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ETHNONYMS: Chikapu, Kickapoo


Identification. The Mexican Kikapu originated in the regional frontier that divided the United States from Canada. They began to migrate to Coahuila, Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in the 1980s they were provided a locale in Texas. In Mexico they are recognized as Mexican citizens, although their status has not been well defined. Since 1983, they have been recognized by the U.S. government as members of the Kikapu band of Texas and granted citizenship.

Location. The Kikapu have migrated to many U.S. locales as well as to Mexican states such as Coahuila and Sonora. In Coahuila there exists a very traditional Kikapu group situated in a place named by them, El Nacimiento de la Tribu Kikapu, about 32 kilometers northeast of the city of Múzquiz, covering an area of 7,000 hectares. The terrain is semiarid, with the Río Sabinas contributing a needed supply of water.

Demography. Throughout its history, the Kikapu population has changed little in number, varying between 1,500 and 2,500. In Mexico, the 1990 population estimation enumerated 700 Kikapu. The constant movement between Mexico and the United States has made it difficult to establish an exact count of the group.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kikapu, a language of the Algonquian Family, is directly related to Sauk and Fox. Because there is a close relationship between the Oklahoma and Texas/Coahuila Kikapu groups, it is not surprising that there is no dialectal variation between the two different regions where Kikapu is spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

Historically, the Kikapu can be characterized as a highly mobile group that traveled within their territories in the United States. Owing to the arrival of White settlers into these territories, the Kikapu were displaced and began migrating south toward Mexico. To keep their territories and culture, the Kikapu strongly resisted the incursion of settlers. Owing to their strong loyalty to their traditional culture, the Kikapu were able to retain their internal cohesion in spite of two centuries of wars with the Whites.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a small group of Kikapu asked the Mexican government for permission to settle in Mexico. The government agreed, in exchange for Kikapu assistance in the Mexican army's efforts to subjugate other indigenous groups. It is important to note that in the formal agreement the Kikapu negotiated with the Mexican government, they stipulated that they be allowed to preserve their culture.

In 1912 another group of Kikapu from Oklahoma and Texas/Coahuila migrated to Sonora, Mexico. In 1920 a major portion of this same group returned to Oklahoma, however, when the problems that initially prompted the migration were resolved. In the 1950s the Kikapu who had settled in Coahuila began to migrate throughout the United States, finding work as itinerant farm workers during part of the spring and the entire summer season; for the remainder of the year, they return to Mexico and involve themselves in their cultural traditions. These temporary migrations to the United States, a pattern that still persists, began because of the droughts that plagued the region that the Kikapu occupied in the 1940s and 1950s and the ease of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to find work. Even though they received land near Eagle Pass, Texas, from the U.S. government, the Kikapu prefer to live in Mexico because in Texas they are physically and socially separated from Mexican society.


Historians have noted that before the White colonizers arrived, the Kikapu inhabited what is presently known as the state of Wisconsin. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Kikapu were located in what is now Michigan and Ohio, where they first encountered White settlersthe French. A short time later, White colonizers began moving southwest to Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and then Texas. Presently, the largest group of Kikapu resides on a reservation in Oklahoma, and another smaller group resides in Kansas.

After their arrival in Mexico in the nineteenth century, the Kikapu established their first community, in El Nacimiento, Coahuila. The small Kikapuan community in Texas serves as a stopover for those from Coahuila traveling to U.S. northern states. In 1912 the group of Kikapu that migrated to Sonora purchased land in Tamichopa, Sonora. The descendants of the original Kikapu group still inhabit Tamichopa, although they have lost the traditional Kikapu cultural features.

The Kikapu build two kinds of traditional seasonal houses, the winter house and the summer house, which serve a religious function. The winter house consists of an oval-shaped frame of cedar sticks almost completely covered with tule mats. The frame of the summer house is also of cedar sticks, but in a rectangular shape; the walls are made from reeds and the roof cover of tule mats. The summer house has an open-sided arbor of poles at the entrance.

A third traditional house is built to shelter women during their menstrual periods, when they are not allowed to remain in the seasonal houses. This house is very small; it is constructed of the same materials as the seasonal houses, but the workmanship is less elaborate.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kikapu economy has undergone radical changes: from the time of their residence in the United States through their migration to Mexico, the Kikapu relied on hunting and gathering, but in the early twentieth century an incipient agricultural system rapidly emerged alongside hunting and gathering, and in the 1930s the Kikapu developed a modern system of agriculture.

During the 1950s, they abandoned agricultural labor on their own lands and became temporary migrant farm workers in the United States, mostly in the states of Utah, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Montana, and Florida. At the same time, they abandoned their taboo against breeding cattle and transformed their farm lands in El Nacimiento into grazing lands.

Industrial Arts. Elements of traditional dress such as teguas (moccasins) were made from deerskin by Kikapu women; they also did ornamental beadwork on deerskin. Because few women continue to do this kind of work, these crafts are disappearing.

Trade. The Kikapu are not active traders. For a short time in the first half of the twentieth century, they traded the excess of their harvests, wild fruits, and deerskin items to Mexicans who lived nearby. Some Kikapu continue to trade cattle to Mexicans and handicrafts to the Kikapu of Oklahoma.

Division of Labor. Kikapu men and women who are able to work as migrant farm laborers enter the work force that travels to the United States seeking these jobs. Women do housework and handcrafting; they also gather the materials for the construction of their traditional housing. Men, when in El Nacimiento, are involved only in the small commercial trade of cattle and in discussions of permanent land tenure. Young adults and children are not responsible for any productive activity while in El Nacimiento.

Land Tenure. Following the model of ejido tenure, a collective use of land, the occupation of Kikapu land in El Nacimiento is communal. During the early years of the settlement, each family was allotted a parcel of land for cultivation. The land is passed down to the next generation in order of oldest to youngest, with males having preference over females.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Kikapu kinship system is based on patrilineal clans. These clans underlie a system in which name-groups are not unilineal. Clan affiliation is determined through the affiliation of the donor who provides the personal name for an individual.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terms are of the Omaha type. Kin solidarity is more important to the Kikapu than genealogical relationship. The Kikapu have three names. One is given by the donor to determine specific clan affiliation. Another name is given during baptism and used only after death, and the last is a Spanish namethe surname of the individual's father.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Kikapu marital relationship is formed through the decision of two individuals to establish a family. The union of the couple does not occur through a formal ritual, either religious or civil, but rather through the clan system, which regulates the marriage possibilities of each individual. The relationships are defined through emotional affections and are not arranged, as they were in the past. Marriages are now monogamous, whereas in the past some were polygynous.

Domestic Unit. Postmarital residence is patrilocal. The nuclear family is the most common form of domestic integration, and it is very common to find members of the extended family occupying the same land.

Inheritance. The rights to the land in the community are passed down from father to son. Until the late twentieth century, the political leader of the group bequested his leadership to his sons. A group composed of the heads of the families now chooses the community leader.

Socialization. Parents, along with the elders, are responsible for teaching Kikapu values to their children. Within the community, there is no formal educational institution. The Mexican government has attempted on several occasions to establish a school in the community; Kikapu resistance has contributed to the maintenance of their culture. Girls, during the first menstrual cycle, are isolated in a special house and are taught and advised by older adult women about the menstrual taboo and their future responsibilities as women.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is no class differentiation in Kikapu culture; however, some social differentiation is beginning to develop, causing conflicts among certain group members. It appears that the only individual held in esteem by all group members is the religious leader. In general, the social organization of the Kikapu falls under the leadership and guidance of the elders of the group.

Political Organization. In the past, the Kikapu had a leader who was assisted by a council of elders in making political decisions. Today the president of the ejido provides the political leadership, even though the assembly consisting of the heads of families makes the most important political decisions. Only internal Kikapu matters are within the purview of these political leaders; they have no influence in regional, state, or federal politics in Mexico. In these larger arenas, the Kikapu can only participate as individuals.

Social Control. In earlier times, social control was exerted by group leaders, especially the elders. This control has begun to dissipate, adversely affecting younger members of the group.

Conflict. Conflicts, first with White settlers in their northern territories and later with Texans, forced the Kikapu to migrate to Mexico. In their Coahuilan settlement, one of their major problems has been the loss of hunting groundsdeer are crucial to Kikapu religious ceremonies. Surrounding ranchers have not allowed the Kikapu to hunt on their properties. Furthermore, recent conflicts over power have emerged within the Kikapu group itself, leading to strong divisions in the community. Alcoholism and drug addiction are the severest problems the Kikapu face today.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Kikapu religion is fundamentally animistic, centering on a superior spirit considered to be the creator called Kisiaata. The central element in this religion is the possession and veneration of sacred packs, which are believed to be manitous. The Kikapu religion is one of the fundamental features of the group and has been crucial, along with the language, in sustaining the culture group. Catholicism and Protestantism have not influenced the Kikapu in any way.

Religious Practitioners. A major figure for the Kikapu is the religious leader, who celebrates religious ceremonies and marks the important dates in the Kikapu calendar. The religious leader selects as his successor a qualified member of his family or of the group at large.

Ceremonies. The Kikapu have a number of religious ceremonies, including ceremonies that involve the whole community, even kin from Oklahoma, as well as ceremonies that only involve clans or the nuclear family. The most important ceremonies are those that involve the whole community, such as the ceremonies for the dead, which take place in March and April. In these ceremonies, dances and ritual plays are performed by men and women. There are two traditional religious teams, the Blacks and the Whites. Foreigners are excluded from ceremonies that take place in individual homes. Other ceremonies take place during the change of seasonal homes, when a child is named, and in February, when the Kikapu mark the new year.

Medicine. The traditional Kikapu had a traditional medical system, which included the practices of the herbal societies. At present, they have abandoned their traditional practices and have begun to rely on Western medical services provided in Mexico and the United Stateseven in regard to childbearing, which in earlier times the woman performed alone.

Death and Afterlife. When someone in the Kikapu culture dies, the corpse is removed through a hole located in the back of the traditional house and buried in a community cemetery. After the corpse is removed, the house is destroyed, and the family builds a new one. Various ceremonies are performed after the death until the ceremonies of the dead take place in March and April. During these ceremonies, the spirits of the deceased meet their creator, Kisiaata. The Kikapu believe in a heaven, where those who have lived good lives go to hunt deer. Those who have lived bad lives are bound to a tree, where they can see the hunters who have been rewarded for their good lives.


Fabila, Alfonso (1945). La tribu kikapoo de Coahuila. Biblioteca Enciclopédica Popular, no. 50. Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública.

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

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

Ritzenthaler, Robert, E., and Frederick A. Peterson (1956). The Mexican Kickapoo Indians. Publications in Anthropology, 2. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum.