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Kaws (or Kanzas, Kansas)

Kansa IndiansBefore the 1600s, the Kanza or Kaws lived as one nation with a large number of Siouan-speaking people known as the Dhegiha Siouan group. Originating east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River, the Dhegiha tribes migrated west down the Ohio River. Although scholars differ as to exactly when this translocation occurred, it is clear that it was accomplished by the 1600s and, at that time, the Dhegihans had separated into the five tribes we now know as the Kaws, Quapaws, Omahas, Osages, and Poncas.

The Quapaws moved down the Mississippi River to the present east Arkansas area while the other four tribes went upstream to the present St. Louis area then headed up the Missouri River. By 1700 the Omahas and Poncas established a presence in the present eastern Nebraska–western Iowa area, and the Osages occupied present southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, northwest Arkansas, and northeast Oklahoma. Sometime in the later 1600s the Kaws established villages on the west side of the Missouri River in present day Doniphan County, Kansas.

The reasons for the Kaw migration west are open to speculation. It is possible that they were subject to pressure from better-armed eastern Indians who, in turn, were being forced west by European colonists getting established on the eastern seaboard. Contagious disease among Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries resulting in tribal re-configurations and population dislocations may have affected the Kaw migration. Tribal factionalism, the ambitions of individual chiefs, or the pursuit of westward-trending bison herds may have been factors as well.

The Kaw tribe derived its name from the Siouan aca, “Southwind.” Among the many variations of the name given by French traders and other Europeans were “Kanza” or “Kansa.” By the mid-18th century, the “People of the Southwind” were the predominant tribe in what became the state to which they gave their name. Their territory extended over most of present-day northern and eastern Kansas, with hunting grounds extending far to the west.

Kaw chiefsTreaties made with the United States government in 1825, 1846, and 1859 resulted in disease and starvation for the Kaws. Tribal population declined from several thousand to 1,500 by 1800, to 553 by 1872, and to 194 within 16 years of the 1873 move to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). The Kaw Nation has survived adversity and today is a federally-recognized self-governing tribe of more than 3,100 tribal members. Administrative headquarters are located in Kaw City, Oklahoma.

Use of the Kaw language among the Kaw Nation has declined dramatically. Only a handful of tribal members could speak the language in the 1970s. Today, all these elders are gone. The last full-blood Kaw, William A. Mehojah, died in 2000. The Kaw people today speak English as a first language, but many can still understand and use Kaw words and phrases. The Kanza Language Project is a special department of the tribal operation devoted to preserving and reviving the language. 

The site of the last Kaw village in Kansas, Little John Creek Reserve, is three and one half miles southeast of Council Grove. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is being restored by the Kaw Nation as Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park. Plans include stabilization of the existing ruins, interpretative signs, audio posts, and two miles of walking trails.

Entry: Kaws (or Kanzas, Kansas)

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2012

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.