Everyday Life



Kaw men saw themselves primarily as hunters, trappers, and warriors. The pursuit and capture of small game and larger animals such as bison, deer, and elk was an essential activity that benefited the tribe both in terms of food gathering and as a means of commerce with Europeans and Americans.

The Kaws had many Indian enemies with whom they continuously engaged in raids and counter-raids. Boys and young men were encouraged and trained to be warriors to protect their tribe from enemy attacks and to win honors by demonstrating bravery in battle. Raiding other tribes, particularly the hated Pawnees, was considered a legitimate way of acquiring wealth and giving the booty away was a means of gaining stature within the tribe.

Ne-Ca-Que-ba-na (The One Who Runs Down Men) at different times ran down and killed eighteen Pawnees with a knife. Each time he returned to the Kaw villages with a drove of horses he captured. Once he distributed one hundred fifty horses to three Kaw chiefs.

Most of the men plucked their arms, chins, eyebrows, and most of the scalp with a wire apparatus. A narrow strip of hair was left on top and in the back and was sometimes colored with vermilion or decorated with the tail feather of a war eagle. An important chief might attach a deer tail on the back of his neck.

Most males wore a blue or red breech-cloth which was held on with a girdle, plus leggings and moccasins made from deer skins. A blanket was used in cold weather. They decorated their ears with beads, tin trinkets, or porcelain sticks, and many had tattoos. Some of them had collars made from bear claws or metal buttons that they fastened around their neck or leggings. The warriors carried lances, swords, and bows and arrows.


"Stepping inside, we were greeted with a shouting sound, like "how? How?" The lords and masters we found smoking and card-playing, old and young. The squaws (ladies) were making or ornamenting leggins or moccasins. Some, old and young, sat around their centre-fires, tailor fashion, talking away lustily–very likely about their white intruders, and their pale, sickly appearance. Some of them had quite a number of buffalo robes, prepared and unprepared, which they were selling."

---Dr. C. H. Gran, Leavenworth Kansas Weekly Herald, July 21, 1855

Kaw women performed almost all of the domestic tasks. Women planted, tended, and harvested the crops such as corn, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, and squash and foraged for nuts, berries, and roots. They processed, stored, and cooked the food. They often accompanied the men on the bison hunts, butchering the animals where they had fallen. The women dried the meat and dressed the bison robes and other animal skins.

Prior to European contact, women made clothing from animal skins. They decorated the clothing with porcupine quills, and later beadwork. Women were responsible for stitching the bison hides into tepee covers, putting up and taking down the tepees, and gathering the firewood.

They also looked after the children and trained the girls in the domestic skills.

Although their lives were filled with tasks of drudgery, Kaw women found ways to entertain themselves, usually while in the process of working. They would gossip, gamble, play games with their children, and make up songs. They also danced and trilled their approval of Kaw men who had performed deeds of valor.

Kaw women wore a coarse cloth secured to their waists with a belt. A loosely attached shoulder garment was sometimes worn, as were moccasins and leggings. They wore their hair in long braids often tinted with vermilion.


Kaw girls were expected to accept their roles as domestic servants and emulated their mothers and grandmothers in domestic skills. They worked hard. A ten-to-twelve-year-old could carry a one hundred pound load of firewood on her back for up to nine miles.

Boys were trained to be brave warriors. To facilitate the development of a headstrong disposition, Kaw adults seldom disciplined the boys.

When twelve or thirteen years of age, Kaw boys, like many youth of the central Plains tribes, under the tutelage of an elder, would go on a vision quest. The young boy would go off by himself for at least four days, without food or water. During this time he would invoke the spirits by introspection, wailing, and sometimes self-inflicted torture. Visions would appear to him that determined his identity and spirit helpers. Animals and supernatural phenomena appeared, having special meanings. The images of these beings were later painted on war shields and tipi covers to constantly remind the youth of his vision-derived powers and responsibilities.

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Most Kaw families traced descent through the male line. No male could marry a kinswoman, no matter how remote the relationship. Chastity among unmarried females was guarded by the mother with great care. Polygamy was sometimes practiced among the Kaws, usually with a married woman’s younger sisters becoming her husband’s wives when they reached the proper age.

If caught in adultery, the woman might be whipped or even killed by her spouse. A male adulterer might be killed by the irate husband without fear of penalty. Divorce was reached by a mutual agreement, and both husband and wife were free to marry again

Many of the prominent Kaw chiefs or warriors had daughters who married French fur traders. The French believed that to accept the daughters of a chief was a prerequisite to negotiations for Kaw furs.

