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Kiowa - Religious Societies

The Kiowa had many religious leaders and medicine men, who offered cures and guidance to their people. These leaders belonged to various fraternal religious societies similar to the warrior societies. Each society had a distinctive specialization. The Buffalo Doctor Society was for those who could treat and heal wounds. The Owl Doctor Society was comprised of individuals with the gift of prophecy. The Sun Dance Shield Society guarded and cared for the tribe’s most sacred object. The Eagle Shield Society was for individuals who possessed magic. These societies were strictly for men, but an exclusive group of female elders could be admitted to the highly secretive Bear Women Society.

Religious leaders were consulted for nearly all actions of the tribe. War and raiding parties included a member of the Buffalo Doctor Society to treat the wounded and a member of the Owl Doctor Society to foresee the outcome of the battle or raid. The methods of these doctors included smoking, sweating, dancing, singing, and ritual performances. Every member of a religious society carried a medicine shield with the society’s symbol painted on it. A warrior would also carry a shield with a symbol of his personal medicine. Medicine shields were used for war medicine and not as a defensive tool in combat.

Kiowa Medicine

Specific substances, foods, animals, songs, rituals, and objects were believed to have spiritual powers. Some more special objects were thought to bring sacred power to an individual. Personal articles that brought sacred powers were referred to as one’s medicine. Tribal members gained their medicine from pledging a Sun Dance, praying, fasting, receiving a vision, or through inheritance from an elder. Medicine could do such things as grant military success, increase longevity, heal, or summon rain. Individuals may have been told through a vision what objects were their medicine and the rituals to perform to give their medicine power. Sacred objects were kept in medicine bundles and were removed from the safety of the bundle only to perform a medicine ceremony.

Some medicines were so potent that they became tribal medicine, as opposed to individual medicine. The tribe had 10 powerful medicine bundles call the Ten Grandmothers. Kiowa mythology tells the story of a supernatural child, Tal-lee, who was born of a human mother from a union with the sun. Tal-lee turned himself into 10 portions of sacred medicine that were given to the tribe and became the Ten Grandmothers. Each of the Ten Grandmothers had a male and female keeper and was kept in its own tipi. A tipi that housed one of the Ten Grandmothers was a sanctuary powerful enough that if one sought refuge in the tipi, he or she was safe from harm. The keepers were never aware of the contents; only the religious leader of the annual ceremonies where the Ten Grandmothers were opened knew the contents of the bundles.

Sun Dance

The K’ado (Sun Dance) occurred near the summer solstice and was a celebration of renewed life and the return of the bison herds. Pahy (the sun), one of many spiritual forces to act on the world, was highly revered but not worshipped by the Kiowa. Sun Dances have been performed by many different plains tribes. An archaeological site located in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming consists of boulders arranged in a circle and resembles the medicine wheels constructed for the Sun Dance. The boulders were dated to approximately 1700 CE. This site suggests that one of the earliest Sun Dances was held in the Bighorn Mountains with the Kiowa and their Crow allies.

The tai-me was the most sacred object to the Kiowa and was the center of the dance. The Sun Dance was performed to channel and send spiritual power into the tai-me. The tai-me was a small green stone, carved to resemble a human, and was covered in an ermine and white feather robe with a tobacco leaf head dress. An Arapaho gave it to the Kiowa. The tai-me was an Arapaho recreation of the original object given to the Arapaho by the Crow in a time of great need. It is believed that the Kiowa acquired it at some point during the 1700s when an Arapaho man married a Kiowa woman.

The keeper of the tai-me was honored by the tribe. The position of keeper was inherited and typically stayed within the same kinship group. The keeper was responsible for calling the bands to union for the Sun Dance and for presiding over the religious ceremony. The whole tribe gathered for the Sun Dance and constructed a sacred lodge together at the center of a massive circle of tipis. A Buffalo Dance was held outside of the lodge when the construction was completed.

The Buffalo Dance consisted of dancers wearing bison hides and mimicking the sounds and movements of a herd. The Buffalo Dance concluded with the dancers being herded into the lodge. The young men who had pledged a Sun Dance were the next to enter the lodge. The Sun Dance lasted four days and nights inside the lodge and involved fasting, dancing, ritual performance, and singing. After the dance concluded, the young men who pledged a Sun Dance drank a prepared root beverage and rested inside. The rest of the tribe socialized outside of the lodge. On the final day a feast was held, including all members of the tribe except the young men who pledged a Sun Dance and were resting. The bands dispersed after the feast ended.

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Entry: Kiowa - Religious Societies

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: January 2018

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