The Kanza people, also called the Kaw or Kansa people, are a federally recognized Native American tribe officially known as the Kaw Nation and dually headquartered in Kaw City and Newkirk, Oklahoma. The tribe currently consists of 3,376 enrolled members living as near as Kansas, Texas and Missouri and as far away as Canada and the United Kingdom. The Kaw Nation includes both a Tribal Council (executive body) and a General Council, comprised of all enrolled tribal citizens above the age of 18. The tribe is administered by an elected Tribal Council, consisting of a Chair, a Vice Chair, a Secretary, and four additional elected officials. The tribe has a substantial economic and service base and administers many programs and facilities in Kay County, Oklahoma.
The Kanza people did not always live in Oklahoma. They are members of a much older Mississippi Valley Siouan culture, one that yielded many present-day tribes such as the Sioux, Ioway and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people. Along with their close cultural relatives the Quapaw, Omaha, Ponca and Osage, the Kanza are more specifically members of the Dhegiha (pronounced they-GEE-hah) branch of Siouan peoples. Following the rivers, these tribes migrated toward the Great Plains probably sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries.
According to a popular account, it is said that the Quapaw split off first. They left the others along the banks of the Mississippi and went southward into what is now Arkansas. For that reason, the name of their tribe is often translated as “downstream people.” The Omaha, or “upstream people,” turned northward along with the Ponca and settled in present-day Nebraska. The Osage, or “middle waters people,” stayed in the Ozarks and prairies, and the Kanza, or “wind people,” continued on. Thus, prior to the 20th century, the Kanza lived on the vast prairie lands of the Great Plains, including most of what is now Kansas, one of two states bearing the name of a Dhegiha tribe; Arkansas is named after a Quapaw village.
While on the plains, the Kanza people became more and more distinct from its Dhegiha sisters, gradually developing its own language, culture, and traditions. The Kanza language was no longer intelligible with Quapaw and was increasingly less familiar to Omaha-Ponca speakers. A uniquely Kanza way of life had arisen, and the tribe enjoyed a long period of independence and cultural maturity. Unfortunately, it was during this time the threat of European American invasion first became a reality.
Smallpox, a disease introduced to the continent via European invaders, arrived in 1755. The affliction killed Kaws without mercy for over a century. In the first 10 years after exposure to smallpox, for example, one of every two Kanza males died. But disease was not the only problem facing the tribe. American bureaucracy and greed had also reached the plains.
Unbeknownst to the Kanza and countless other tribes, all of their lands had been sold to one foreign nation by another one in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Americans pushed deeper into the interior to take advantage of the wide-open spaces and seemingly endless resources. Many tribes were driven westward during this period of American expansion. Some of these tribes were forced onto Kanza lands, despite drastic cultural differences and the fact that some were openly hostile to the Kanza people.
In addition, American squatters settling throughout the Kanza hunting territories demanded more and more land to raise crops and make cities.
The U.S. government obliged as often as it could and busied itself renegotiating treaties, selling off lots and avoiding commitments. Each new treaty drastically reduced the size of the Kanza homeland, once estimated at approximately 20 million acres. Finally, after nearly 70 years of this sort of bureaucratic warfare, the United States government forced the tribe to cede all lands in Kansas. The tribe was moved wholesale to a roughly 100,000 acre site in Indian Territory, which the Kanza people had to purchase from the Osages with funds from the sale of their former Kansas holdings. This new land was then split up and allotted to individual families. The allotments were of no benefit to the Kanza people; this was a tactic devised to break up the tribe into smaller and more easily manageable units, thus silencing the unified voice of the tribe.
Nearly 60 years after allotment, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded a portion of the Kanza people’s Oklahoma lands to make a large reservoir and recreational area. The flooded area housed the Kaw Tribal Council House, the old town of Washunga and the tribal cemetery.
It is plain to see that in recent history the Kanza people suffered great tragedies and insults to its traditional way of life. But how exactly did the Kaws live prior to this time? Let’s look at some of the older ways and examine how they impacted the lives of tribal members on a day-to-day basis.
It is important to note at this point that before modern times, the tribe’s primary means of transmission of important information down through the generations was oral instead of literary. In other words, the older generations passed things on by word of mouth to the younger generations. For this reason, there are no written records of the traditional ways of life of Kanza people prior to the arrival of Europeans on this continent.
Because of this, written history of the tribe begins at a time when the Kanza were already in contact with European and American invaders. The at this time were actually in a state of gross cultural transition between their traditional ways and the ways they adopted in order to contend with an increasingly foreign presence at home. Furthermore, it was these same cultural outsiders who documented the tribal affairs. Most information from this period may be biased in favor of European or American invaders. It deals more with Kanza cultural adaptation than Kanza culture in general.
One of the most noteworthy features of this adaptive period is the tribe’s shift from a semi-nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary or stationary lifestyle. Prior to contact with the European and Americans, the Kanza people were very mobile. The tribe as a whole was often moving in several different directions within its own area of influence, making and breaking camps, following herds and defending its borders. After contact, the tribe was squeezed into smaller and smaller corners of its homeland, and forced to settle in a few places.
This lifestyle changeover had a radical effect on the tribe, and led to the forced dissolution of many important cultural institutions of the tribe. For instance, the Americans wanted the western tribes to adopt agriculture as a primary source of food because it required much less land than hunting. That land could then be developed for American interests. In a rapidly shrinking world, and with diminished prospects for following herds and hunting, the Kanza had to look for other means of food. Agriculture was the logical alternative, and the adoption of agriculture ensured that the tribe would forever lose its relationship with the buffalo and ultimately the land.
Furthermore, as the tribe settled down, bands gave way to villages. Before then, the tribe existed as a number of mobile bands, which may be thought of as towns on the move. When agriculture became the main source of food, these bands were forced to stay put. This drastic social change, along with intermarriage to non-Kanza people, ultimately succedded in breaking traditional social institutions within the tribe.
The Kaw Nation today has come back from these very dark times and has grown larger than it probably ever was before contact with Europeans. It has done so through perseverance and resiliance, but there is always more work to be done. One of the most important things Kanza people can do to assist in the process of ongoing societal recovery and expansion is to educate themselves about the tribe’s history, culture, and language. This site was designed to help people do just that.