Kickapoo (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Kickapoo, possibly from kiwegapaw, "he moves about, standing now here, now there." The Kickapoo were culturally similar to the Sauk and Fox and may once have been united with the Shawnee.

Location The Kickapoo lived around the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers (present-day southern Wisconsin) in the mid-seventeenth century, although they inhabited present-day Michigan and Ohio earlier and Illinois and Kansas somewhat later. Today, Kickapoos live in northeast Kansas, central Oklahoma, and northern Mexico.

Population There were between 2,000 and 3,000 Kickapoos in the mid-seventeenth century and approximately 3,000 in the 1990s.

Language Kickapoos spoke an Algonquian language similar to Sauk and Fox.

Historical Information

History The Kickapoo may have originated in southeast Michigan. In the seventeenth century, pressure from the Iroquois drove them west to southern Wisconsin, where they encountered French missionaries. They may have shared villages with the Miami at that time.

Kickapoos entered the fur trade, but throughout the later seventeenth century and early eighteenth century resisted pressure to assimilate and cede their lands. They were often at war with the French during that period, although the two groups established an alliance in 1729. They also fought various Indian tribes.

In the early eighteenth century, the Kickapoo joined tribes such as the Ojibwa, Ottowa, Sauk, and Fox to defeat the Illinois Confederacy and occupy their territory. The Kickapoo moved south to the Illinois River, where the tribe soon divided. One group headed farther south to the Sangamon River. Known as the Prairie Band, they increased their buffalo hunting. The other group moved east toward the Vermillion Branch of the Wabash River. This band retained their forest hunting practices. The band also absorbed the Mascouten, or Prairie Potawatomi, tribe of Indians.


Part of the Prairie Band moved into southwest Missouri in the mid-1760s. Following the French defeat in 1763, the Kickapoo transferred their allegiance to the Spanish. They participated in Pontiac’s rebellion and later accepted British aid against the United States, with whom they never had good relations.

The early nineteenth century saw greatly increased non-native settlement in the region. Most Kickapoos participated in Little Turtle’s war. The Vermillion Band also supported Tecumseh’s rebellion, which the Prairie Band opposed. Both groups, however, were drawn into the War of 1812. Some chiefs of each band ceded the people’s Illinois land in 1819, a move that forced most Kickapoos to join the group already living in Missouri.

Some Kickapoos, however, under Chief Mecina and the prophet Kenakuk, continued to resist relocation by passive means as well as guerrilla tactics. They were finally forced to move to Kansas in the early 1830s following their defeat in Black Hawk’s war (see Sauk). Most Missouri Kickapoos had accepted a reservation in Kansas in 1832. Some later fought with the United States against the Seminole in 1837.

From their base in Kansas, the tribe broke into several smaller groups, some remaining in Kansas and some migrating to Oklahoma; Texas, where they settled on the Sabine River with a group of Indians from several tribes; and Mexico. Horse-stealing raids, particularly in Texas, were an important activity throughout much of the nineteenth century. In 1862, some Kickapoo land was allotted and some was sold to a railroad company.

In the early to mid-1860s, fighting erupted between Mexican Kickapoos and Texas Rangers attempting to prevent some Kansas Kickapoos from crossing Texas to join their relatives. In the 1870s, the U.S. Army illegally crossed the Mexican border and destroyed the main Kickapoo village in Mexico. They also brought a group of women and children back to the Indian Territory as hostages; many men then agreed to leave Mexico and join them there.

In 1883, these people were granted a 100,000-acre reservation in Oklahoma. However, when that reservation was allotted ten years later, and pressure to assimilate increased, many people returned to Mexico, first to Nacimiento and then to northern Sonora. In 1908, the Kansas reservation was allotted to individuals. In 1937, the Kansas Kickapoos reorganized under the Indian Reorganization Act. They successfully resisted termination in the 1950s.

Religion All things, animate and inanimate, contained spirits, or manitou. Kicitiata, the supreme manitou, or creator, dwelled in the sky. Tobacco facilitated communication with the manitous. Young people may have undertaken vision quests. Dreams, which may have been encouraged by fasts, also had spiritual significance.

The main ceremony was a weeklong renewal and thanksgiving in early spring, at which time sacred bundles were opened and repaired. The people also celebrated the Green Corn and Buffalo Dances. Priests were in charge of religious observances. There may have been a ritual office, held by a woman, that gave approval to hold certain ceremonies. In the 1830s, the prophet Kenakuk preached a Christian-influenced religion that emphasized acculturation and prohibited alcohol, polygyny, and warfare. His message attracted some Kickapoos and Potawatomis.

Government The Kickapoo were divided into constituent bands, which were probably led by chiefs. A council of clan heads took decisions by consensus.

Customs Kickapoo society was organized in patrilineal clans. Furthermore, a dual division formed the basis for various cultural features such as joking (informal enforcement of social norms), games, races, and ritual seating. People played dice and ball games (such as lacrosse), held archery contests, and danced socially. They may have eaten human flesh.

