The Grass Wigwam at Wichita
February 1933 (Vol. 2, No. 1), pages 66 to 71
Transcribed by Lynn Nelson; HTML editing by Tod Roberts
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.
ON AN inaccessible island in the Little Arkansas river at Wichita stands a conical, grass-thatched wigwam which, if situated in a state that knows the value of advertising its points of historical interest would attract many Kansans every year. Think of the thousands upon thousands of picture post-cards which Kansas visitors to other states send back home of such scenes as Plymouth Rock, Molly Pitcher's Spring, Indian dwellings in New Mexico, Arizona or California.
The Indian wigwam in Wichita is no less interesting than are those of Utah and, situated as it is on an island with trees, could be made very attractive. Historically it is of value because in such a lodge dwelt the farmers of the Arkansas valley before the first Spaniard or Frenchman came to the plains. Since no Indians other than the Wichitas built exactly that type of lodge it is a rare structure, there being only four or five remaining on the Wichita lands near Anadarko, Okla.
The manner in which the Indians constructed the wigwam in Wichita and their reason for building it show evidence of a deep religious feeling and of a natural generosity little known.
The lodge came into existence as the result of a visit to the Indians in June, 1924, by a group of Wichita citizens consisting of Col. S. S. Carter, president of the Wichita Booster Club; William C. Peacock, an old-time plainsman and scout who is adept in the Indian sign language; Glen Douglas, one of F. W. Hockaday's highway sign men; and myself. I was then a reporter for the Wichita Beacon. At the suggestion of Peacock, who knew Indian character well, we obtained a commission from Mayor Frank L. Dunn, appointing us as ambassadors from the white city of Wichita to the red brothers living on the banks of the Washita.
When this letter was read and translated to an assemblage of Indians on the agency grounds near Anadarko, the old men, who remembered Wichita as a village of grass houses, took us to their homes, where they inquired about the town as it now appears. Everything was done to show their appreciation of our friendly visit. The aged chief Kiowa, who won his name in a war when he single-handed brought in a captive Kiowa chief, took us inside his grass lodge, where we were allowed to sit and look around while
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he visited a long time with Peacock in the sign language. He and Peacock had been scouts together in the Indian campaign of 1874, at which time the Wichitas fought on the side of the whites. Their visit over, I chanced to remark to Peacock my surprise at the excellence of the construction of Chief Kiowa's wigwam, which had been standing for almost sixty years and appeared to be good for sixty years more. Peacock repeated my remarks in sign talk. Whereupon the old chief answered: "If you like it, you shall have one."
Several weeks later Mayor Dunn received a letter from the Wichita Indian council, offering to come to Wichita and construct a lodge. Mayor Dunn appointed Colonel Carter as chairman of a committee to make arrangements. I was secretary. We soon learned that we would have to pay the expense of the building, not because the Wichitas wanted to make a profit, but because they were too poor to buy the materials, pay for transportation of themselves and material to Wichita, and feed themselves during the ten days necessary for the construction. In the first place, they specified that the piers of the lodge would have to be of cedar, and they no longer had cedar on their lands. It had to be specially selected cedar. Nothing shoddy was to go into the construction.
The committee obtained consent from the park board for construction of the lodge on Mead island, an undeveloped wooded tract of three acres belonging to the Wichita park system. It was Colonel Carter's plan to surround the lodge with an Indian garden, and he adopted a suggestion of Elmer T. Peterson, then editor of the Beacon, now editor of Better Homes and Gardens, that the lodge be roofed over with a glass house to insure its preservation for posterity, when it would become more valuable than ever. Colonel Carter also planned an Indian museum, where the curios of the plains tribes might be preserved.
Unfortunately Colonel Carter died before the lodge was built, and it would not have been completed had it not been for Mrs. Fern Mead Jordan, widow of the pioneer for whom Mead island is named. When the lodge was completed and a deficit remained, she paid it out of her own pocket.
