American Indian Culture

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Kansas State Historical Society

Human activity in the Kansas Flint Hills can be traced back about 12,000 years. Humans used the area's natural resources by hunting large mammals and gathering wild plants. Exchange networks extended well beyond the Plains (ca 6,000 B.C.-A.D.1). Beginning about A.D.1, new subsistence and technological traits developed, including the routine production of ceramics, the use of domesticated plants, and hunting with bow and arrow. From about A.D.1000, domesticated plants and associated artifacts reflect a predominantly horticultural existence shifting to settled village life (Jones 1999: 6-9, 14-17).

By A.D.1500 - 1825, efficient horticultural activity was combined with increased bison hunting, almost certainly due to acquisition of the horse by Native Americans. This transition on the Great Plains has clear association with specific Native American peoples. In the preserve area, these included the Wichita, Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee. Their movement throughout the Great Plains during this period prevents attribution of specific peoples to fixed locations in the Flint Hills. The Wichita apparently abandoned the northern part of their territory between 1690-1719, moving south to the Arkansas River in present-day Oklahoma. By the first two decades of the 19th century, the western boundary of the Kansa core territory extended nearly to the preserve area. Pawnee and Osage occupation sites have not been discovered in the general area of the preserve, although the region was probably included in their hunting range (Jones 1999; 17-22).

Explorers and early settlers across the Great Plains provide important information on Native American use of the land and its resources, particularly bison and fire. Native peoples throughout the Great Plains started prairie fires for several reasons: plant management, grazing improvements, acts of aggression, and communications. Little evidence supports the idea of native people practicing large scale annual burning or intentionally setting fires to clear wooded areas. Fires are documented as relatively small. Large fires caused by native people were either accidents or acts of aggression. Some Native Americans in the northern Great Plains used fire to control bison to predict the animals' movement the following spring or to force bison towards encampments. However, these fires were dangerous and difficult to control. They also destroyed vegetation, driving animals further away from camps. Instead, historic bison hunts involved tribal groups, as a community, traveling to a hunting areas (Moore 1972, Higgins 1986, Arthur 1975, and Evans 1998, personal communication.)

Information from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve General Management Plan.


Local Tribes

The native peoples of this area grew crops and lived in semi-permanent homes along streams and creeks. The Flint Hills were a communal hunting ground for the tribes. Besides food for the tribes, the Flint Hills also provided much-needed chert or "flint." They used this stone to make tools, weapons, and ceremonial pieces.

The Kansa tribe occupied the mid-Missouri Valley, near the junctures of Missouri River and Kansas River. Forced westward by more powerful tribes, the Kansa relocated along the lower Kansas Valley concentrating their villages between the mouth of the Big Blue River and Stranger Creek. They remained in eastern Kansas during most of the nineteenth century. However, their tenure in the region seemed perpetually in doubt. They were threatened on their eastern borders by successive waves of emigrant tribes and American settlers. Their westward retreat was blocked by the more numerous and nomadic Plains tribes. Ceding their homeland, they sought refuge on a series of shrinking reservations. In 1872 they surrendered their lands in the fertile Neosho Valley. By 1873 most of the Kansa tribe had moved to northern Oklahoma.

Information provided by "The Kansa Indians; A History of the Wind People, 1673 - 1873" by William E. Unrau.

Further information and exhibits can be found at the Kaw Mission located 17 miles north of the preserve in Council Grove, KS on the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway (K-177).

Last updated: March 16, 2022

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