Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Kansa (Kaw) Women

Often when discussing a society, the focus is on the men, particularly those who are the leaders. Today, to create a better understanding of my character, Meadowlark, in my latest book, Charlie’s Choice, I wish to focus on what life was like for the Kansa, or Kaw, women of the tribe originally known as the People of the South Wind. To learn more about this tribe as a whole, please refer to last month’s post, “The Kaw – People of the South Wind” by CLICKING HERE.

Women played a significant and sometimes humorous role in the creation stories of the Kansa. Based on contacts with the Kaw people at their Blue Earth Village near present-day Manhattan, Kansas in 1819,  Thomas Say noted that the “Master of Life” first created Kaw man. His solitary life, however, caused him to cry out in anguish, so the “Master” sent down a woman to alleviate his loneliness. Another early 19th-century account stated that Kaw men who simply emerged from the earth became boastful of their long tails, whereupon the Great Spirit (Wakanda) removed the tails and created nagging women from them, and then sent swarms of mosquitoes to remind all Kaw people that modesty was a virtue.

The most popular account, however, recalls that overpopulation on a small island created before the main part of the earth caused frustrated Kaw fathers to drown unwanted children, thus prompting more compassionate Kaw mothers to ask the Great Spirit to provide more living space. Their prayers were answered when beavers, muskrats and turtles were sent down to enlarge the island from the floor of the great waters, and in time the earth assumed its present form. Flora and fauna thrived, the population crisis was averted, and “the entire circle of the world was filled with life and beauty.”
Kaw Woman painted by George Catlin
Before frequent contact with Europeans, Kansa women wore wraparound skirts and deerskin shawls. They wore moccasins on their feet. In cold weather, they wore long buffalo-hide robes.

Where did the early Kansa get the materials for their clothing? Each winter was spent in buffalo country. When a bison was killed, all parts were used. The meat was used for food, the hide for clothes, and the bones for tools. A buffalo robe was produced from winter kills, while buffalos killed during the summer were stripped of their fur and made into leather (Spencer, 1906)
Kaw Man and his wife

Kansa women wore their hair either loose or braided. The hair was worn long, parted in the middle, the part colored with vermilion. Like the men, many of the women tattooed the body (Thwaites, 1906). You can get an idea of the early dress and hair styles of Kansa women from two paintings by George Catlin.
1890s - Kaw Women
Once they had access to cloth, Kaw women wore moccasins, knee-length leggings of blue and red cloth, a skirt and occasionally a cloth thrown over one shoulder. Later, Kansa people adapted European costume such as cloth dresses and vests, decorating them with beadwork as well.

A Kansa mother traditionally carried a young child in a cradleboard on her back. Being wrapped up tightly is soothing to infants, and most cultures have traditionally used some form of swaddling. Most American Indian cradleboards were intended only for young, nursing babies. Older babies were usually attached to the cradleboard with their hands free, so that they could play with a toy as they traveled. Once Native American children became old enough to sit up and crawl, they were usually not restrained in a cradleboard anymore, but instead allowed to play on the ground (usually under the supervision of a relative or babysitter.)

As far as how Kansa, or Kaw, women fit in the tribe regarding responsibilities, while men took responsibility for hunting, Kansa women were farmers and did most of the child care and cooking. Kansa women raised crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. They also gathered wild foods such as potatoes, roots, and berries.

Kansa women made their homes in more permanent camps in lodges made of wood poles, bark and woven mats.  It was only while they traveled with the tribe twice a year to the open plains to hunt buffalo that they lived in tipis.

Only men became Kansa chiefs, but both genders took part in storytelling, artwork, music, and traditional medicine. Kansa artists, including many women, are famous for their native weaving, beadwork and hide paintings.

Grandma McCauley
There are numerous traditional Kansa legends and fairy tales. Storytelling, such as the creation stories at the top of this post, is very important to the Kansa Indian culture.
Kaw Woman painted by George Catlin
In my book, Charlie’s Choice, one of my characters is a traditional Kansa woman named Meadowlark. The dress on the front of the book cover is similar to one of the dress bodices shown in an early George Catlin painting. Probably at the time of the story, the second half of the 1850’s, Meadowlark wore fabric for her everyday clothing. The deerskin dress would have been for a special occasion.

The following is an excerpt from the book. The scene is a conversation between Meadowlark and her meddlesome aunt who is looking out for the best interests of her dead sister’s daughter.

           Meadowlark, the water skin she used to bring water to the lodge in her hand, realized by the way Chases Quail walked directly towards her with an intent expression on her face, her aunt wished to speak with her. She changed direction and walked towards her. She hoped by meeting the older woman quickly she could prevent Chases Quail from blurting out at the top of her voice something that might embarrass her. Meadowlark joined her aunt at the edge of the trees lining the creek.
          “He is here, Meadowlark. I thought you should know in case you have an interest in him.”
          Meadowlark tried to ignore the amused look in her aunt’s eyes. The image of Gray-cloud-speaks-thunder’s countenance popped in Meadowlark’s mind. However, not wishing to be the subject of gossip if she could avoid it, she dared not give Chases Quail any indication she suspected of whom her aunt spoke. Instead, her face void of expression, she waited for the woman to continue.
          “His cousin, Eyes-like-hawk, has been speaking with some of the men—swapping hunting stories and bragging—you know how men talk. However, Gray-cloud-speaks-thunder has wandered off. Perhaps he wishes to speak to someone somewhere else.”
          Meadowlark wondered what her aunt hinted at. Did Chases Quail think Gray-cloud-speaks-thunder wish to speak to her? Whether he did or did not, she wished to see him again.
          “I need to fill the water bag for the lodge. Then I need to search for some herbs to season our evening meal. I do not know how far I must go to find what I look for.”
          Chases Quail pointed towards the dense brush to the southwest. Meadowlark’s gaze turned in the direction her aunt pointed, but she saw no one. She turned back, a question her expression. The older woman smiled knowingly and nodded.
          “When you search for your herbs, try over there. I saw something tasty that direction.”

Please CLICK HERE to find the book description and purchase link for Charlie’s Choice.



  1. A very interesting history. Thank you for sharing your research.

    The book sounds delightful. Wishing you the very best on it and the others stories you tell. Doris

  2. This was such a well written post and I enjoyed it very much.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.