Due to political, social, and economic pressure from Euro-Americans, internal Kaw politics evolved considerably during the period of white contact. In 1724 Etienne de Veniard Bourgmont, a representative of the French government, reported that the Kaws were governed by seven "chiefs" and twelve "war chiefs," the latter possessing autonomy in times of crisis or war.

At times the Kaws lived in several different villages, each having a head man. The tribe as a whole was a loose confederation with the village chiefs possessing the most power. In earlier times these headmen were elected by a council of the people. Later the chieftainships became more hereditary. However, the Kaw leaders had to continually prove themselves worthy of their power by deeds of valor and demonstrations of generosity and wisdom.

When the United States began to negotiate a series of treaties with the Kaws, the government commissioners sought to identify a head chief of the entire tribe. In the 1820s and early 1830s the government considered White Plume the Kaw chief. This designation was not accepted by many Kaws, and led to power struggles and factionalism.

By the time the Kaws came to the Neosho Valley Reservation in 1848 three brothers ruled three villages. Kah-he-ge-wah-che-ha (Hard Chief), Peg-gah-hosh-she (Big John), and Ish-tah-lesh-yeh (Speckled Eye) were the head chiefs until the 1860s. When the Kaws left Kansas in 1873, this triumvirate had been succeeded by Wah-ti-an-gah, Ka-he-ga-wah-ti-an-gah, and Al-le-ga-wa-ho, who from 1867 was considered the head chief of the tribe.