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The Wichita Indians
by Rebecca Brush
Back to the Texas Indians
Wee-Ta-Ra-Sha-Ro, Head Chief of the Wichita. Painted
by George Catlin in 1834
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The first white men to ever see and
record a meeting with the Wichita were Coronado and the men of his expedition.
Do you know who Coronado is? Francisco Vazques de Coronado was a Spanish
explorer. He explored the American Southwest in the early 1500s looking
for riches. Coronado came across the Wichita in 1541 in the Great Bend
area of the Arkansas River in what is now south-central Kansas. That was
a long time ago--over 450 years. Coronado says of these people: "There
are not more than twenty-five towns, with straw houses, in it, nor any
more in all the rest of the country that I have seen and learned about
. . . All they have is the tanned skins of the cattle they kill, for the
herds are near where they live, at quite a large river. They eat meat raw
like the Querechos [the Apache] and Teyas [the Jumano]. They are enemies
of one another...These people of Quivira have the advantage over the others
in their houses and in growing of maize ." From Coronado s description
we can find out some very important things about the Wichita. For example,
what did we learn of the houses they lived in? Can you picture them? What
are the cattle they hunted, ate raw, and tanned the skins of? Did they
live totally off of the meat they hunted? Can you picture the kinds of
clothes they wore? What kind of neighbors did they have? Could they travel
to visit friends in other towns like we do? What was the name of the town
they lived in? Were they like other people living in the area? The written
accounts of early explorers can tell us a whole bunch about how the native
people lived. Don t you think so?
The Wichita are called a tribe, but
this is not accurate. There was a proper Wichita tribe with a chief and
subchief. Then there were independent subtribes or bands who spoke Wichita
and shared the Wichita culture. The tribes called the Wacos and the Tawakonis,
the Taovayas, the Tawehash, the Yscani and the Kichai are not tribes at
all. They are all bands, bands that are part of the Wichita culture and
lived the Wichita lifestyle. If you are confused by all this tribe and
band stuff, try the Read Me First page. It explains it all.
What was the Wichita culture? Well,
they spoke a language called, surprisingly, Wichita. They are part of a
larger cultural group call Caddoan. As a matter of fact, the people who
study languages (called linguists) tell us that the Wichita language is
one of three different Plains Caddoan languages. The other two Plains Caddoan
languages are Pawnee and Kichai. Before the Wichita came to Texas, they
lived a semisedentary lifestyle. This means they had farms and villages,
but they moved around a little, also. From spring until fall they lived
a village life and grew maize, pumpkins, squash, beans and even planted
plum trees. And get this; even though they lived near several rivers, the
Wichita did not eat fish. In the fall until spring, the Wichita would close
up their villages and migrate west to go on a buffalo hunt. Then, in the
spring they would return to the village and plant crops again.
While they were in the village, the
Wichita lived in grass houses. These houses were made of forked cedar poles.
The poles, which were very sturdy, were covered by dried grasses. You may
think that this kind of house is not very good. However, these houses were
very well made and lasted for many years.
A Wichita grass house. Painted
by George Catlin in 1834
A Wichita grass hut around 1890. Notice the
thatched shelter behind the round hut. This is probably a summer house.
They were big, too. Early explorers
have described them as being 15 to 30 feet across. [Ed. Note. Look in the
Caddoan page to find pictures of these kind of houses.] The houses were
shaped like giant cones. Each house had 10 to 12 beds in it. In the center
of the roof was a small hole to let out the smoke from the fire which was
always placed in the middle of the house floor. There was also a kitchen
in these houses. Not like the ones we have today, of course, but it was
a hollowed out tree trunk that was used to grind corn and prepare meals.
When the Wichita went on their winter buffalo hunts they lived in tepees
just like other Plains Indians. Bet you know what the tepees were made
of, don t you?
Near the house was an arbor. Do you
know what an arbor is? Well, its made of four poles and has a rectangular
roof and maybe a back or side walls, but not always. The roof and walls
are made of dried grasses just like the houses. The arbor provided shade
to sit and work under in the hotter months. Other arbors were used to dry
corn, buffalo meat and pumpkins. The Wichita braided the pumpkin strips
before they dried them. Can imagine how hard it would be to braid pumpkin?
One curious thing noted by early whites
who visited the Wichita was that even though they sometimes acted like
Plains Indians, they didn' t look much like them. George Catlin was a very
famous artist that traveled all over America and lived with different Indians.
We know much of what we do about Indians because George Catlin took the
time to record and paint their habits and dress. Well, in 1834 he went
with Colonel Henry Dodge and his Dragoon Expedition. They came across the
Wichita living on the Red River. He painted a few pictures of them and
said they were not like other Plains Indians because they were darker,
shorter and stockier. He also said they had many tattoos on their faces
and bodies. Even the women, who Catlin thought were pretty, had a bunch
of tattoos. These tattoos are not like you might think. They weren t like
the tattoos you see on people today. They were not of animals or people
or other common objects. All the Wichita s tattoos were lines, both solid
and dotted, and circles. The Wichita even called themselves the raccoon-eyed
people because of the tattooing around their eyes. The kind of clothes
they wore were almost simple in comparison to their tattoos.
The Wichita wore clothes made of tanned
hides. The men wore shirts and loin cloths and leggings. Both men and women
wore moccasins. The women wore dresses that reached from their chin to
their ankles. Often the women decorated their dresses with long rows of
elk teeth. Elk teeth were considered very valuable among the Wichita. They
may have been used as trade items with neighboring tribes.
Archeologists have found evidence that
leads them to believe the Wichita had been involved in trade since way
before the first European explorers came. We know that after they moved
to Texas they were trading with Southern Plains Indians on both sides of
the Red River. They even traded with Indians as far down in central Texas
as Waco. White traders would trade with the Indians in Waco and take the
items east to the Mississippi River. That is why we may find an item belonging
to the Wichita in Mississippi today. Archeologists know how to tell if
an item is a sign of trade or if it means the people who made it were living
in the area. What do you think the Wichita were trading?
They could easily have been trading
dried corn or pumpkins. Maybe even tanned hides or arrowheads. We know
for certain they were trading buffalo robes. Buffalo robes were very special.
You see, the Indians had a way of tanning the hides to where the fur was
still on one side and the other side was as soft as cloth. You can see
why buffalo robes would be in great demand among other tribes and back
in Europe. We also suspect that the Wichita may have been trading something
called Bois de Arc wooden bows. Bois de Arc is a kind of tree. The wood
from the Bois de Arc tree is very strong and flexible. Can you see why
this would be a good kind of wood for a bow? The Wichita lived in area
where the Bois de Arc trees grew. We know they were making bows from this
very flexible wood, and we believe they traded it also. Whatever it was
they traded, it was probably something that someone had great skill in
making. We wouldn't buy food that didn' t taste good or was improperly
prepared would we? Nor would we buy a tool that didn' t last very long
or was not made well. In Wichita culture, both the men and women had their
This is called a division of labor.
The men mostly just hunted and went on war parties, but they also cut the
big cedar poles used for the houses and made their own weapons and weapons
for trade perhaps. The women, on the other had, did much of the stuff needed
to keep the village and family going. Women were responsible for tanning
and painting the hides, caring for the crops, sewing clothes, fetching
firewood, preparing food, fencing the fields, covering the grass houses,
gathering most of the food and tending the children. Sounds like the women
were rather busy, don t you think? Would you have liked to grow up with
the Wichita? I think I would have. The kids had a great life. They didn't
have school like we do. They learned what they needed to survive from their
parents and other close relatives. When children were under the age of
three, they were rarely punished. This sounds good to me. After age three,
they were either scolded by their moms or punished by a non-relative. If
a mom asked a non-relative to punished her rotten child, the non-relative
could use whatever form of punishment he or she saw fit to use. The mom
was forbidden to interfere after asking for help. This sounds kinda scary.
However, it usually only took one of these non-relative punishments to
keep a bad kid in line.
Children were raised by their moms until
they were about your age (around 10 or so). Then, the boys were taught
by their dads and the girls by their moms. The boys and girls also received
instruction from other close relatives--like their aunts and uncles. But,
they didn't call them their aunts and uncles. They had different names
for them. You see, the Wichita don t have a kinship system like we do.
They have a kinship system called Matri-Hawaiian by anthropologists. Kinships
systems can become very confusing for us when studying different cultures
so I ll give you a brief description of what the Wichita kinship system
was like. All the brothers and sisters of a child s father (or what would
be our aunts and uncles on our dads side) were called mother or father
to a Wichita child. A moms sisters were also called mother, but her brothers
were not called father. All of a father s brother s children (or what would
be our cousins on our dads side) were called brother and sister by the
Wichita child. Are you confused yet? Well, let me try harder then. A father
called his brothers children our children , but called his sister s children
niece or nephew. A mom called both her sister s and brother s children
our children. Pretty confusing isn t it. The main thing is, if you were
a Wichita child, you had several dads and moms to learn from and a whole
bunch of brothers and sisters to play with. Pretty neat, huh?
Those brothers and sisters weren't just
handy when you were a kid either. You see, when you grew up they were great
at helping you out. If you were a women, your sisters helped you with the
kids and house building and cooking and such. If you were a man, your brothers
were usually the ones who would go with you on a hunt or war party.
War parties, Plains Indians style, consisted
of a warrior who wanted to lead a war party and those who would go with
him. That s all it took to be the leader. You just went up to the other
warriors and said, Hey fellas, I d like to lead a war party. Who s in?
Now, if you weren't any good, or had never done it before, you might have
trouble getting anyone to go with you. The war parties were never very
large, but the better you were at leading them the more followers you would
have. Men gained prestige in war so it was important for them to lead successful
war parties. The Wichita counted coup. Do you know what this means? Well,
it means they won favor from just being able to get close enough to touch
an enemy s body. Imagine the feelings of the warrior who got touched. I
would not want to be in his shoes. The Wichita also gained prestige by
stabbing and killing their enemies. And, when they got back from a successful
war party, well, you can bet there was much dancing and singing. In the
winter, the warriors would sit around the fire and tell many tales of their
adventures while on war parties.
What happened to the war party leaders
after the war was over? Well, after the war or raiding was done, they were
just regular warriors again. They gained prestige, but not power over the
community. However, all warriors together had some control over things
that went on in the tribe. In the Wichita tribe proper (not the little
bands), one of their main duties was to elect the chief. The chief mostly
handled relations with other tribes that lived nearby. The Wichita also
had a subchief. He was called The-One-Who-Locates, because his main duty
was to select a site for a new village if it was necessary. Both the chief
and subchief had their own followers. The warriors made sure that neither
one of them gained to much power in village affairs. Being a chief was
not at all like being a king or a dictator. It was kinda more like being
a president. If you were a chief, you often had to talk things over with
the warriors and villagers before anything happened. And, if you were a
chief s son? Well, if you planned to follow in your father s footsteps
you had to prove yourself to be worthy. You had to be brave, generous,
and capable in many other areas to be considered a good successor.
Besides chiefs and subchiefs, the Wichita
had religious leaders, too. These religious leaders are called Shamans.
They control the occurrence and procedure of the ceremonies. The Shamans
are very important people. Sometimes we hear them referred to as medicine
men. So, we have Chiefs, Subchiefs and Shamans, who do you think kept the
people in line? Did they have a police force like we do? Not at all. A
person was kept in line by his relatives. Remember, their families were
not structured like ours. If you messed up, you had to answer to a whole
bunch of people. And believe me, it was very wise to stay in good favor
with your relatives. Remember, your relatives were often your best supporters
and helpers. Especially if you were a warrior.
What do you think these war parties
were after besides counting coup and killing enemies? Seems to me there
should be some benefits to raiding your neighbors, don t you think? Well,
there was for the Wichita. They raided their neighbors for captives and
later, even for horses. When the French first came across the Wichita,
they traded for these captives so they could sell them as slaves. After
they came to Texas they really got into raiding full force cause they started
hanging out with the Comanche.
In 1700, or there abouts, Texas was
under Spanish rule. This is when the Wichita came into the area. They moved
here because other Indians, like the Osage, were very hostile and wanted
their land. Some of them came as far into Texas as where the town of Waco
is today. Did you know that Waco got its name from a subtribe of the Wichita?
Most of the Wichita stayed in the northern area of Texas, though. They
lived on the Red River in a place called Spanish Fort. After they moved
to Texas they became friends with the powerful Comanche. Everyone was afraid
of the Comanche so, the Wichita were glad to have them as friends.
One time, when the Comanche were visiting
the Wichita in their village near Rush Springs, the United States Calvary
attacked them. The Calvary was not mad at the Wichita, they were looking
for the Comanche. Well, the Comanche fought a good battle and killed some
of the soldiers. Many Comanche were killed, too, and even one Wichita was
killed. This battle frightened the Wichita so much that they went to Ft.
Arbuckle in Oklahoma for protection. They did not like having run-ins with
the United States Calvary.
The Wichita were troublesome to have
as neighbors. Many settlers were upset by their constant begging and stealing
and raiding. For example, in 1757 the San Saba Mission was built for the
Lipan Apaches on the western edge of the hill country near Llano, Texas.
But, before to long, the Comanche and Wichita raided it so often that is
Well, with all this raiding and stealing, you can imagine why by 1854 the
Texans (Texas was now part of the United States) were so upset with the
Indians that they decided to put them on reservations where they could
be better controlled. The Wichita, along with some Comanche and others,
were moved to a reservation on the Brazos River called Clear Fork. By this
time the Wichita had become desperate. Their people had been hit hard by
a smallpox epidemic in 1837. There were not enough of them left to pose
a serious threat to settlers. However, they were skilled thieves and raiders
and continued to raid the settler s horses and cattle. In 1859 the Texans
had enough of this behavior. They also wanted the land that the Brazos
Reservation was on. So, several Indian Agents got together and moved the
Wichita out of Texas into Indian Territory. Do you know where Indian Territory
is? Well, it started out being a rather unclear area in the western United
States. By 1834, this area had been reduced to include only the land that
now makes up the states of Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and
Oklahoma. When Kansas and Nebraska became territories in 1854, this area
was reduced again and now only included Oklahoma. After Oklahoma became
a state in 1907, the Indian Territory was absorbed into the new state.
So, from 1830 to 1907, the Indians watched their territory shrink to the
size of a few reservations. That s only 77 years, guys. One lifetime. Have
you ever wondered how much change will occur in your lifetime? Anyway,
the Wichita ended up on a reservation near Fort Cobb in Oklahoma. Fort
Cobb is near Anadarko which is southwest of Oklahoma City. Can you find
it on a map? The Wichita are still concentrated on reservations in Oklahoma
Here is a Wichita myth. Thanks to Jane
Archer and Wordware Publishing for sharing it with us.
Coyote Challenges Never-Grows-Larger
Texas Indian Myths
by Jane Archer
One time Ketox, or Coyote,
bounded across the prairie and saw Never-Grows-Larger, the smallest snake,
sunning on a large, flat rock.
"You are tiny," Coyote said. "I would never want to be as
little as you. Look at me. You should be as big as me."
Never-Grows-Larger looked Coyote up and down, then flicked a long, forked
tongue out and in.
"Let me see your teeth," Coyote said.
Never-Grows-Larger opened wide to reveal tiny teeth.
"Look at my teeth." Coyote snarled to reveal big, sharp teeth.
"With no effort at all I could bite you in two."
Never-Grows-Larger flicked a long tongue out and in again.
"Let us bite each other and see who is more powerful," Coyote
"Are you sure?" Never-Grows-Larger asked.
"I accept the challenge."
Coyote bit hard enough to almost sever Never-Grows-Larger's head.
Never-Grows-Larger bit Coyote.
"Now I will go just out of sight, then we will call to each other
to see how the other fares." Coyote bounded through the tall grass
and lay down out of sight. "Hey!"
"Hey," Never-Grows-Larger called faintly.
"Hey," Never-Grows-Larger said even more weakly.
Pleased with success, Coyote repeatedly called and listened to Never-Grows-Larger's
voice grow soft. "I never doubted I would kill that snake," Coyote
After a time, Coyote noticed that the snakebite swelled, and the wound
started to hurt. "Hey." But the sound was not as loud. Soon Coyote's
entire body hurt and swelled up.
"Hey!" Never-Grows-Larger called loud and clear.
"Hey," Coyote said softly.
"Hey!" Never-Grows-Larger called again.
Coyote did not respond.
Never-Grows-Larger crawled through the grass to Coyote's side. The animal
Never-Grows-Larger left Coyote there, then went back to sunning on the
Copyright, 2000, Jane Archer
If you enjoyed this myth, read more in Texas Indian Myths and Legends by Jane Archer. You can
order a copy here at our e-Book store, or ask your librarian to order Texas
Indian Myths and Legends for your school.
Did you like that myth? To learn more
about Indian myths and for activities using myths check out our Indian Myths page.
There are not very many Wichita left
today. But there used to be many of them. We are not sure how many there
were when Coronado first found them, but he said their were 25 towns. We
don t know how many houses were in each town, but we do know that each
house had 10 to 12 beds in it. By 1772, Indian population numbers were
being recorded. The Wichita had about 600 warriors (not counting non-warriors,
women or children) at that time. In 1780, it was estimated that there were
about 3,200 total Wichita. By 1805, a number of 400 men was given and by
1868, the population is recorded as being 572 total Wichita, including
the subtribes. Finally, in the census of 1937, we see that there were only
385 left. Wow, its kinda scary to think that a population could be reduced
so quickly. What if that happened to your people?
Nowadays, the Wichita children have
to go to school just like you. They wear the same kind of clothes as you
do. Some of them will go to college when they finish high school and become
doctors or lawyers or computer scientists, just like some of you will.
Their parents have jobs just like your parents do. However, they also have
to remember that they are Wichita. They have to learn how to do all the
special things that the Wichita do. If you ever get up to Oklahoma, perhaps
you will stop in and see them. You could tell them how much you have learned
about their culture.