Personal names were tied to dreams or visions. Menstrual seclusion was particularly long and rigorous the first time, at which time the woman was advised by older women on how to behave as an adult. After killing their first game, boys were given a feast, which included songs and prayers.

Courting may have involved the use of a flute. Marriage was finalized by gift giving between the families. Funeral or death ceremonies included feasting, song, and prayer as well as quiet moments. The dead were dressed in travel clothing and buried with tobacco, wooden spoons, food, and water in stone slabs or log vaults. Their feet faced west, the direction of the land of the dead. Graveyards were in or near villages. People left the village for four days following a death, after which time ceremonial adoptions were often performed.

Dwellings Rectangular summer and round or oval winter houses were framed with green saplings. Summer houses were covered with elm bark and were often attached to an arbor. Sleeping platforms lay along the sides. Doors faced east, and there was a smoke hole in the roof. Temporary winter houses were covered with woven cattail or tule mats. The people also built separate cook and menstrual/birth huts.

Diet Kickapoos were heavily dependent on crops. Women grew corn, beans, and squash, and they gathered various wild foods. Men hunted deer, bear, and other game, including some buffalo, and they fished.

Key Technology Carved wooden prayer sticks recorded prayers and myths as well as events. Pottery containers could hold water. There were many wooden items, such as utensils, bowls, and cradle boards. Spoons held particular significance.

Trade Kickapoos served as intermediaries in the mid-nineteenth century Comanche horse trade.

Notable Arts Important art objects included pottery and carved and decorated (with porcupine quills) wooden items. Silk applique was popular from the mid-eighteenth century on as clothing decoration.

Transportation The people acquired the horse earlier than most Indians of the northeast, probably in the early eighteenth century.

Dress Kickapoo dress depended largely on their location. Basic items were breechclout, dress or apron, leggings, and moccasins, although they tended to borrow local customs, especially with regard to personal ornamentation.

War and Weapons Kickapoo warriors were known as extremely fierce, able, and enthusiastic fighters. Among their seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century enemies were the Chickasaw, Osage, Dakota, Iroquois, Fox, and Illinois. They were periodically allied with the Sauk, Fox, and other tribes as well as with the French after 1730. Their warfare and raiding took them from New York and Pennsylvania into Georgia and Alabama, throughout the entire Great Lakes and prairie regions, and into Texas and Mexico.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Kickapoo Reservation in Brown County, Kansas, contains 19,200 acres of land, slightly more than a third of which are owned by Indians. Of this land, about half is held by individuals. The 1990 reservation Indian population was 368, although almost 200 Kickapoos lived nearby.

Oklahoma Kickapoos live in Lincoln, Potawatomi, and Oklahoma Counties. Tribal offices are located near the town of McCloud. The people are governed by a five-member business committee. Of the 22,000 acres originally allotted, individuals now own roughly 6,000 acres of land. There were about 1,900 tribal members in the early 1990s.

The Texas (Mexican) Kickapoos live in El Nacimiento Rancheria, Coahuilla, Mexico, on roughly 17,000 acres of land. Their village is located under the international bridge over the Rio Grande. A small group also lives in the state of Sonora. In 1984, the Kickapoo Trust Land Acquisition Committee purchased 125 acres of land along the Rio Grande in Texas, about eight miles south of Eagle Pass, but so far the people have preferred to remain in their old village. Band population in the mid-1980s was roughly 650.


Economy In Kansas, much of the allotted land is leased to non-natives. There is also a tribal farm and ranch, as well as a buffalo herd, on lands purchased with land claims settlement money. Some people work for the tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Unemployment remains around 40 percent, and more than a third of the people lived below the federal poverty level in the early 1990s. The tribe is attempting to build a gambling casino.

In Oklahoma, most land is leased to non-natives. Kickapoos in Mexico lived a traditional subsistence lifestyle until after World War II; now many work in the United States as migrant laborers. Unemployment is extremely high in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico.

Legal Status The Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Texas Band of Kickapoo (Kickapoo Traditional Tribe in Texas) are federally recognized tribal entities. In 1983, the United States recognized the Texas Band as a self-governing entity within the Oklahoma tribe and extended to them federal benefits that included the right to move freely across the international border. About one-quarter of this group are U.S. citizens.

Daily Life The Kansas Kickapoo own a gymnasium, day care center, and housing and other facilities for seniors. There is also a Kickapoo Nation school serving grades K-12. Few people have college degrees. The language is no longer spoken. Many Kansas Kickapoos have married neighboring Prairie Band Potawatomis. Ongoing traditions include the Kenakuk religion, the Drum religion (Dream Dance), and the Native American Church.

The Oklahoma and Texas Kickapoo regard themselves as one people. Kickapoos in Mexico migrate to the United States to work as farm laborers from spring through fall and then return to their villages for the winter ceremonial season. In Mexico, they live in cardboard and cane houses. The native religion remains intact in Mexico, as does much else of traditional culture. It centers on a seasonal round of ceremonies that are attended by many Kickapoos from Oklahoma. Many Oklahoma Kickapoos speak only Kickapoo; only a small number of them, mostly young people, are fluent in English.

Next post:

Previous post: