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. Human use of the area's natural resources evolved from hunting large and small mammals and gathering wild plants, to the development of ceramic technologies and horticulture, with exchange networks extending 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 and the use of domesticated plants, and bow and arrow hunting. From about A.D.1000, domesticated plants and associated artifacts reflect a predominantly horticultural existence, and a shift 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 American Indian groups. This was a transition time between the prehistoric past and the era of written history on the

Great Plains . This period has clear association with specific American Indian peoples. In the area of the preserve, these include the Wichita, Kansa, Osage, and Pawnee. The movement of these people 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).

Descriptions by explorers and early settlers across the Great Plains provide important information on American Indian use of the land and its resources, particularly bison, and the use of fire. Indian peoples throughout the Great Plains started prairie fires for a number of reasons, including plant management, grazing improvements, acts of aggression, and communications. There is little evidence, however, to support the idea that Indian people practiced large scale annual burning, or that they intentionally set fires to clear wooded areas. Documented instances described fires that were relatively small in size, while large fires caused by Indian people were either accidents or acts of aggression. Some American Indian groups in the northern Great Plains used fire to limit or control bison in order to predict the animals' movement the following spring, or to force bison movement towards encampments; however, the negative consequences outnumbered the benefits of the use of such large-scale fire. These fires were dangerous and difficult to control. They also destroyed vegetation, and as a result, drove animals further away from camps. Instead, typical historic references of bison hunting involve tribal groups, as a community, traveling to an area to hunt bison ( Moore 1972, Higgins 1986, Arthur 1975, and Evans 1998, personal communication.)

Taken from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve General Management Plan.

Local Tribes

The native peoples of this area consisted of the Kansa (Kaw), Wichita, Osage, and Pawnee tribes. These tribes grew crops and lived in semi-permanent homes along streams and creeks. The Flint Hills were a communal hunting ground for the tribes. Along with providing food for the tribes, the Flint Hills also provided a much needed stone known as chert or "flint" to make tools, weapons, and ceremonial pieces.

The Kansa tribe, often referred to as the "People of the Southwind," occupied the mid-Missouri Valley, near the junctures of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. 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. Although they remained in eastern Kansas during most of the nineteenth century, their tenure in the region seemed perennially in doubt. Threatened on their eastern borders by successive waves of emigrant Indians 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, until in 1872 they surrendered their lands in the fertile Neosho Valley. By 1873 most of the Kansa tribe had removed 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: December 28, 2020

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