Kanza Cultural History

General Info | Spiritual Origin | Related Tribes
Traditional Shelter | Traditional Clothing | Post-Contact
Dark Times | Allotment | Cultural Erosion & Revival | Modern Times

General Info

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 2,573 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. Their present constitution was adopted by the Kaw National Council (comprised of enrolled members age eighteen and over) on August 14, 1990; their Executive Council is comprised of a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, Secretary and four additional tribal members and is elected by a majority vote of the National (or General) Council. [Back to top]

Spiritual Origin

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 Manhattan, Kansas, 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 nineteenth 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." [Back to top]

Related Tribes

Historians and ethnohistorians have determined that the Kaws, Osages, Poncans, Omahas, and Quapaws--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 fifteenth 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 Kaws, Osages, Poncas, and Omahas--the "upstream people"--moved to the mouth of the Missouri near present St. Louis, up the Missouri to the mouth of the Osage River, where another division took place. The Poncas and Omahas moved northwest to present-day eastern Nebraska; the Osages 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. [Back to top]

Traditional Shelter

The tribe used at least two different types of homes. Accounts by French observers refer to the "cabanes" 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). [Back to top]

Traditional Clothing

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). [Back to top]


By the mid eighteenth century the "Wind People"--as they were known to white traders and explorers--were in possession of most of present-day northern and eastern Kansas. Demographers have estimated that, as a consequence of the white man's diseases (principally smallpox, cholera, and influenza), their population had been reduced perhaps to less than fifty percent, down to about 1,500 men, women and children by 1800. Even so, the Kaws presented a formidable obstacle to American expansion into the trans-Missouri West following its acquisition of this vast region by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. From their villages and small vegetable farms in northeastern Kansas and later along the Kansas River west of present Topeka, Kaw warriors maintained control of the lower Kansas valley against both the white man from the east and alien tribes to the west. Kaw hunters also engaged in semi-annual hunting expeditions onto the plains of western Kansas. But with a major change in United States Indian policy in the early nineteenth century, all of this changed dramatically.

Beginning in 1825, formalized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and continuing well into the mid-1840's, the federal government forcibly transplanted nearly 100,000 people comprising tribes such as the Shawnees, Delawares, Wyandots, Kickapoos, Miamis, Sacs and Foxes, Ottawas, Peorias, and Potawatomies onto lands claimed by the Kaws and Osage. This action required Kaws to sign treaties whereby vast acreage was ceded to the government in return for annuities and promises of educational, agricultural, and other forms of material assistance. Underlying these treaties was the invader's strategy for rapidly changing the Kaw from an independent, semi-sedentary people into individual family farmers on the model of white agricultural society in Missouri, Illinois, and other so-called "settled" states in the east. But the treaties made it clear also that during the period of transition the Kaws would remain in a state of dependency under the watchful and supposedly benevolent scrutiny of their government agent. [Back to top]

Dark Times

The first and perhaps most devastating Kaw treaty was negotiated in 1825. Following the admission of Missouri to statehood in 1821, the opening of the Santa Fe Trail that same year, and especially the need to establish reservations for the emigrant Shawnees, Delawares, and Kickapoos, the Kaws agreed to a reduction of their 20,000,000 acre domain, comprising roughly the northern half of future Kansas, to a 2,000,000 acre reservation thirty miles wide beginning just west of future Topeka and extending west to a line to be marked by government surveyors. For this huge cession the Kaws were awarded a $3,500 annuity for twenty years, a quantity of cattle, hogs, and domestic fowl, a government blacksmith and agricultural instructor, and schools to be funded from earlier Kaw land sales in the Kansas City area. As a special concession to Chief White Plume's vigorous support of the treaty, 640-acre plots along the Kansas River just east of the new reservation were granted in fee-simple to all twenty-three half-bloods of the Kaw tribe. The rest of the tribe received no such benevolence and factionalism was thereby greatly encouraged.

Life for the Kaws between 1825 and the Mission Creek Treaty of 1846 was anything but easy. Whiskey merchants on the Santa Fe Trail exploited the Kaw annuity fund through sharp trading practices, while the bison supply on the plains diminished dramatically and little progress was made in agriculture. Most Kaw parents refused to allow their children to attend distant government boarding schools. The periodic eruption of smallpox and cholera epidemics continued to decimate the Kaw population.

