Most of us know that Wichita is named for the Wichita Indian tribe who inhabited the area hundreds of years ago. We are reminded of the city's heritage when we see the Keeper of the Plains, but as time goes by it becomes increasingly difficult to picture what life must have been like for the Wichita tribe. What do we really know about the Wichita Indians? What was life like, right here in Wichita, hundreds of years ago?
To make answering these questions a little easier, here is a brief look at the history of the Wichita Indians.
According to wichitatribe.com, the heritage of the Wichita's can be traced back as far as 800 years. The Wichita Indians inhabited much of the Midwest, from today’s Wichita Falls region in Northern Texas, to the Washita River area in Western and Central Oklahoma, to right here in Wichita, Kansas. The Wichitas lived in villages of rectangular houses made of mud with gardens nearby. The women used tools made of leg and shoulder bones of buffalo to tend to the gardens. The men hunted deer, buffalo, and small game. Some Wichitas eventually constructed larger villages with larger round, grass houses, and others moved to the north and settled in the area that would later be known as Quivira by Spanish explorers.
The lives of the Wichita were changed with the arrival of the Spanish and French. As trade was common at this point, The Wichitas acquired horses from the Spanish, allowing them to hunt buffalo much more efficiently than ever before. From the French towns of Louisiana, the Wichitas obtained metal guns and tools. Some of these tools were used for trade with other tribes.
The Wichitas were very prosperous. They reaped a large harvest through hunting and farming. In the winters, Wichitas left their villages to go on extended buffalo hunts, living in tipis along the way. When the Wichitas returned, their grass homes, which could house 10-12 people, often needed repair. They repaired the homes before resuming life as normal.
The Villages of the Wichita each had a council of leaders who were selected by warriors based on their merits in generosity, bravery and wisdom.
The life of the Wichitas was ceremonial and festive. Rituals were common, like that of the Deer Dance, which was performed by medicine men when corn ripened, grass first appeared, and when corn was harvested.
Though the Wichitas had benefitted much from trade with the Europeans, at this time they began to suffer greatly. The European men brought with them diseases, and the Wichitas lost many members of their tribe.
In 1835, the American-Wichita treaty was signed at Camp Holmes. This documented agreement that the Wichitas were entitled to their traditional home. This document also contained the first use of the name “Wichita” in reference to the Wichita, Waco and Tawakoni people for whom it stood.
Intrusion and ridicule from the neighboring white men forced the Wichitas, who were currently living in Northern Texas, to move further north—to Kansas. At this time, the Wichitas did not have land to farm, and as a result, many people starved. Others were lost to epidemics of smallpox and cholera.
Times were hard all around for the Wichitas, as children were placed in boarding schools and forced to give up their native tongue. Even the reservation on which the lived was to be taken from them. The Wichitas, led by Tawakoni Jim, resisted this, but in 1900, the land way divided. With this came the destruction of the Wichitas’ grass homes and ultimately, their way of life.
Despite the unparalleled adversity they faced, the Wichitas persevered, and managed to maintain many aspects of their culture.
Presently, the Wichitas, alongside the Caddo and Delaware tribes, make up WCD Enterprises, which focuses on business development.
Wichita’s Mid-American All Indian Center allows American-Indians and the general public to share stories and experiences. In and around the city of Wichita, 73 tribes are represented by 10,000 people, and our soil is still rich with our Indian heritage.