Information on the Kansa (Kaw) Indians
Recorded by Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804
The following excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark and their men present a picture of the Kansas people as the Anglo-Americans saw them. The modern reader must be careful to understand that what these white men saw and recorded was not necessarily correct from the Indian perspective. The Kansa, or Kaw people were a small tribe residing on the Kansas River when they first encountered Europeans in the late seventeenth century. They spoke a Siouan language of the Dhegiha group, and were closely related to the Osage. Their economy was based on hunting and horticulture. In 1804 their village was on the Blue River near present Manhattan, Kansas. The tribe gave its name to both the state and the river called Kansas. They were village people who also hunted the buffalo, and later became semi-nomadic buffalo hunters. Their distinctive hairstyle of a shaved head with just a single lock left at the back of the head was an identifying feature. In his book, Letters and Notes, the artist George Catlin described the appearance of the Kansa: "The custom of shaving the head, and ornamenting it with the crest of deer's hair, belongs to this tribe, . . . the hair cut as close to the head as possible, except a tuft the size of the palm of the hand, on the crown of the head, which is left of two inches in length; and in the centre of which is fastened a beautiful crest made of the hair of the deer's tail (dyed red) and horsehair, and oftentimes surmounted with the war-eagle's quill. In the centre of the patch of hair . . . is preserved a small lock, which is never cut, but cultivated to the greatest length possible, and uniformly kept in braid, and passed through a piece of curiously carved bone . . . Through this little braid, and outside of the bone, passes a small wooden or bone key, which holds the crest to the head. This little braid is called . . . , the 'scalp lock,' and is scrupulously preserved in this way, and offered to their enemy if they can get it, as a trophy which it seems in all tribes they are anxious to yield to their conquerors, in case they are killed in battle . . . " Beginning in 1820 the Kaw gave up their land in a succession of treaties and forced moves, and eventually settled on a reservation in Oklahoma. Charles Curtis, a Kaw Indian, was Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933. Curtis also served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years and in the Senate for 20 years, and helped to pass the Citizenship Act of 1924 which gave the right of U.S. citizenship to American Indians.
The following passages have been freely adapted and excerpted from the original texts, and the spelling has been corrected to make them easier to read. For students wishing to quote these passages, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska Press, is the recommended source. For those who wish more in-depth information about Lewis and Clark's relations with various Indian tribes, including background from the Indian perspective, the best book is James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The very best way to obtain accurate information from the tribal perspective is to contact tribal councils for individual tribes - in other words, to consult the people themselves.
Chairperson, Kaw Business Committee
Kaw City, Oklahoma 74641
28 June Thursday
This River [Kansas] receives its name from a nation which dwells at this time on its banks in 2 villages, one about 20 Leagues & the other 40 Leagues up. Those Indians are not very numerous at this time, reduced by war with their neighbors, &c. They formerly lived on the south banks of the Missouri 24 Leagues above this river in an open & beautiful plain and were very numerous at the time the French first settled the Illinois. I am told they are a fierce & warlike people, [but] being badly Supplied with firearms, become easily conquered by the Aiauway & Saukees who are better furnished with those materials of war. This nation is now out in the plains hunting the Buffalo.