactured from the larger bone of the buffalo or beef….It took much labor and a long while to dress the hides in this way, but when done, they were as pliant as any leather manufactured after our most improved process.—Jose Andres Martinez, Mexican captive.

Buffalo killed later in the year, with their longer hair, were used for war shields. Antelope and deer hides were also used for many of these items. Both men and women wore clothes containing decoration. Men’s robes often had sunbursts painted on the skin side. Women frequently beaded the shoulder area of their blouses and often included fringes both on their blouses and their moccasins.

Rich insights on Kiowa lifeways were gained through oral histories, such as those taken by Hugh Lennox Scott, commander of Troop L of the Seventh Cavalry, an all-Indian unit comprised of Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During his 20-year military career in the west, Scott learned Indian sign language, which enabled him to communicate and learn customs and stories from Plains Indians, in particular Kiowa and other tribes in the Fort Sill area. The following story, told by a Kiowa, describes the practice of hunting buffalo in a surround and other hunting strategies:

In old times when we had no horses we used to get up early--men, women and children to make a surround--we went all around on foot at a distance a bunch if buffalo grazing gradually closing in on them the buffalo would run around and around inside the ring without trying to break through until they were tired out and stood still panting--then the men shot and killed them with arrows--sometimes they drove them over high bluffs by surrounding them and broke their legs and backs and then killed them at the foot of the bluffs with arrows--sometimes they made a corral of logs at the base of a high bluff--they made wings like a V shape to get the buffalo to the edge of the bluff--the wings were made of upright logs like a man--big thick logs. Read more.

photo of Martinez
Jose Andres Martinez. Captured as a boy by the Mescalero Apache in 1866, he was traded to the Kiowa, a people who he grew to love and later chose to stay with, when given the opportunity to return to his family.
drawing of teepee
A large painted teepee, or lodge, for the chiefs. According to a captive who lived among the Kiowa, sometimes as many as 20 buffalo hides were used in teepees for the head chiefs teepee, thus making a very large tepee.25 or 30 feet in diameter. Enlarge to see full image.
war shield
War shield of Satanta,or Set-T'ainte, a Kiowa head chief in the 1870s-1890s, who raided into northwest Texas. His shield, made of painted buffalo hide and feathers, is shown from the inside. Click to enlarge and view exterior.
Set-t'an Annual Calendar of the Kiowa, depicting the years 1833-1892. Painted on buffalo hide, this calendar was photographed in 1895 by James Mooney, an ethnographer for the Bureau of American Ethnology who lived among the Kiowa and learned of their traditions and customs. Plate LXXV in Mooney 1898. See full calendar.
Kiowa calendar
Image from Kiowa hide calendar representing the death of Black Wolf in an encounter with Texans on the South Canadian River in 1833. The circle represents coins that the Kiowa, who won the battle, recovered on the field.
drawing of Little Bear
Set-t'an, or Little Bear, creator of the Kiowa annual calendar.
Kiowa calendar
Symbol of "Prickly Pear Sun Dance"from Kiowa hide calendar. Prickly pear cactus tunas (fruits) are shown above the medicine lodge. According to ethnographer JamesMooney, who documented the symbolism, the dance was likely held in late fall, when the fruit were ripe, at a place with an abundance of the cactus. Mooney notes,"The sweet fruit of the cactus is much prized by the Indians, who eat it raw, while the fleshy leaves are used as a mordant in their painting upon buckskin. (Mooney 1898:301).
photo of Kiowa dance
Kiowa and Comanche women at celebration, circa 1920. Western History Collection (X32205).

Animal hides were also used by the Kiowa as a type of book to record important events. Such hides are called calendar histories . They memorialize, in pictographs, what was determined by the tribe to have been the most outstanding events of that time period. Most of the calendar histories focus on semi-annual events, but some are monthly. In 1895, James Mooney (an ethnographer for the Bureau of American Ethnology) resided among the Kiowa and talked extensively with them about their traditions and customs.

During his stay, he photographed and learned about these calendars, including the Set-t’an Annual Calendar of the Kiowa. It is one of several calendars drawn by the Kiowa. That calendar depicts the years 1833 –1892. Although the original was on hides, it was re-drawn on heavy manila paper using colored pencils. Each year is represented by a winter pictograph with an upright black bar to indicate that all vegetation is dead, and a summer pictograph represented by a medicine lodge that was always erected in an annual summer religious ceremony.

The first image on the Set-t’an Annual Calendar, dating to the winter of 1833, contains the black bar of winter, a man with red on his chest and a line going from his head to a black wolf, and a circle with an eagle within it. The pictograph depicts the encounter of the Kiowa with Texans on the South Canadian River. Black Wolf was killed in the encounter. His name is illustrated by the line that goes from his head to the black wolf, and his death is illustrated by the red on his chest.

The circle represents coins that the Kiowa, who won the battle, recovered from the Texans. At first, they did not understand what the shiny pieces of silver represented. They hammered them into disks to be worn on scalp locks. Soon, however, the Comanche told them that the coins could be used in Mexico to pay for goods. They quickly returned to the battle site and recovered more of the coins. Thus, in a concise way, the Kiowa calendar marks the passage of an elder of the tribe and also the recognition of the tribe of the ways of commerce with Mexico.

In November, 1833, there was a significant display of meteors that generated great interest among all peoples of North America. This display is depicted as the significant event of the winter of 1833/1834 as a man with many stars above his head. A Sioux calendar history depicts the same event for that winter.

Ledger drawings depict similar events among the Kiowa. These drawings were in ledger books—bound volumes of ledger paper originally intended for book keepers to show daily sales and purchases. Indian artists used them to record visual depictions of events (battles or other important events) in the lives of their tribes. The Kiowa were especially proficient in these ledger drawings and these represent yet another source of information about how the Kiowa viewed their world and the people and events that affected them.

Today, across the United States, the Kiowa number approximately 12,000 and are governed by the Kiowa Indian Council.They are a vibrant, active people who maintain many long-held traditions while participating fully in modern 21 st century life.

Gueiqesale link
Kiowa calendar
The stars fell. Symbolic depiction of a meteor shower in 1833-34 recorded on a Kiowa hide calendar. According to the tribal accounts recorded by ethnographer James Mooney, the Kiowa were awakened in camp by a burst of light; "running out from the tipis, they found the night as bright as day, with myriads of meteors darting about the sky. The parents awakened the children saying, 'Get up, get up, there is something awful (zédalbe) going on!"" (Mooney 1898:261).
photo of Kiowa girls
Kiowa girls, circa 1895-1898. Studio photograph by George Addison. Western History Collection,Denver Public Library (100320420).