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The Kiowa’s original name for the tribe was Kwu’da (pulling out) or Tepda (coming out). These names are most likely a reference to their creation myths. In the tribe’s creation mythology the earth had been flooded, and then a period of drying occurred and land formed. As the earth dried and the land took shape, forests grew. A supernatural being, Saynday, called the tribe into the world by striking a hollow log with a stick, bringing each member of the tribe forth until a pregnant woman became stuck, thus blocking any others from following. The forest began to recede, and the bison took to the newly formed grassy plains. Saynday taught the people of the forest, created from a tree, to hunt bison on the plains; thus, the people of the forest became the Kiowa of the plains. It is worth noting that the tribe’s creation mythology is complementary to the geological records of glacial recessions that formed forests of coniferous and deciduous trees that eventually died out to form the plains of North America.

The name Kiowa evolved from the Comanche name for the tribe. The Comanche originally called their neighbors and later allies Kaigwa (two halves differ). This name referred to the way Kiowa warriors wore their hair. The warriors traditionally cut only one side of their hair and left the other long. As the Europeans began to make records of the tribe, Kaigwa became Kiowa. The name Kiowa now means “the principle people,” according to the tribe.

Nomadic Hunters and the Horse

The sketch above depicts a travois pulled by a dog, which is what the tribe used prior to horses.

The Kiowa were nomadic hunters who followed the seasonal bison migrations on the plains. They traded with agricultural tribes, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, who lived in permanent settlements along the Missouri River. The Kiowa traded surplus bison hides in exchange for corn and other agricultural products. This trade system was important to the Kiowa as a means of maintaining a stable food supply. The agricultural tribes also benefited from the supply of bison products, and so the system was carefully maintained to assure mutual benefit.

Kiowa tipis are pictured in the center. Tipis were designed for a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In contrast, the Wichita grass lodges below were designed for more permanent settlement.The Kiowa developed utilitarian dwellings to accommodate their nomadic lifestyle. The tribe lived in tipis, made of bison hides and wooden poles which could be collapsed and raised easily as the tribe followed the herds. The poles of a tipi were collapsed and reconfigured to form a triangular frame. The hides were used to strap all other possessions onto the frame to form a device called a travois. The narrow end of the travois was attached to an animal, and the wide base was dragged along the ground. Before the tribe acquired horses, they used dogs to pull the travois.

Horses were acquired from the Spanish settlements in New Mexico but quickly spread to various plains tribes. The horse was a catalyst for a cultural revolution for the nomadic plains tribes. Horses made hunts faster and more successful and the tribe’s territory larger. The tribe could move a travois with greater efficiency, thus allowing the tribe to keep more material possessions while remaining highly mobile. The horse quickly became the ultimate symbol of social status. Bride wealth was paid in horses, and warriors achieved their highest honors through stealing horses from an enemy. Long-distance communication between bands was also easier, which enabled the tribe to hold more frequent ceremonial gatherings. In nearly every way the horse made Kiowa culture thrive.

The tribe’s oral traditions say that the Kiowa made the first horse. This horse was discarded and became mankiah (whirlwind). The tribe had no need to fear any plains storms or tornados because they had created mankiah. The tribe’s second attempt to make a horse was more successful. This horse was made from parts of elk, turtle, dog, deer, turkey, and hair from mankiah. Frenchman, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was the first European explorer to write about the Kiowa. He recorded that the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache had many horses in 1682. By the time Europeans and Euro-Americans began to enter Kiowa lands, the tribe was known as expert horse riders of the plains.

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Entry: Kiowa

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.