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Kiowa - Early History and the First Divide

The precise origins of the Kiowa are difficult to determine. The tribe’s nomadic lifestyle makes any attempt to pinpoint an exact point of origin difficult. The most confusing factor is that the Kiowa language is part of the Tanoan linguistic group. The other Tanoan language groups, Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa, are part of the Pueblo language group, which is strongly concentrated near New Mexico. The Tanoan linguistic classification is controversial because Kiowa culture is highly distinct from the Pueblo cultures, but the Kiowa language shares a common linguistic ancestor with the Pueblo speakers. Linguistically, the Kiowa may share a lineage with tribes from the southwest, but the earliest historical records place the Kiowa closer to the Black Hills by the time Europeans arrived in North America. In any case, whether or not the Kiowa were originally from the region near the Black Hills, it was in this region that the tribe became the culture that is currently identified as Kiowa. 

The Kiowa claim that the tribe originally inhabited an area close to the headwaters of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in present-day western Montana. According to the tribe, this was where Saynday called them into existence through a hollow cottonwood. Shortly after the tribe’s era of creation, some Kiowa ancestors intermarried with the Sarci tribe, who lived near the Saskatchewan River in present-day Canada. The Sarci spoke a language similar to the Apache. These intermarriages produced the Kiowa-Apache. The Kiowa-Apache traveled and coexisted with the Kiowa, but they were an independent culture with their own distinct language.

According to the Kiowa, at some point in the 1600s the Kiowa split when two leaders had a disagreement over mutual claims to an antelope. The defeated leader took his band, known as the Azatanhop (angry travelers) to the northwest. The Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache moved southeast to the Black Hills, which were already occupied by the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Crow. There is no record of what became of the Azatanhop after the divide.

The Kiowa traveled the plains from Saskatchewan to Texas through their history. The plains received little rainfall, had few trees, and could experience hot and cold temperature extremes. It was a tough and dynamic environment that required a capacity to adapt in order to thrive. The nomadic hunting culture allowed the tribe to succeed in the plains, but beyond the bison, there were few resources. The Black Hills of present-day South Dakota formed a resource-rich geographic anomaly that attracted many plains tribes.

While moving across the Yellowstone River to the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota, the Kiowa first acquired horses. It is believed that the tribe obtained horses from the Crow. The Kiowa were a smaller tribe than some of the others in the region, which made them vulnerable. They formed an alliance with the Crow to the west around 1700. This alliance was the first diplomatic success of the Kiowa during their time in the Black Hills that allowed them to prosper.

Fight for the Black Hills and the Great Division

The Kiowa had control over their territory in the Black Hills at the start of the 18th century. The Blackfoot, Arapaho, and Cheyenne lived to the north, the Shoshone and Crow to the west, and the Hidatsa, Arikara, and Mandan to the east. The Kiowa formed stable peace and trade relations with the three agricultural tribes to the east and an alliance with the Crow, the largest nation to the west. The Kiowa were relatively secure in the Black Hills during the early years. They had good hunting grounds to the south, strong allies, and trade partnerships to supplement their diet with agricultural products. The first challenge to the Kiowa in the Black Hills was the Comanche encroachment on the southern hunting grounds.

Intermittent conflicts with the Comanche occurred between 1730 and 1770. Over time the two tribes developed a mutual distrust. The Comanche greatly outnumbered the Kiowa and had more horses, which made them a serious threat. Minor conflicts escalated to full-scale war after 1770. The period of peace in the Black Hills was over by this time. The Kiowa were now fighting on all fronts. The Shoshone attacked from the west, the Cheyenne-Arapaho alliance pressured the Kiowa from the north, and the Comanche occupied the Kiowa hunting grounds to the south.

The Sioux, a confederation of seven allied tribes, were by far the greatest threat and were aggressively expanding east toward Kiowa territory in the Black Hills. The Sioux formed a blockade of the Kiowa’s eastern agricultural trade partners. This move put strain on the Kiowa. The Sioux also had established trade for firearms with the French in Canada, which gave them a technological advantage over the majority of the northern plains tribes. The Kiowa were defending their territory from all directions when a smallpox epidemic killed nearly 2,000 of their people in 1781. They were left with only 300 warriors after the epidemic.

The Kiowa could no longer afford to hold off the constant threats from every direction. The Cheyenne-Arapaho alliance steadily increased its raids on the Kiowa, and the Sioux aggressions were relentless. Some of the Kiowa reluctantly decided to evacuate the Black Hills in 1785. The decision split the tribe into two bands. Nearly two-thirds of the tribe started to migrate to the southern plains. The other third stayed in the Black Hills and became the Northern Kiowa.

Northern Kiowa Struggle for the Black Hills

The Northern Kiowa managed to hold on to their territory at first. They were able to consistently defeat the Shoshone to the west, which gave them some relief on one front. The Sioux threat was spreading to other tribes. The Cheyenne and Arapaho formed a temporary alliance with the Northern Kiowa to stop the Sioux campaigns of expansion. The Northern Kiowa suffered a major defeat by the Sioux in 1795 and were left on the brink of starvation with no way of reaching any trade partners. The tribe also feared a potential Cheyenne and Sioux alliance. They started a long and slow journey to reunite with the Southern Kiowa that year.

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Entry: Kiowa - Early History and the First Divide

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: September 2015

Date Modified: December 2017

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