Social Organization of the Kansa

The lot of the woman was a hard one. Those who remained unmarried were menials—slaves. They planted, tended and gathered the crops, did the cooking, brought the wood, and carried the water. Upon the marriage of the eldest daughter, all her sisters became subordinate wives of her husband. She was in control of the lodge, and her mother was subject to her will. If the husband died, she mourned a year, when his eldest brother took her to wife without ceremony, regarding her children as his own. If there was no brother, the widow married whom she pleased.

The social organization of the Kansas conformed in all respects to the religious development of the tribe. Primitive man was always hedged about with fear. He did not know. The earth and its elements had power to harm him. He added to his list of terrors many imaginary monsters lying in wait in rivers, lakes, on mountains, under certain bluffs and hills, in the sky, invisible in the air—every where to injure or destroy him. It was his object to propitiate these awful beings. His religion was one of propitiation rather than of worship. He was much more interested in preventing some power from visiting calamity upon him than in praising some object or influence in hopes of a favor. Ceremonial societies were instituted to induce some god to send the buffalo, to cure some sickness, to make the corn grow, to keep enemies off, to give success in war, and for many other purposes. Certain gentes of the Kansas had certain duties in these ceremonials. Their word for a god—and their idea of God was not like that of the Christian—was wakanda. Anything might be a wakanda. The great forces of nature were wakandas. Perhaps the sun was a wakanda—the Wakanda. Anything which exerted a force which the Kansa did not understand was a wakanda. They believed there were immense horned monsters dwelling under certain bluffs along the Missouri River. The Missouri itself was a wakanda. Their life was centered about this river. Islands in it came to have secret or evil significance. The great island just north of the site of Fort Leavenworth came to have some influence on their religious customs. Perhaps ceremonies were performed there, for they lived about this island for some generations. It is now called Kickapoo Island. It may have been the seat of their religion. It is at this time regarded as one of the sacred villages of the dead. Lewis and Clark landed on it July 2, 1804, and replaced a broken mast. They found it named “Wau-car-da-war-card-da, or Wau-car-ba War-cand-da, the Bear-medicine island.” Commenting on this name, Dr. Elliott Coues said:

One word with five hyphens. At first sight it looks like a misprint meant for two forms of one word, as “Wau-card-da.” I have been informed that probably it is meant for Wakan’da wakhdhi’, (where) “Wakanda was slain”—Wakanda being something named after the Thunder-god. This conjecture is borne out by the translation, “Bear Medicine,” showing that there was some mystery or superstition about the place, as anything that an Indian does not understand is “medicine.” But Clark’s MS. gives occasion for a different reading. His words are: “called by the Indians Wau-car-ba War-cand-da [two words with two hyphens apiece] or the Bear Medisin Island.” Here the second word, not the first, is “Wakanda” or “Medicine,” and the first word had b where the last prints d. Lewis’ MS. had a similar word not quite the same.

The Kansas had confused and indefinite conceptions of the future life. Mr. Say, of Long’s Expedition, secured from members of the tribe information on this point from which he wrote the following:

The lodge in which we reside is larger than any other in the town, and being that of the grand chief, it serves as a council house for the nation. The roof is supported by two series of pillars, or rough vertical posts, forked at the top for the reception of the transverse connecting piece of each series; twelve of these pillars form the outer series, placed in a circle; and eight longer ones, the inner series, also describing a circle; the outer wall, or rude frame-work, placed at a proper distance from the exterior series of pillars, is five or six feet high. Poles, as thick as the leg at the base, rest with their butts upon the wall, extending on the cross-pieces, which are upheld by the pillars of the two series, and are of sufficient length to reach nearly to the summit. These poles are very numerous, and agreeably to the position which we have indicated, they are placed all around in a radiating manner, and support the roof like rafters. Across these are laid long and slender sticks or twigs, attached parallel to each other by means of bark cord; these are covered by mats of long grass or reeds, or with the bark of trees; the whole is then covered completely with earth, which near the ground is banked up to the eaves. A hole is permitted to remain in the middle of the roof to give exit to the smoke. Around the walls of the interior a continuous series of mats are suspended; these are of neat workmanship, composed of a soft reed, united by bark cord, in straight or undulated lines, between which lines of black paint sometimes occur. The bedsteads are elevated to the height of a common seat from the ground, and are about six feet wide; they extend in an uninterrupted line around three-fourths of the circumference of the apartment, and are formed in the simplest manner, of numerous sticks or slender pieces of wood, resting at their ends on cross-pieces, which are supported by short notched or forked posts driven into the ground. Bison skins supply them with comfortable bedding. Several medicine or mystic bags are carefully attached to the mats of the wall; these are cylindrical, and neatly bound up. Several reeds are usually placed upon them, and a human scalp serves for their fringe and tassels. Of their contents we know nothing.

The fire-place is a simple, shallow cavity, in the center of the apartment, with an upright and a projecting arm for the support of the culinary apparatus. The latter is very simple in kind and limited in quantity, consisting of a brass kettle, an iron pot, and wooden bowls and spoons. Each person, male as well as female, carries a large knife in the girdle of the breech-cloth, behind, which is used at their meals, and sometimes for self-defense. During our stay with these Indians they ate four or five times each day, invariably supplying us with the best pieces, or choice parts, before they attempted to taste the food themselves.

They commonly placed before us a sort of soup, composed of maize of the present season, of that description which, having undergone a certain preparation, is appropriately named sweet-corn, boiled in water, and enriched with a few slices of bison meat, grease, and some beans, and, to suit it to our palates, it was generally seasoned with rock salt, which is procured near the Arkansas river.

This mixture constituted an agreeable food. It was served up to us in large wooden bowls, which were placed on bison robes or mats, on the ground. As many of us as could conveniently eat from one bowl around it, each in as easy a position as he could contrive, and in common we partook of its contents by means of large spoons made of bison horn. We were sometimes supplied with uncooked dried meat of the bison, also a very agreeable food, and to our taste and reminiscence, far preferable to the flesh of the domestic ox. Another very acceptable dish was called lyed corn. This is maize of the proceeding season, shelled from the cob, and first boiled for a short time in a lye of wood ashes until the bard skin which invests the grains is separated from them; the whole is then poured into a basket, which is repeatedly dipped into clean water until the lye and skins are removed; the remainder is then boiled in water until so soft as to be edible. They also make use of maize roasted on the cob, of boiled pumpkins, of muskmelons and watermelons, but the latter are generally pulled from the vine before they are completely ripe.

Ca-ega-wa-tan-ninga, or the Fool Chief, is the hereditary principal chief, but he possesses nothing like monarchical authority, maintaining his distinction only by his bravery and good conduct. There are ten or twelve inferior chieftains, or persons who aspire to such dignity, but these do not appear to command any great respect from the people. Civil as well as military distinction arises from bravery or generosity. Controversies are decided amongst themselves; they do not appeal to their chief, excepting for counsel. They will not marry any of their kindred, however remote. The females, before marriage, labor in the fields, and serve their parents, carry wood and water, and attend to the culinary duties; when the eldest daughter marries, she commands the lodge, the mother and all the sisters; the latter are to be also the wives of the same individual. When a young man wishes to marry a particular female, his father gives a feast to a few persons, generally old men, and acquaints them with his design; they repair to the girl, who generally feigns an unwillingness to marry, and urges such reasons as her poverty, youth, etc.—the old men are often obliged to return six or seven times before they can effect their object. When her consent is obtained, the parents of the young man take two or three blankets and some meat to the parents of the female, that they may feast, and immediately return to their lodge. The parents put on the meat to cook, and place the same quantity of meat and merchandise on two horses, and dress their daughter in the best garments they can afford; she mounts one of the horses, and leads the other, and is preceded by a crier, announcing with a loud voice the marriage of the young couple, naming them to the people; in this way she goes to the habitation of her husband, whose parents take from her everything she brings, strip her entirely naked, dress her again in clothes as good as she brought, furnish her with two other horses, with meat and merchandise, and she returns with the crier to her parents. These two horses she retains as her own, together with all the articles she brings back with her. Her parents then make a feast, to which they invite the husband, his parents, and friends; the young couple are seated together, and all then partake of the good cheer, after which the father of the girl makes a harangue, in which he informs the young man that he must now assume the command of the lodge, and of everything belonging to him and his daughter. All the merchandise which the bride returned with is distributed in presents from herself to the kindred of her husband in their first visit. The husband then invites the relatives of his wife to a feast. Whatever peltries the father possesses are at the disposal of the son, to trade with on his own account; and in every respect the parents, in many instances, become subservient to the young man.

After the death of the husband the widow scarifies herself, rubs herself with clay, and becomes negligent of her dress until the expiration of a year, when the eldest brother of the deceased takes her to wife without any ceremony, considers her children as his own, and takes her and them to his house; if the deceased left no brother, she marries whom she pleases. They have in some instances, four or five wives, but these are mostly sisters; if they marry into two families the wives do not harmonize well together, and give the husband much inquietude; there is, however, no restriction in this respect, except in the prudence of the husband. The grandfather and grandmother are very fond of their grandchildren, but these have very little respect for them. The female children respect and obey their parents, but the male are very disobedient, and the more obstinate they are and the less readily they comply with the commands of their parents, the more the latter seem to be pleased, saying, “He will be a brave man, a great warrior—he will not be controlled.”

The attachment of fraternity is as strong, if not stronger, than with us. The niece had great deference for the uncle. The female calls her mother’s sister mother, and her mother’s brother uncle. The male calls his father’s brother father, his father’s sister aunt, his mother’s sister mother, and his mother’s brother uncle. Thirteen children have occurred in one family. A woman had three children at a birth; all lived.

The young men are generally coupled out as friends; the tie is very permanent, and continues often through life.

They bear sickness and pain with great fortitude, seldom uttering a complaint; bystanders sympathize with them, and try every means to relieve them. Insanity is unknown; the blind are taken care of by their friends and the nation generally, and are well dressed and fed. Drunkenness is rare, and is much ridiculed; a drunken man is said to be bereft of his reason, and is avoided. As to the origin of the nation, their belief is, that the master of life formed a man, and placed him on the earth; he was solitary, and cried to the master of life for a companion, who sent him down a woman; from the union of the two proceeded a son and daughter, who were married, and built themselves a lodge distinct from that of their parents; all the nations proceeded from them, excepting the whites, whose origin they pretend not to know. When a man is killed in battle the thunder is supposed to take him up, they do not know where. In going to battle each man traces an imaginary figure of the thunder on the soil; and he who represents it incorrectly is killed by the thunder. A person saw this thunder one day on the ground, with a beautiful moccasin on each side of it; having much need of a pair, he took them and went his way; but on his return to the same spot the thunder took him off, and he had not been since heard of. They seem to have vague notions of the future state. They think that a brave warrior, or good hunter, will walk in a good path; but a bad man or coward will find a bad path. Thinking the deceased had far to travel, they bury with his body moccasins, some articles of food, etc., to support him on the journey. Many persons, they believe, have become reanimated, who had been, during their apparent death, in strange villages; but as the inhabitants used them ill they returned. They say they have never seen the master of life, and therefore cannot pretend to personify him; but they have often heard him speak in the thunder; they wear often a shell which is in honor, or in representation of him, but they do not pretend that it resembles him, or had anything in common with his form, organization or dimensions.

