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What is the Kiowa Tribe?

By Stacy C.
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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The Kiowa tribe is a federally recognized group of North American Indians found primarily in Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. In the early 1900s, the Kiowa Tribe had fewer than 200 members, but as of 2010, the tribe had grown to about 11,500 members. The name "Kiowa" is pronounced "Kye-oh-wuh," which is an anglicization of the tribe's name for itself, "Gaigwu," which means "principal people." Most modern Kiowa speak English, but it is not uncommon for tribe members, especially elders, to speak the native language as well.

Early members of the Kiowa tribe were hunter-gatherers who migrated seasonally with buffalo, their primary source of meat. The Kiowa are thought to have migrated as a tribe from the area that is present-day Montana to the southern Great Plains sometime during the 18th century. The Kiowa tribe was spotted in the Black Hills area by the famous explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805.

Known for their skilled beadwork and hide paintings, the Kiowa traded with other plains Indians, including the Mandan and Pueblos. The Kiowa communicated with other tribes using sign language. They often warred, however, with other tribes, including the Sioux and the Osage.

The Kiowa operated under a caste system of sorts and were separated into northern and southern divisions, with six sub-tribes per division. Each sub-tribe had its own leader. Tribe members could achieve higher status based on their wealth and connections, but having useful skills such as hunting also could elevate social status. A tribe member could lose status ranking based on the loss of skills or through dishonorable acts. Typically, males were the only ones who could raise or lower their family's social standing, because the Kiowa tribe was a male-dominated society.

This social system ended when the Kiowa tribe was part of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, a set of three treaties with the United States government. The Kiowa and other tribes, including the Comanche, the Plains Apache, the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, all signed agreements giving up traditional tribal territories. In exchange, they received smaller areas of land that included provisions for houses, barns and schools as well as a promise that the U.S. government would protect them.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty assigned the Kiowa tribe a reservation in Oklahoma. Their tribal complex is located just west of Carnegie, Oklahoma. The tribe's numbers decreased greatly in 1892 when outbreaks of measles and fever swept through the tribe and killed more than a fourth of the tribe. By 1905, just 155 members of the Kiowa tribe remained.

In addition to being subject to the U.S. government and its laws, the tribe has its own government, laws and police. For many years, the tribe elected a chief via a tribal council. In modern times, the Kiowa are governed by a tribal council, which is elected by the tribe members.

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