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The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas

by Rebecca Brush

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We are not really sure when the Kickapoo first arrived in Texas. We know that after the war of 1812, where the Americans fought the British, two Kickapoo bands settled in Missouri. In 1833, most of them moved to Kansas and the rest of them came to Texas. You think it would be easy to find out just when they came to Texas? It wasn’t. Two anthropologists named Ritzenthaler and Peterson wanted to find out so they did research on this. They discovered that the Kickapoo were granted land by the King of Spain in 1775. The land they were granted was in the northern part of the Spanish Territory of Mexico. This part of Mexico later became Texas.

Moving around was not new to the Kickapoo. The Kickapoo were forced to move many times by the government. Eventually, some of them settled in Oklahoma on a reservation. Others obtained land from the President of Mexico and lived there. After many years of hardship from droughts hurting their crops and poor hunting, the Mexican Kickapoo were forced to work as migrant workers in the United States.

They finally applied for US citizenship and were federally recognized as the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas in 1983. By this time many of you were already born. The Kickapoo were given land just south of Eagle Pass, Texas. At first they had no houses and the land needed to be prepared for them.

Until their new home was ready, they lived in cardboard replicas of there traditional wickiups (click here for a picture of the wickiups ) ( click here for a big picture of a wickiup ) NEW, pictures of us building a wickiup!! under the bridge in Eagle Pass. Often people drove by and pitied them for their living conditions. They thought the Kickapoo lived in funny looking houses because they were poor. The Kickapoo were poor and were not able to find the work they wanted and needed. But, that is not why their houses were funny looking. They lived in those kind of houses because they were trying to cling to their cultural heritage. Those houses were traditional Kickapoo style houses, something many people did not understand.


The newer houses that were built on the reservation do not look like normal Kickapoo houses. They look like the houses that you and I live in. In Mexico, just across the border from the reservation, they still have traditional style Kickapoo houses. Because of this, the Kickapoo still spend a lot of time on their traditional land in Mexico. It is in Mexico that they are able to maintain their traditional way of life. They perform all their important ceremonies there and their houses are set up according to tribal custom. The Kickapoo have come a long way in order to maintain their own customs and beliefs. Kinda like the pilgrims did.

You see, in the early 1600s, the Kickapoo were living in their original homeland way up north in the Michigan area. Europeans came to the area in lower Michigan where the Kickapoo were living and they wanted the Kickapoo to trade with them. The Kickapoo did not want to have dealings with these new people and so they moved to avoid them. They moved to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. From the time of their first contact with Europeans, the Kickapoo have moved to avoid the white mans ways. They did not want to have their children raised as white men. How would your parents feel if someone from another land came into to your home and told you that they wanted your children to learn their ways instead of the ways of your parents? Do you think your parents would be happy about this? Look at the map to see how often and to how many different places the Kickapoo moved so they could maintain their own cultural identity.

The Kickapoo Indians belong to the Algonquian language group which seems to have originated in the Great Lakes region. Can you find the Great Lakes on a map? When the first European people came to the new world, they found that many of these linguistically related tribes, or tribes related to one another by language, had migrated into other parts of North America. That means that you can find Algonquian speakers from Maine to the Great Plains.

Algonquian people are classified by anthropologist in a group called Woodland Indians. This means they inhabited a richly forested area and collected all the material necessary for their daily lives from the forest environment they lived in. A forest is also called woodlands. This is why the Indians who lived in these forests are called Woodland Indians. There are many more tribes of Woodland Indians other than the Kickapoo.

They were not a nomadic people and thus, did not move around much once they were settled in an area. The Kickapoo built wooden, bark covered structures for houses. These houses are called wickiups or wigwams. They raised crops, gathered fruits and nuts when in season, fished the rivers and hunted deer, bear and small game. Wood, gathered from the forests provided material for many of the tools and implements. For example, flint points, attached to wooden handles, served many purposes in day-to-day living and elaborately carved wooden war clubs were used in battle.

Remember I told you earlier that the Kickapoo are Woodland Indians? Well, can you imagine how much different the land and climate in Texas is from their original homeland near the Great Lakes? You would think that their way of life had changed greatly because of the difference in environment. Surprisingly, they have maintained a very strong cultural heritage. For example, the houses they live in are made from woven mats of cattails and look very much like the houses they used in the northern midwest United States which were made from birch bark. And, just like in the old days up north, it is the women who own and oversee all the construction of the houses.

The crops they raise are basically the same also. They still grow squash, beans, potatoes, pumpkin, corn and sweet potatoes. In Mexico, the Kickapoo enjoy two growing seasons instead of one. They plant winter wheat and oats in the fall. This is a small but good change that has come from the difference in environment. The men still hunt deer, bear, squirrel and other small game. Much of this meat is made into jerky. The food is stored in baskets in their houses.

Speaking of baskets, you might wonder why a sedentary people are using basketry instead of pottery. In the northern climates where they used to live, the Kickapoo used many types of woods, barks and fibers, animal skins and bones, stone and clay to make their necessary tools. They made containers from tree bark to store food and carry water. When they moved south, the Kickapoo also made use of their natural surroundings and began to weave their containers out of reeds instead of making them from bark. Many anthropologists believe that the art of basketry came about because of a lack of certain types of bark in Texas and Mexico. Other containers, such as bowls, are made from soft stones. Animal skins are also made into containers. The Kickapoo have a very fine way of preparing the animal hides for use. I know, cause I have seen them. The hides turn out soft and are a rich golden color. They use animal brains to tan the hides and then they smoke them over a fire for a few days. The smoking is what gives the skin its rich color.

Deerskin was used for clothing until the arrival of the white man. Moccasins, also made from deerskin, are still worn by many Kickapoo today. You can even buy moccasins made by the Kickapoo women in shops near where they live. Since the Kickapoo have been exposed to European dress, it is common for them to take advantage of the pre-made fabrics instead of tanning hides for clothes. The men wear shirts made of calico material that are adorned with ruffles and ribbons with khakis pants or Levis. Sometimes they even wear more traditional clothing such as buckskin leggings and breechcloths. The men decorate their clothing with silver brooches or exquisitely crafted beadwork which is applied by the women. Traditional clothing for women consisted of finely tanned garments. Today, however, they wear skirts and blouses made out of bright print fabrics. Many of the children and young adults dress just like you and me. The chief and other men of importance wear a feather in their hat.

Kickapoo women in traditional dresses around 1900

You may think that chiefs are only men. This is not true among the Kickapoo. In 1901 there were two Kickapoo chiefs. One was a man and the other a woman. The duties of a Kickapoo chief vary according to the needs of the tribe. They perform religious ceremonies, police the people, judge them on minor offenses, solve land and water quarrels and even act as a marriage counselor sometimes. The chief has advisors just like our president does. His advisors are called the Council of Elders. The Council of Elders meets with the chief to discuss all tribal matters.

Today, many Kickapoo children are sitting in the classroom just like you are. Some of their parents work in offices and factories just like your parents do. When they go home from school, they are taught how to be good Kickapoo and perform properly in ceremonies. Kinda like we are taught how to act during certain social functions like weddings and such.

So now you have met the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas. What do you think about having a group of Woodland Indians in your state. They have adapted very well don’t you think?

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Copyright by R E. Moore, Rebecca Brush and Texarch Associates, all rights reserved. Graphics may not be used or reproduced without prior permission. Short parts of text may be quoted in school reports. Longer quotes require prior written permission.

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