This nation having been at profound peace with the Osages since the year 1806, have intermarried freely with them, so that in stature, features, and customs, they are more and more closely approaching that people. They are large, and symmetrically well formed, with the usual high cheek-bones, the nose more or less aquiline, color reddish coppery, the hair black and straight. The women are usually homely with broad faces. We saw but a single squaw in the village who had any pretensions to beauty. She was recently married to an enterprising warrior, who invited us to a feast, apparently in order to exhibit his prize to us. The ordinary dress of the men is breech-cloth of blue or red cloth, secured in its place by a girdle; a pair of leggings made of dressed deer-skin, concealing the leg, excepting a small portion of the upper part of the thigh; a pair of moccasins, made of dressed deer, elk, or bison skin, not ornamented, and a blanket to cover the upper part of the body, often thrown over one arm in hot weather, leaving that part naked; or it is even entirely thrown aside. The outer cartilage of the ear is cut through in three places, and upon the rims thus separated various ornaments are suspended, such as wampum, string-beads, silver or tin trinkets, etc. The hair of most of their chiefs and warriors is scrupulously removed from the head, being careful, however, to leave enough, as in honor they are bound to do, to supply their enemy with a scalp in case they should be vanquished. This residuum consists of a portion on the back of the head of about the breadth of the hand, round at its upper termination, near the top of the head, the sides rectilinear, and nearly parallel, though slightly approaching each other towards the origin of the neck, where it abruptly terminates; on the exterior margin, the hair is somewhat longer, and erect. This strip of hair is variously decorated; it is sometimes colored on the margin with vermilion; sometimes a tail-feather of the war-eagle is attached transversely with respect to the head; this feather is white at base, and black at tip; but the principal ornament, which appears to be worn by some of their chief warriors, and which is at the same time by far the most handsome, is the tail of the common deer; this is attached by the base near to the top of the patch of hair, the back of it resting on the hair, and the tip secured near the termination of the patch; the bristly hair of the tail is dyed red by a beautiful permanent color, and parted longitudinally in the middle by a broad silver plate, which is attached at the top, and suffered to hang loose. Many of them are tattooed on different parts of the body. The young boys are attired naked, with the exception of a girdle, generally of cloth, round their protruding abdomen. This part of the body in the children of this nation is remarkably prominent; it is more particularly so when they are young, but gradually subsides as they advance in age. In hot weather the men, whilst in the village, generally use fans with which they cool themselves, when in the shade, and protect their heads from the sun whilst walking out; they are made of the wing or tail of the turkey. The women rarely use them. The dress of the female is composed of a pair of moccasins, leggings of blue or red cloth, with a broad projecting border on the outside, and covering the leg to the knees or a little above; many, however, and perhaps almost a majority of them, do not in common wear this part of the dress. Around the waist, secured by a belt or cestus, is wrapped a piece of blue cloth, the sides of which meet, or come nearly in contact on the outside of the right thigh, and the whole extends downward as far as the knee, or to the mid-leg; around the left shoulder is a similar piece of cloth, which is attached by two of the corners, at the axilla of the right arm, and extends downward as far as the waist. This garment is often laid aside, when the body from the waist upwards is entirely exposed. Their hair is suffered to grow long; it is parted longitudinally on the top of the head, and flows over the shoulders, the line of separation being colored with vermilion. The females like those of other aborigines, cultivate the maize, beans, pumpkins and watermelons, gather and prepare the two former, when ripe, and pack them away in skins, or in mats for keeping; prepare the flesh of the bison, by drying, for preservation; attend to all the cooking; bring wood and water; and in other respects manage domestic concerns, and appear to have over them absolute sway. These duties, as far as we could observe, they not only willingly performed as a mere matter of duty, but they exhibited in their deportment a degree of pride and ambition to acquit themselves well; in this respect resembling a good housewife among the civilized fair. Many of them are tattooed.

Both sexes, of all ages, bathe frequently, and enter the water indiscriminately. The infant is washed in cold water soon after its birth, and the ablution is frequently repeated; the mother also bathes with the same fluid soon after delivery. The infant is tied down to a board, after the manner of many of the Indian tribes.

The chastity of the young females is guarded by the mother with the most scrupulous watchfulness, and a violation of it is a rare occurrence, as it renders the individual unfit for the wife of a chief, a brave warrior, or good hunter. To wed her daughter to one of these, each mother is solicitous; as these qualifications offer the same attractions to the Indian mother as family and fortune exhibit to the civilized parent. In the nation, however, are several courtesans; and during our evening walks we were sure to meet with respectable Indians who thought pimping no disgrace. Sodomy is a crime not uncommonly committed; many of the subjects of it are publicly known, and do not appear to be despised, or to excite disgust; one of them was pointed out to us; he had submitted himself to it, in consequence of a vow he had made to his mystic medicine, which obliged him to change his dress for that of a squaw, to do their work, and to permit his hair to grow. The men carefully pluck from their chins, axilla of the arms, eyebrows, and pubis, every hair or beard that presents itself; this done with a spiral wire, which, when used, is placed with the side upon the part, and the ends are pressed towards each other so as to close upon the hairs, which can then be readily drawn out.

Rev. J. Owen Dorsey found that the soul of a Kansas went at death to that spirit village nearest him at the time. These spirit villages changed location with the Kansas migrations. The last ones begin at Council Grove. Then there are spirit villages along the Kansas River at the sites of the old towns where they had dwelt on that stream. And on the Missouri their old village-sites from Independence Creek to the mouth of the Osage are now spirit villages to which the souls of the Kansa go to live after death.

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