The Indians arrived late in May, 1927, headed by Sooka, a woman, who, as a girl, had swung in the grape vines in what is now Riverside Park, not far from where the lodge now stands.
Among the Wichitas, as among most Indians, the home belongs to the woman. In case of divorce she throws the man's things out of the lodge and she remains. Consequently, the women are the build-
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ers. Men accompanied the women as escorts and as assistants in building, for among the modern Wichitas men work on the farms and in house building after the manner of white men.
House building among the ancient Wichitas was a sacred thing, for in a house children are born and grow to manhood and womanhood. For that reason when the first cedar pier was set, Sooka bowed her head and in the Wichita tongue prayed to the Great Spirit. It might be well to say that the majority of the modern Wichitas are Christians, being members of the Baptist Church. I do not know whether the Christianized Wichitas pray in building their houses or not, but Sooka prayed after the custom of her mothers.
Other cedar piers were set in a circle of twenty feet diameter. Each pier had a crotched top, and across the crotches were laid transverse beams on which rested long cedar saplings, reaching from the ground upward, where they were gathered together at the top of the cone-like house and lashed together. Over the framework was laced a wattle work of willow, which was covered with a thatch of long grass, laid in tiers, overlapping like shingles.
At the apex of the lodge was set the most important thing of all. It was a five-pointed device, symbolical of the five fingers of the hand, and consisting of pointed rods. The central rod was pointed straight up to Man-Never-Known-on-Earth. The other four rods were inclined toward the four winds of Heaven. This device enables the four winds and Man-Never-Known-on-Earth to enter the lodge and bestow their blessings on the people.
The lodge has two doors, one at the east, where the sun can peep in in the morning to give his blessing, and one in the west where he can look in before night to see that all is well. There also is an opening at the south to serve as a window, where the sun can look in at noon. Just east of the apex is a smoke hole. Under the smoke hole is a circular excavation on the floor of the lodge, which is a fireplace.
The construction over, Sooka struck a fire, and two meals were cooked over the fireplace. . The Indians spent one night in the lodge so that is could be said that real Indians had slept there. The lighting of the first fire was accompanied by prayer, so the Indians later reported, but no white men were allowed to be present, although Mrs. Jordan, being a woman and the widow of James R.
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Mead, the old-time friend of the Wichitas, was welcome at any time. Early travelers on the prairies were always glad to come to the village of the Wichitas, for, unlike the teepee dwellers, the grasshouse dwellers were farmers, and in a grass lodge corn, beans and pumpkins were served to the visitors, who welcomed a change from a diet of nothing but buffalo meat.
Kiowa told me that visitors were always welcome at his mother's lodge, and they were welcome to dip food out of the pot without invitation. There was always food in the pot, and during green-corn time there were roasting ears, protected by husks, baking in the ashes. At harvest time pumpkins were cut round and round in a long string and dried for winter use. They were hung from the underside of the roof of the lodge by one end of the string. Corn also was suspended from the roof by the husks, until the whole underside of the roof was gaily festooned with corn, pumpkins and other provisions.
Women took care of the crops, not because the men were lazy but, as Kiowa explained, because reproduction is woman's work and in the old days crops would not grow if men interfered. It was man's place to bring home the meat, defend the village, break horses, make saddles and shields and bows and arrows. Any one who scoffs at Kiowa's theory that the men were not lazy had first better try to make a bow and arrow and fit the arrow with an arrow head. While women did the field work, their house work was light. They cooked but one meal a day and left the loaded pot near the fire where anybody could help himself all day long if hungry. They washed no dishes, laundered no clothes, sprinkled water on the floor of the wigwam to settle the dust, and made no beds.
Night was the time for parties in which women danced with the men. Kiowa said he never could recall when his mother worked after dark, but his daughters, who now walk the white woman's road, often work by lamplight.
What some authorities consider to be the earliest visit to the Wichitas by white men was that of the Coronado expedition in 1541. Pedro de Castaneda, historian of the expedition, wrote: "The houses are round, without a wall, and they have one story like a loft, under the roof, where they sleep and keep their belongings, The roofs are of straw."