Poverty-stricken by the failure of the 1825 treaty and weakened by continuous government (and private) pressure for yet another land cession--this time to accommodate railroad, town, and land speculators--the Kaw leadership went to the treaty table again in 1846. Arrogantly, and tragically indicative of racial attitudes of that time, Indian Superintendent Thomas Harvey in St. Louis boasted to his superiors in Washington that he could work out a new deal with "the degenerate and docile" Kaws in a matter of five days. This he did with the help of Indian Agent Richard W. Cummins in 1846. The 1846 treaty required the sale of the 2,000,000-acre reservation to the government for just over the ten cents an acre. The money received was to be divided between a thirty-year annuity at $8,000 per year, $2,000 for educational and agricultural improvement, a $2,000 grist mill, and a concentrated 256,000 acre reservation at present-day Council Grove, extending south into Lyon County, Kansas. As Professor William E. Unrau has emphasized in The Kaw People, no longer were the Kaws being encouraged to become sedentary farmers; "now they were being forced to changed their way of life."

But urged on by railroad developers, the Council Grove bankers and merchants, and even some members of the Kansas Territorial leadership, the white land jobbers could not be contained. A census in 1855 revealed that at least thirty white families had located illegal claims in the very heart of the new Kaw reservation, but when a federal agent attempted to evict the squatters, his cabin was burned and he and his family were forced to flee to Missouri. Then when it was discovered that the Council Grove town site was actually on Kaw reservation land, the need for yet another treaty was apparent--certainly not to the Kaws, but to land-hungry white farmers, the Council Grove merchants, promoters of the Union Pacific Southern Branch Railroad, and the United States government. The U.S. government began talking about a complete removal of the tribe from Kansas. The consequent Kaw treaty of 1859 (ratified in 1860) allowed the tribe to keep only 80,000 acres of the poorest land, to be sub-divided into forty-acre plots for each family head with the remaining 176,000 acres to be held in trust by the government for sale to the highest bidder. Forty acres of marginal Kansas land was wholly insufficient to support one Kaw family, and by the late 1860s the government was obliged to authorize emergency funds to prevent outright starvation of the Kaw people. Finally, on May 27, 1872, in a measure strongly opposed by Chief Allegawaho and most of his people, a federal act was passed providing for the removal of the Wind People from Kansas to a 100,137 acre site in present northern Kay County, Oklahoma, which was carved out of former Osage land and for which the Kaws eventually paid $70,000, mostly from the sale of their trust lands in Kansas. [Back to top]


With the enactment of the Kaw Allotment Act of July 1, 1902, the legal obliteration of the Kaw tribe was accomplished. The Act provided approximately 400 acres of land under government trusteeship to 249 persons whose names were placed on the final allotment roll and was largely the work of Charles Curtis--a distinguished one-eighth blood member of the tribe who eventually served as Vice-President of the United States under President Herbert Hoover and who in 1902 was a Kansas congressman and member of the powerful House Committee on Indian Affairs--and a small group of Kaw leaders headed by Chief Washungah. A significant minority of full-bloods, whose political power in the tribe had declined dramatically since the forced removal from Kansas, opposed the Allotment Act, and, until the tribe was reorganized under federal authority in 1959, factionalism and political struggles over tribal affairs were commonplace.

Following allotment in 1902 the Kaw people retained 260 acres near the Beaver Creek confluence with the Arkansas River until the mid-1960s, when their former reservation land was inundated by the Kaw Reservoir constructed by United States Corps of Engineers on the Arkansas River just northeast of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Here, dating to the late nineteenth century, were located the tribal council house, the old Washungah town site, and the tribal cemetery. After much negotiation with various federal and local officials the cemetery was relocated to Newkirk, Oklahoma, and the council house to a fifteen acre tract a few miles northwest of the former Beaver Creek trust lands. By subsequent Congressional action the new council house tract was enlarged to include approximately 135 acres, which presently are administered by the Kaw Nation as official trust lands. [Back to top]

Cultural Erosion & Revival

After removal from Kansas much of the tribes traditional ways and culture diminished in a short time. The government mandated tribal children to go to school, yet they were not allowed to speak their tribal language and were punished for doing so.