Thomas Huffaker, the Kaw Mission teacher, wrote the following account of a Kaw marriage:
"The relatives of the man go the relatives of the girl and agree upon the consideration. The groom moves his tent near the family of the girl. On the day of the ceremony, the tent of the groom is vacated by the family. The presents of the groom’s relatives are left in the tent, except the ponies, which are tied outside, and four women relatives of the groom remain in the tent. The bride is clothed in all the fine and costly things that her family are able to furnish. She is then placed upon the finest horse possessed by her family, it having been decorated with costly coverings. A gun is then discharged at her tent to notify the four women at the groom’s tent that the bride has started for the groom’s tent. The four women leave the tent to meet her. She is taken by them from the horse, wrapped in fine clothing and carried by the four women into the tent and seated upon the ground uncovered. The friends of the groom are then notified, and he is brought into the tent and seated near the bride, when they both partake of a wedding feast, seated back to back, "sight unseen." After the repast is ended the relatives and friends
of both parties are admitted to the tent, a general feast is had, and the delivery of the presents. Thus the ceremony is ended."



When the Kaws resided in the heavily timbered valleys of the Lower Ohio and Missouri rivers, their lodges were patterned after the Eastern woodland style. They were constructed mainly of a pole frame covered with a thick, mat-like fabric of leaves, bark, and branches. 

As the Kaws migrated westward onto the grass-covered plains, they tended to substitute earth or wood for at least the lower walls of their conical huts. Bison and deer skins covered the pole frame of the tepees, the form of shelter the Kaws employed during their twice-yearly hunting excursions to the High Plains. Tepees also appear to have been used in the permanent villages on the Council Grove Reservation.

White Americans periodically visited the Kaw village site near present Manhattan, known as the Blue Earth Village. Occupied by the entire Kaw tribe from 1795 until 1830, this village contained one hundred twenty-eight "earth lodges." These round, closely-spaced lodges had diameters ranging from thirty to sixty feet.

Timber piles arranged in a circle were driven into the ground with four to five feet of the timbers left above ground. Pole rafters were attached to these piles at an angle of six or seven degrees. Interior wooden pillars supported the roof. These rafters were joined together at the apex of the conical roof, leaving a small aperture to allow smoke to escape from interior fireplaces. The frame was covered by a layer of poles, mats, and bark which in turn was covered by slabs of sod.

Some of the Blue Earth Village lodges were rectangular, generally sixty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. They were constructed of stout saplings and poles arranged in the form of a common garden arbor and covered with skins, bark and mats. Along the interior walls were wood platforms, raised about two feet from the ground, on which were placed the skins, food, weapons, and other personal property belonging to the three to five families living under one roof. Adjacent to the platforms were the family fireplaces, which were simple holes in the earth situated to allow smoke an easy passage out of the common opening in the roof.

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Kaw people provided food for themselves by hunting, raising crops, and foraging for edible wild plants. Of all the food sources, however, bison meat was the mainstay of the Kaw diet. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the entire Kaw tribe would travel west to present central and western Kansas to hunt bison.

Nearly every part of the bison flesh was used for food.. Preservation techniques involved Kaw women cutting bison meat into long strips, plaiting, and drying it, either on crude scaffolds or simply by wrapping it around short poles driven into the ground. Later the meat was cured with salt, most of which was obtained from the Saline River north of the Arkansas River. Even the fat was used, being preserved in casings fashioned out of the buffalo’s intestines.

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Corn, beans, pumpkins, prairie potatoes, muskmelons, and watermelons were cultivated by Kaw women wielding simple hoes. George Sibley, who visited the Blue Earth Village in 1811, reported that about one hundred acres of corn, beans, and pumpkins had been planted near the village.

Corn was either roasted on the cob or cooked in a soup with beans and buffalo meat. Sometimes it was dried and wrapped in skins and stored underground for later use. It was cured in early fall before the semiannual trip to buffalo country. The Kaws shared their corn, even if in meager supply, with friendly tribes or travelers.

Fish, fowl, venison, berries, nuts, and tubers were also important elements in the Kaw diet.



Athletic competitions, horse racing, and gambling were popular diversions for Kaw men. Competitive displays of physical prowess included leaping, racing, and wrestling. Warriors raced their favorite horses, often for a wager against their opponent. Gambling was commonplace, especially for men with substantial wealth in horses, robes, guns, and other articles available as stakes. 

Meetings for these games, which included a rudimentary form of dice, were usually held in the lodge of a chief. For the Kaw warrior to ignore an invitation was to lose favor and suffer possible permanent exclusion from the chief’s lodge.

The few leisure moments Kaw girls enjoyed were spent playing with dolls and playhouses they fashioned themselves or simulating other domestic activities. Boys had more time to practice archery, running, lance throwing, and a sort of mimic hunting that soon involved the actual chase of small birds and animals. Both Kaw boys and girls engaged in indoor guessing games.

Music and Dance

Music was an important ceremonial aspect of Kaw culture and held great importance in the performance of the various tribal dances. A dominant feature was rhythm, which was maintained by thumping animal-hide drums and shaking deer’s foot rattles tied to strings. Sometimes Kaws played wooden flutes. Often a lively chant accompanied the instrument sounds, providing a great personal enjoyment to the Kaw participants.

The Kaws performed at least seventeen different dances, including some reserved exclusively for women and others for men. Family, thanksgiving, medicine, track-finding, hide, calumet, war and death dances were exceedingly popular.

The Scalp Dance
One of the most detailed accounts of a Kaw dance was made by Reverend Joab Spencer, who described a performance of a scalp dance in 1867 after the Kaws had successfully killed a Cheyenne chief and several warriors in a surprise attack near Dodge City. Although he had lived with the Kaws for over a year, Spencer’s narrative reflects the usual cultural biases and limitations of whites who observed Native American behavior and customs:

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"When I reached the village the dance was in progress. The scalps recently secured were hung on a pole erected in the midst of the village. Only men [sic] dance among the Indians. The dancers arranged themselves in a straight line, or in a circle, one just behind the other, assuming a stooping position with the knees bent forward enough to balance the body. The dance consisted of a kind of shuffling moving and a spring up of a few inches from the ground. This gave them a bobbing-up-and-down notion, but did not move them from their position. An onlooker would see a line of men shuffling and jumping but not changing place. Their dances were very serious affairs and continued far into the night. The dancers had a grave and serious look, and seemed to give close attention to their work. If a dancer tired he would step out of line. If another wished to join, he stepped into line at any time. How men could endure such exercise for hours without recess, is hard to understand. This dance, as well as all others, was a religious ceremony, and was really a thanksgiving service for their late victory, which they  regarded as proof that the Great Spirit was not angry, but pleased with them.

They danced to music, or rather with music. The performer accompanied the drum with an improvised song, in which he recited the brave feats of the warriors in the battle in which the scalps had been taken. I took a position by the interpreter and he explained the words of the song as it progressed. Of course they were without rhyme or measure. We remained for some time before going home, but long into the night we could hear the monotonous drum-beat and occasionally a yell from some dusty son of the prairie.

"The Cheyenne braves came into our wigwams;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye
They smoked with us the pipe of peace;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye
They said they were friends, but they were enemies;
high-e-ye-ye; high-e-ye-ye"

In this way the song would proceed until all of the incidents of the battle were described, or until singers and dancers were tired out."

Disease and death became frequent and devastating events for the Kaws, especially after they had been located to the Neosho Valley Reservation near Council Grove.  When they arrived in 1848, the Kaws number sixteen hundred. When they were exiled from Kansas in 1873, only six hundred Kaws made the trip to Indian Territory. In response to the frequency of death among their people, the Kaws developed elaborate funerary practices.
Preparation of the corpse for burial was largely the responsibility of the women, especially members of the deceased’s family. After the face had been painted and the body covered with bark and a buffalo robe, an old man might talk to the corpse, giving directions to the world of the dead. The body was then placed in a shallow individual grave, usually located on a hill or bluff near the village. The body lie in a horizontal position with the head facing the life-giving east.

Other reports tell of the corpse being placed in a sitting posture, facing west, with arms crossed and knees flexed. In either case, the deceased person’s garments, weapons, utensils, pipe, and a supply of corn, beans, and dried buffalo meat were deposited in the burial pit, for use by the deceased during the journey ahead.

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Finally, after earth and rock slabs had been placed over the grave, the dead man’s horse might be killed (usually by strangulation) and left on top of the grave. Soon after burial the Kaws believed that the spirit of the deceased would travel to live in a spirit village. These spirit villages were believed to be located at or near the site of the Kaw village occupied immediately preceding the present one.

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A widow fasted, scarified her face and hands, covered her person with clay, and became negligent in her dressing habits for one year. Then, without ceremony, she usually became the wife of her deceased husband’s eldest brother. However, if the deceased left no brother, the widow was free to marry whom she pleased. If the wife died, the husband was expected to undergo a lengthy period of mourning - up to eighteen months. Mourning rituals included fasting from sunrise to sunset, wailing, scarifying the body, and rubbing mud on the face.

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The death of a warrior or prominent person often precipitated an expedition against a tribal enemy, apparently to place the Kaws - as opposed to the enemy - on an equal footing with the Great Spirit.

Kaw Mission teacher Thomas Huffaker observed:
"I have listened to their wailing and heard these words used on some occasions. They were simply praising the dead, referring to their good deeds in life, etc., as we who are enlightened speak in praise of loved ones when they have left us. This hired mourner leaves his home and lives in the woods alone, eating one meal a day during the period of mourning. He does not communicate with anyone during the time. The relatives of those who do not employ a mourner visit the grave for the same period and go through the same ceremony."