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ETHNONYMS: Igabu, Kikapu, Kiikaapoa, Kiwegapaw, Kiwikapawa, Ontarahronon, Shakekahquah, Shikapo


Identification. The name "Kickapoo" no longer has any evident meaning to the Kickapoo people other than that is how they refer to themselves. The variety of the other names by which they are known, however, demonstrates the extent of their contacts with other groups, ranging from the Great Lakes region to Mexico. These far-reaching migrations were probably responsible for an earlier translation that indicated that the term Kiwikapawa meant "he moves about, standing here, now there," today known to be linguistically impossible.

Location. Because of their nomadic nature, the Kickapoo cannot be assigned to a specific geographic area. Aboriginally, they ranged throughout the southern Great Lakes Region, eventually being pushed west and south in the wake of European contact. Today they comprise three groups living respectively near Horton, Kansas; McCloud, Oklahoma; and Melchor Muzquiz, Coahuila, Mexico. Many members of the last group have dual residency near Eagle Pass, Texas, and continue a migratory life-style that takes them throughout Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota as agricultural workers.

Demography. Owing to the Kickapoo's migratory adaptation and their tendency to disperse and recombine in Different groups, accurate population figures have always been difficult to obtain. It has been estimated that they numbered 2,000 in 1650. This population was probably split into at least three bands. At present, all three groups are roughly equal in population with between 650 and 750 members each.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Kickapoo language is of the Algonkian family. It is most closely related to Sauk and Fox and is also similar to other central Algonkian languages such as Shawnee, Potawatomi, Menominee, and Ojibwa. Virtually all Kickapoo in Mexico and Oklahoma, and a significant number in Kansas, retain the aboriginal language, although there are slight dialectical variations to be found among the three groups.

History and Cultural Relations

The Kickapoo may have been seen as early as 1612 by Samuel de Champlain, but continuous contact can be traced only from the mid-seventeenth century. The present existence of three decidedly different bands is representative of the cultural pattern of the tribe since precontact times. For over three centuries the Kickapoo have undergone a series of Migrations, fragmentations, and reassociations. During the seventeenth century, constant attacks by the Iroquois, who were expanding their territory farther west to maintain their fur trade with the French, sent the Kickapoo and other tribes fleeing to the west and south. In their attempts to secure their own territory and interest in the fur trade, the Kickapoo shifted loyalties and alliances with other tribal groups as well as the French, British, and Spanish.

After the American Revolution, increased pressures to settle created divisions among the Kickapoo. Those who favored a more acculturated life-style became known as the "Progressives," whereas those who wished to maintain the traditional life-ways were called the "Kicking Kickapoo." The Progressives became associated with an Indian prophet, Kenekuk, and settled on reservation land in Kansas in about 1834. That reservation remains the home of the Kansas Kickapoo with whom the Potawatomi merged in 1851. The more traditional Kickapoo moved south into Texas, at that time a part of Mexico, where they settled among a combined group of Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee.

The anti-Indian policy that was established after Texas won independence, and ultimately became a state, drove the Kickapoo, along with a contingent of Seminoles and escaped African-American slaves, into Mexico. In 1852 they were given land by the Mexican government in return for protection against the Apache and Comanche. During the next two decades, the Kickapoo were repeatedly charged with raiding Texas ranches from their settlements across the Rio Grande. In 1873 the Fourth U.S. Cavalry crossed the Mexican border to decimate an undefended Kickapoo village. Captives were taken to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Eventually, approximately half the tribe agreed to remain in their village of El Nacimiento, Coahuila, Mexico. This last group became a tribe recognized by the U.S. government in 1983 and, in addition to their holdings in Mexico, now have a reservation near Eagle Pass, Texas. In the United States they are officially known as the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, and in Mexico, where they spend most of their time, as the Mexican Kickapoo (Tribu Kikapu ), the term by which they still refer to themselves.


In aboriginal and early historic times the Kickapoo were seminomadic and this remains true for the conservative Mexican group today. Aboriginally, the Kickapoo summer villages were semipermanent, being associated with nearby agricultural fields. After crops were planted, a few residents, usually elderly, remained to care for them while most of the population set out on communal hunts. In winter, the village residents broke into smaller band units and established temporary hunting camps. The semipermanent villages were associated with an area for dancing and games and a burial place. The houses (wiikiaapi ) were constructed of elm bark or rush mats placed over a vertical framework of saplings. They were usually rectangular in shape with a covered, but open-sided extension on the front. The domed winter houses were oval in shape and covered with the same mats. The mats were readily transportable so that new camps could be constructed with ease.

