Wichita – Roaming the Southern Plains

by Frederick Webb Hodge

Wichita warrior, 1927, Edward S. Curtis

Wichita warrior, 1927, Edward S. Curtis. Click for prints and products.

Of Caddoan stock, the Wichita Indians formerly ranged from about the middle Arkansas River, Kansas, southward to Brazos River, Texas. They called themselves Kitikiti’sh (Kirikirish), which is of uncertain meaning, but probably implies preeminent men. By the Sioux, they were known as the “Black Pawnee,” to French traders, “Tattooed Pawnee,” and to the Kiowa and Comanche by names meaning “Tattooed Faces.” Other tribes composed the Wichita Confederacy, each of which probably spoke a slightly different dialect of the common language. These included the Tawehash, Tawakoni, Waco, Yscani, Akwesh, Asidahetsh, Kishkat, and Korishkitsu. Their language was closely related to the Pawnee, with home they appeared to have always been on good terms.

Like all tribes of Caddoan stock the Wichita were primarily sedentary and agricultural, but owing to their proximity to the buffalo plains they also hunted to a considerable extent.

Their permanent communal habitations were of conical shape, of diameter from 30 to 50 feet, and consisted of a framework of stout poles overlaid with grass thatch, which had the appearance of a haystack.

Wichita Grass Hut, 1927, by Edward S. Curtis

Wichita Grass Hut, 1927, by Edward S. Curtis. Click for prints & products.

Around the inside were ranged the beds upon elevated platforms, while the fire-hole was sunk in the center. The doorways faced east and west, and the smoke-hole was on one side of the roof a short distance below the apex. There were also drying platforms and arbors thatched with grass in the same way. The skin tipi was used when away from home. The Wichita raised large quantities of corn and traded the surplus to the neighboring hunting tribes. They also raised pumpkins and tobacco. Their corn was ground upon stone metates or in wooden mortars. Their women made pottery to a limited degree. In their original condition both sexes went nearly naked, the men wearing only a breech-cloth and the women a short skirt, but from their abundant tattooing they were designated preeminently as the “tattooed people” in the sign language. Men and women generally wore the hair flowing loosely. They buried their dead in the ground, erecting a small framework over the mound.

The Wichita did not have a clan system but were extremely given to ceremonial dances, particularly the picturesque “Horn dance,” nearly equivalent to the Green Corn dance of the Eastern tribes. They also had ceremonial races in which the whole tribe joined. Later, they took up the Ghost Dance and Peyote rite. In general character, the Wichita were described as industrious, reliable, and of friendly disposition.

Skidi and Wichita dancers, Edward S. Curtis, 1927

Skidi and Wichita dancers, Edward S. Curtis, 1927. Click for prints and products.

They first met European explorers in 1541, when the Spanish explorer Coronado entered the territory known to his New Mexican Indian guides as the country of Quivira. At this time, they were encamped about the great bend of the Arkansas River and northeastward, in central Kansas. Coronado and his men stayed in the area for about a month before departing. However, they left behind Franciscan father Juan de Padilla, with several companions, to undertake the Christianization of the tribe, this being the earliest missionary work ever undertaken among the Plains Indians. However, after more than three years with the Wichita, Padilla was killed by them through jealousy of his spiritual efforts for another tribe.

In 1719 the French commander La Harpe visited a large camp of the confederated Wichita tribes on South Canadian River, in the eastern Chickasaw Nation, Oklahoma, and was well received by them. He estimated the gathering, including other Indians present, at 6,000. They had been at war with another tribe and had taken a number of prisoners whom they were preparing to eat, having already disposed of several in this way.

The Wichita were gradually forced westward and southward by the inroads of the Osage and the Chickasaw Indians to locations on the upper Red and Brazos Rivers where they were first known to  American settlers. In 1758, the Spanish mission and Presidio of San Sabá, on a tributary of the upper Colorado River, Texas, were attacked and the mission was destroyed by a combined force of Comanche, Tawakoni, Tawehash, Kichai, and others.

In the next year the Spanish commander, Ortiz Parilla, undertook a retaliatory expedition against the main Wichita camp at the junction of Wichita and Red Rivers, but was compelled to retreat in disorder, with the loss of his train and field guns, by a superior force of well fortified Indians, armed with guns and lances and flying the French flag.

In 1760 the confederated Wichita tribes asked for peace and the establishment of a mission, but when they were refused the mission, renewed their attacks in the San Antonio, Texas area. In 1765 they captured and held for some time a Spaniard named Tremiño, who has left a valuable record of his experiences at the main Tawehash town on the Red River.

In 1772 the commander, Athanase de Mezières, visited them and other neighboring tribes for the purpose of arranging peace. From his descriptions, the Tawakoni, in two camps on the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, may have had 220 warriors, the Waco 60, and the Wichita and Taovayas 600, a total of perhaps 3,500, not including the Kichai. In 1777-78 an epidemic, probably smallpox, swept the whole of Texas, including the Wichita Indians, reducing some tribes by one-half. The Wichita; however, suffered but little on this occasion. In the spring of 1778, Mezières again visited them, and found the Tawakoni  and Waco in two camps on the Brazos River with more than 300 men, and the main tribe of the Wichita in two other camps on opposite sides of Red River, in which he estimated more than 800 men and as many as 3,200 people in total. The whole body probably exceeded 4,000.

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