In 1601 Juan de Onate, first governor of New Mexico, visited the
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Arkansas, presumably at the mouth of Cow creek or the Little Arkansas. The people he found there are supposed to be the Wichitas, from the description of their houses. He wrote:
"We came to a settlement containing more than twelve hundred houses, all established along the bank of another good-sized river, which flowed into a large one. They were all round, built of forked poles and bound with rods, and on the outside covered to the ground with grass."
Continuing his description of their fields he wrote:
"We remained here for one day in this pleasant spot surrounded on all sides by fields of maize and crops of the Indians. The stalks of the maize were as high as that of New Spain and in many places higher. The land was so rich that, having harvested the maize, a new growth of a span in height had sprung up over a large portion of the same ground without any cultivation or labor other than the removal of the weeds and the making of holes where they planted the maize. There were many beans, some gourds, and between the field some plum trees."
Later the French left records of visits to the Wichitas, whom they called the Pani Piques; Pani, because they were related to the Pawnees, and Piques, because they tattooed themselves like the Picts of ancient Scotland. The Osages, who were supplied with firearms by the French traders of St. Louis, forced the Pani Piques south. This fact was recorded by Meriwether Lewis, the explorer, who obtained the information from his French guides. In his discussion of the various branches of the Pawnees, he wrote in his journal concerning the Pani Piques: "The fourth band originally resided on the Kanzas and Arkansaw, but in their wars with the Osages they were so often defeated that they at last retired to their present position on Red river, where they form a tribe of four hundred men."
The Wichitas were visited on Red river by the Dodge military expedition in 1835. George Catlin, the artist, who accompanied the expedition, called them Pawnee Picts, and his description of them is much like that by Onate 234 years previous. Says Catlin:
"To our very great surprise we have found these people cultivating quite extensive fields of corn, pumpkins, melons, beans and squashes. So with these aids and an abundant supply of buffalo meat they may be said to be living well.
"We found here a very numerous village containing some five or six hundred wigwams, all made of long prairie grass thatched over poles which are
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fastened in the ground and bent in at the tip, giving to them, in distance, the appearance of straw bee hives."
In 1863, because they sided with the Union, the Wichita village was destroyed by the Confederates and the fugitives returned to their ancient habitat in Kansas, where James R. Mead first met them on the site of Wichita, and where they promptly built a grass village and surrounded it with gardens of corn, beans, squash and melons.
The government removed them to their present seat on the Washita in 1867, and the Wichita pioneers used the straw of their houses for horse bedding and the cedar piers for fence posts.
For sixty years the grass lodges were unknown on the Arkansas, until Sooka and her women rebuilt the one on Mead island. It is to be hoped that Wichita will some day bring their historical treasure out of hiding and put a bridge to Mead island so that her own boys and girls and the visitors to the city can see the wigwam that was erected by such reverent hands.
1. A picture of the lodge in Wichita, with the five-pointed device plainly showing, can be seen on the frontispiece of Early Days in Kansas, by Bliss Isely, Wichita Board of Education (Wichita Eagle Press, 1927). There is also a picture of Kiowa's wigwam on page 8. See, also, Kansas Historical Collections, v. XVII, p. 520, for a brief story and picture.
2. George Parker Winship's translation of Castaneda's narrative, Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, v. 1, p. 528.
3. H. E. Bolton (ed.) Juan de Onate's Expedition to the Arkansas in Spanish Exploration in the Southwest (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1916), p. 260.
4. Ibid., p. 261.
5. Frederick Webb Hodge, Handbook of American Indians, v. II, pp. 947, 948.
6. Meriwether Lewis, History of the Expeditions of Captains Lewis and Clark, reprinted from edition of 1814 (A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1903), p. 36.
7. George Catlin, The North American Indians (Leary, Stuart & Co., Philadelphia, 1913), v. II, p. 79.
8. James R. Mead in Kansas Historical Collections, v. X, p. 10.