Bark is no longer available, but the same construction techniques for both summer and winter houses are utilized in the Mexican village of Nacimiento today. A few of the traditional houses are still constructed by members of the Oklahoma Kickapoo, although this is rare and even rarer in Kansas. In Mexico, compounds are small and arranged in a close communal pattern. A typical compound consists of at least one wiikiaapi, a cook house, a menstrual hut (nianotegaani ), and perhaps some facility for storage. Women build and own the houses, and several related women and their nuclear Families often share a compound. There may also be a Mexicanstyle house in the compound. In Oklahoma, settlement is more dispersed as the reservation land was allotted in 1894 and many of the Kickapoo people have since lost any right to land ownership. In Kansas, the pattern is generally that common to a rurally fixed reservation that is agriculturally oriented.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kickapoo practiced a pattern of subsistence that combined a preferred hunting and gathering adaptation with less favored horticultural activity. Deer and bison were the major sources of meat, but other game animals, such as bear, elk, and small animals, were also utilized. Wild plants and nuts were supplemented by the maize, beans, and pumpkins they planted in the spring. In the wake of European contact, the Kickapoo became involved in the fur trade and later dealt in other goods as well, ultimately becoming known as shrewd traders.

All these activities remain evident to some degree in the economy of the Kickapoo who live in Mexico today. A significant portion of their food still comes from hunting, gathering, and home-grown products, although some commodities are purchased. Cash income is provided primarily through their employment as agricultural laborers in the United States, an activity that allows them to maintain their pattern of seasonal migration. Many of those who maintain a residence in the United States also receive Department of Agriculture food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Still others are eligible for Social Security benefits as a result of their seasonal employment. These government benefits are also available to members of the Oklahoma and Kansas Kickapoo. Among these more acculturated groups, subsistence activities are more varied and there is a greater dependence on wage labor. Unemployment and underemployment remain a problem, especially in Oklahoma where many Kickapoo lack formal education and some do not speak English. Those who own land generally lease it to White farmers rather than working it themselves. On the Kansas reservation, development projects have provided some jobs, but many of the same problems found among the Oklahoma Kickapoo exist there as well.

Industrial Arts. In addition to weapons, aboriginal crafts included many skillfully made wooden objects such as deer calls, cradle boards, and ladles. Baskets and mats were made from rushes. With the introduction of European beads, the Kickapoo began to produce ornately beaded moccasins. These crafts are still commonly practiced among the Mexican Kickapoo.

Trade. Trade among the Kickapoo and neighboring tribes was well established prior to and after European contact. The Kickapoo traded with Europeans as well, but avoided the strong dependency observed among other Indian groups. As the importance of fur trading decreased and the Kickapoo moved south, emphasis shifted to the trading of horses and livestock during the nineteenth century. Their ability to supply these and other trade items was a valuable asset after they settled in Mexico. Some Mexican Kickapoo still carry on a brisk trade in used clothing and other items picked up at flea markets along their migrant route.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally, all Kickapoo followed the traditional division of labor, which placed hunting activities as well as the protection of the village or camp in the charge of men. Men also cleared new fields for planting. Women were primarily responsible for gathering wild plant foods, planting and tending crops, building houses, cooking, and child care. On large hunting campaigns, everyone cooperated, the women processing the meat and later the hides of the animals that the men killed.

The division of labor changed for the Kansas and Oklahoma Kickapoo when they settled. Sedentary agriculture and eventually wage labor took precedence over hunting, and it was men who began to fulfill these tasks. For the Kickapoo in Mexico, the traditional divisions have undergone less change. Hunting remains important, although it has been replaced to some degree by agricultural wage labor. Nonetheless, it has allowed the continuation of the seasonal migratory pattern in which the male contribution to subsistence has been emphasized. Women take primary responsibility for the subsistence crops planted in the village at Nacimiento. During the migrations they work in the fields whenever child care and cooking allow. But it is the role of men, who cooperate in patrilineal crews just as they traditionally did for hunting, that is Paramount. Religious rituals remain primarily the responsibility of men in both Oklahoma and Mexico, although healing practices are conducted by both men and women.

Land Tenure. Prior to European encroachment, the Nomadic movements of the Kickapoo precluded emphasis on land tenure. Tribal groups had traditional hunting territories over which they ranged and their fields were planted near their semipermanent villages. The Kansas Kickapoo now live on communally held federal reservation lands. The reservation lands of the Oklahoma Kickapoo were allotted individually in 1894 and excess lands sold, so that there is no actual Kickapoo settlement. The Mexican Kickapoo village of Nacimiento is classified as an ejido and administered according to the Mexican Codigo Agrario. The original families who settled there still maintain rights to the land, but in general, usufructory rights are respected. The reservation provided for this group in Texas is federally administered.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kickapoo social organization features thirteen groups that direct the inheritance of Personal names. These nonunilineal, nonexogamous groups may have constituted patrilineal clans in the past. Association is now based on a personal name, or eponym, which is conferred by a namer who is of the same naming group. These eponymous units are groups in a system that determines reciprocal obligations among them. There are also dual divisions, which were probably true moieties in the past. The various name groups are divided into one or the other of these: kiiskooha is symbolized by the color white and the direction north, and oskasa is associated with black and south. The dual divisions provide rival teams for ball games and contests, and thereby redirect competitions and rivalries away from family, lineage, and name group. The Kickapoo are also Divided into four bundle societies, which are essentially Different "denominations" of the Kickapoo religion.

Kinship Terminology. Traditional kin terms follow the Omaha system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In earlier times, clans were exogamous and Marriage among relatives was prohibited. An exchange of gifts established the marital ties. There was some polygyny. Usually a year's bride-service was required during which the groom simply lived with the bride's family and contributed to the Economy of the household. Divorce was a very simple matter as matrimonial bonds were severed without ceremony. Today, marriages and divorces are likely to be legally sanctioned for the Kansas Kickapoo and, to a lesser extent, among those in Oklahoma. The Mexican Kickapoo, however, retain many of the traditional customs, which are not based on a formal state legal system. There is little ceremony attached to marriage. Use of a whistle language for courtship is still practiced in Mexico. After a courtship period, the groom passes a night with the bride in her house. His discovery by the bride's Family on the following morning establishes the marital union. There is still a de facto period of bride-service. The newly married couple resides with the bride's family, usually until the first child is born, at which time the wife builds a house for them in or near the compound of her maternal female relatives. During the period of migratory agricultural labor, However, matrilocal residence gives way to temporary residency established around patrilineally organized bands, which also form field and orchard work crews.

Domestic Unit. The household was traditionally the basic unit of production, with women tending to gathering and agricultural activities and men hunting. This pattern, which alternated matrilocal compounds with patrilocal camps, effectively created extended cooperative groups, although the nuclear household was the norm. This same pattern can be observed among the Kickapoo in Mexico today. Nuclear Family households are more customary in Kansas and Oklahoma, but extended families are also common.

Inheritance. Most property is passed on according to the wishes of the deceased. This includes real property, vehicles, livestock, and so on. The traditional Kickapoo house is built and owned by women, and on a woman's death, ownership usually passes to her oldest daughter. Personal belongings are divided among those who dig the grave and prepare the body for burial.

Socialization. Children are raised in a permissive fashion and are allowed to make decisions for themselves even at an early age. Fear of witches and supernatural phenomena are used by adults to control and sanction behavior, particularly among the Kickapoo in Oklahoma and Mexico. Children in Kansas and Oklahoma attend school, some going on to vocational training or college. Until recently, members of the very conservative Mexican Kickapoo have sought to avoid the acculturative effects of formal education and have purposely prevented their children from attending school. This attitude is changing owing to a closer association with the United States, which resulted from the newly established reservation in Eagle Pass, Texas, made available to them in 1986.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditionally, the Kickapoo were a nonstratified society in which both material wealth and cogent authority were largely nonexistent. A religiously conservative people, individual Kickapoo acquire influence and prestige primarily from skills, accomplishments, and religious devotion and knowledge. Although ritual activities are Primarily organized by and around men, women also have responsibilities through which their devotion and competence can be observed. As religion is an integral part of all aspects of Kickapoo life, carrying out any task in an appropriate and responsible manner constitutes performance of religious duties. This condition is still characterized by the Mexican Kickapoo. Increased stratification, which is due to socioeconomic factors and acculturation, is more obvious among individual members of the Oklahoma and Kansas Kickapoo.