In June 1898, Charles Curtis sponsored a bill in Congress that upon passage came to be known as the Curtis Act. The reservation was broken into individual Indian allotments, and Congressman Curtis (1/8 Kaw) and his three children received 1,625 acres. (Unrau, 1991)

In the mid-1880's three members of the Kaw tribe visited the people of the Waxáxonlin (Pawhuska) division of the Osage, to offer them a ceremonial drum; symbolizing cultural inter-exchange and aimed at heritage preservation.

The Kanza called their dance Íloshka Wachín. Little Jim, Barkley Delano, and Jim Pepper, all prominent young men in the Kaw Tribe, stayed at the home of Mozhon Okashe (Mashunkashey), near modern day Pawhuska, Oklahoma. They remained among the Osage throughout the winter to discuss what form and structure the new dance would take among the Osage. Mozhon Okashe assumed a great responsibility when he and his family accepted the drum to be used in the dance in the name of his young son, Ben Mashunkashey , the first Pawhuska Drum Keeper. The first I-Lo-Skah (Inn:shka), the Osage name for the dance, was held soon afterward under the leadership of Mashunkashey.(Swan)

The 1984 I-lo-Skah ceremony was selected to observe the Centennial by elders of the Pawhuska District.

Two public programs were held to allow local individuals the opportunity to present information and personal observations on the history and meaning of the I-Lo-Skah in the Pawhuska district. The first program was held on the morning of June 21, 1984, for the purpose of unveiling the commemorative plaque. The second public program was held on Sat. June 23, 1984, in the dance arbor at Pawhuska. At that time many Kaw tribal members attended the ceremony. M.M. Chouteau was Chairman of the Kaw Nation at that time. Newman Littlewalker, Vice-Chairman then, spoke about the history of the Kanza people and the circumstances involved with the passing of the Kanza' s tradition and custom to the Osage.

A plaque was unveiled which read, "100 years I-Lo-Skah Centennial-1884-1984. Commemorating the hundredth Anniversary of the acceptance of the I-Lo-Skah from the Kaw Indian Tribe to the Osage Indian Tribe, Pawhuska District-1884-Drum Keeper-Ben Mashunkashey, 1984-Drum Keeper-Samuel Lookout." Pictured on the plaque is a straight dancer standing by a drum.

Desiring to revive the Kaw's dancing tradition,Maudie McCauley Rowe decided in the fall of 1977 to hold a dance in her son Elmer Clark's back yard in Shidler, Oklahoma. He honored Mrs. Rowe's request by helping her with the dance. It was the first Kaw dance in many years, and several of the last full-bloods attended. As a result of her actions, these days the annual Kaw Powwow is held the first weekend of August each year.

Although the Kanza no longer observe the Íloshka Wachín, each year at the Kaw Powwow the tribe recognizes the fact that they once held the ceremony. The Ceremonial Drum is brought into the arena, and the first four songs--for men only--are sung with tails. The tails are short interludes punctuating the end of the songs. Special designated dancers, called tail dancers, complete each song in a short dance by themselves, as is the Íloshka Wachín style. [Back to top]

Modern Times

Tribal economic activities include the Kaw Nation Casino enterprise near Newkirk, the Braman Properties/Oklahoma Travel Plaza at the intersection of Interstate 35 and Oklahoma State Highway 177, and discount tobacco shops at Ponca City, Newkirk, and Braman. The tribe also has developed and oversees the Kaw Housing Project near Newkirk, the Kanza Health Clinic and Wellness Center, a daycare center, gymnasium, and a multi-purpose center, and is a member of the Chilocco Development Authority. Emergency assistance, social service programs, and academic scholarships are available to tribal members, and in 1992 the authority of the Kaw Nation Tribal District and Supreme Courts was sanctioned. [Back to top]

Primary Source:
William E. Unrau, "The Kaw People" and "The Kansa Indians"