Political Organization. Historically, the Kickapoo had a hereditary chief, who operated through influence rather than power, and a loosely structured council. This civil chief was primarily responsible for establishing hunting territories and deciding alliances. In time of war, control of the village passed to another chief who directed a council of warriors known for their military success. This group also acted as camp police, maintaining order and carrying out punishments. Today, political leadership for both the Kansas and Oklahoma Kickapoo comes from an elected tribal council. There is also a council, much more loosely structured, among the Mexican group. Business decisions notwithstanding, major influence comes from the religious leader.

Social Control. Fear of retribution from supernatural beings has always been a strong deterrent of disapproved behaviors among the Kickapoo. This remains so, particularly in Mexico and Oklahoma, where fear of witchcraft is strong. Fear of gossip and ostracism also plays an indirect role in Social control, but in the case of serious crimes, direct control is now left to local non-Indian authorities, whether in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, or Mexico.

Conflict. The Kickapoo are a remarkably cohesive group despite an almost inherent factionalism that has persisted since contact. The Kickapoo have traditionally been very fluid, with bands breaking away and recombining. This protean pattern has served as a pressure valve to preserve intragroup solidarity. Since contact, there have been two Permanent splits, however, and a third is developing. These divisions are formed between progressives and conservatives. The progressives are characterized by a tendency to settle Permanently and a tolerance for cultural change and intervention by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The conservatives are associated with a tendency to migrate as well as a stringently selective acceptance of outside cultural elements and a rejection of outside interference by non-Kickapoo. On a continuum, the Kansas Kickapoo are at the progressive end, the Mexican Kickapoo at the conservative end, and the Oklahoma Kickapoo in between. It is important to note that the Kickapoo identity is so strong that, except for disputes between Individuals, there is no record of violent discord between factions. Groups of individuals who become sufficiently discordant in their cultural goals simply break away and form a new Community without severing ties with the old.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Kickapoo religion has been an intrinsic part of every facet of life. The religion is animistic and includes a belief in manitous or spirit messengers. The supreme deity is Kisiihiat, who created the world and lives in the sky. Kisiihiat is assisted by a pantheon of manitous, or manitooaki (plural), who are embodied in the earth, objects of nature, and natural forces, and who serve as spirit messengers. There is also a culture hero, Wisaaka, the son of Kisiihiat, who created the Indian world and taught the Kickapoo to build their houses, which are a vital element of the Kickapoo religion. Religious practice is organized around sacred bundles, misaami, for clans and herbal societies. The religion is protected and practiced almost fanatically among the Mexican Kickapoo, whereas the Kansas Kickapoo have been strongly affected by Christianity. Most Oklahoma Kickapoo practice the traditional religion, but some other Religions, such as the Native American church and Protestant denominations, have made some impact.

Religious Practitioners. Each bundle society and clan has a leader to perform the various rituals associated with its Respective sacred pack. Religious leaders have long years of training in order for them to attain the knowledge necessary to the performance of rituals, and they exercise considerable influence socially and politically.

Ceremonies. A highly ritualized cycle of ceremonies plays a part in maintaining the cultural integration of Kickapoo Society in Mexico and Oklahoma, but less so in Kansas. A display of lightning and thunder, usually in early February, signifies the beginning of the New Year and hence the cycle of ceremonies. Festivals include clan and bundle rituals as well as ceremonies and dances that encompass all village Members. Special ceremonial foods play a role in these feasts and are eaten with ceremonial ladles.

Arts. Dancing and singing are important to Kickapoo Ceremonial life as are the instruments of accompaniment such as drums, flutes, and rattles. Some dances and songs are owned by individuals and may be performed only at their invitation.

Medicine. Religious ritual and herbal treatments are combined in traditional medical practices. A wide variety of plants are used in curing rituals and may be conducted by clan leaders, members of bundle societies, and individuals. The Buffalo Dance and Woman's Dance are often associated with treatment of illness and infertility. Modern medicine is accepted by all three Kickapoo groups, sometimes in combination with traditional healing.

Death and Afterlife . Death is accepted with some equanimity and is surrounded with little display of emotion or prolonged mourning. The spirit will journey to a place in the West and reside there happily. There is some fear of the spirits of the dead, however, and children and surviving spouses are considered at risk. Burial takes place after an all-night wake during which chants and prayers are performed. Several times a year, clan members gather to "feed the ghosts" of deceased relatives in the belief that they, too, get hungry. Between four days and four years of death, a special friend of the same sex and approximate age will be adopted into the role of the deceased among his or her consanguineal kin.


Callender, Charles, Richard K. Pope, and Susan M. Pope (1978). "Kickapoo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 656-667. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Latorre, Felipe, and Dolores Latorre (1976). The Mexican Kickapoo Indians. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Nunley, Mary Christopher (1986). The Mexican Kickapoo Indians: Avoidance of Acculturation through a Migratory Adaptation. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.



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KICKAPOO. The exact origins of the Kickapoo re-main uncertain, though tribal tradition tells of their separating from the Shawnee after a dispute over a bear's foot. Equally unknown is the meaning of "kiikaapoa," the name Kickapoo call themselves. The Kickapoo have maintained a marked independence from outside influences. To this day, they remain an exceptionally conservative people, as evidenced by their reluctance to marry outside the tribe. In addition to the Shawnee, the Kickapoo are strongly related to the Miami, Sauk, Fox, and especially the Mascouten.

The Kickapoo reckoned kinship patrilineally, and were organized into clans bearing the names of animals. They also had a Berry clan and a Tree clan, though clans named after plants were unusual in most tribes. Leaders from the clans formed a council, which governed along with a hereditary chief, usually from the Eagle clan. Women sometimes acted as chiefs, although in a religious, not political, role. By the 1950s, traditional organization became largely ceremonial, and matrilineal chiefs were acceptable. Kickapoo religion centers on relations with several important deities, including Creator, the four winds, the sky, moon, sun, stars, and earth.

Kickapoo women provided much of the tribe's food through agriculture and gathering. Men hunted and fished. Hunting and gathering are still important to a band of Kickapoo who settled in Mexico. Women also constructed the rectangular, bark-over-pole lodges in Kickapoo villages, and made clothing.

The Kickapoo migrated frequently both before and after encountering Europeans. They first met the French in the mid-seventeenth century when they lived in southern Wisconsin, and initially resisted any attempted control by France. Kickapoo hostility against the French increased in the 1680s, as they blamed French influence for Iroquois and Siouan invasions. The Kickapoo also fought France's Illinois allies, though their longest standing enemies were the Chickasaw and the Osage.

Kickapoo-French relations improved considerably in 1729, and they joined France for a time in the war against the Fox. The Kickapoo remained allied to France, and also the Spanish, even after France's surrender to England in 1763. They joined Pontiac's war against the English in 1763–1764. In the late 1760s they, along with the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa, drove the Illinois tribes from the Illinois River, and the Kickapoo moved into central Illinois. During the American Revolution (1775–1783) the Kickapoo were largely neutral or even pro-American, until American land hunger led them to side with Britain. They joined the Miami's confederacy against the Americans in the 1790s, and for years after the Treaty of Greenville (1795) refused to even pick up their annuities from the United States.

Never a huge tribe, the Kickapoo combined with the Mascouten (whom they gradually absorbed) to number only about 2,250 people in 1700, and 1,500 by 1750. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Kickapoo divided into two principal bands, about equal in size. The Prairie Kickapoo lived in central Illinois, while the Vermilion Kickapoo inhabited the western fringes of the Wabash River Basin, between modern Danville, Illinois, and Lafayette, Indiana. After 1800, small groups also migrated west of the Mississippi River. The Vermilion Kickapoo became fierce adherents to Tenskwatawa (the Shawnee Prophet) and Tecumseh. The Prairie Kickapoo joined the Vermilion Band against the United States during the War of 1812 (1812–1815). Even after 1815, some Kickapoo resisted further American settlement. By 1819, however, both bands ceded their lands in Illinois and Indiana, and were ordered west in 1832. The last holdouts went west in 1834. By the twentieth century, the Kickapoo had three main bands in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mexico, numbering 185,247, and approximately 400, respectively.


Gibson, A. M. The Kickapoo: Lords of the Middle Border. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.

Trigger, Bruce G., ed. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15 Northeast. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Robert M.Owens


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Kick·a·poo / ˈkikəˌpoō/ • n. (pl. same or -poos) 1. a member of an American Indian people formerly living in Wisconsin, and now in Kansas, Oklahoma, and north central Mexico. 2. the Algonquian language of this people.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.


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Kickapoo Major tribe of Algonquian-speaking Native North Americans, originally occupying south-central Wisconsin. In 1852 part of the tribe went to Texas, and then to Mexico, where many of their descendants still inhabit a reservation area in Chihuahua. Eventually most of the Kickapoo moved to Oklahoma, where some 1,500 now live.