Kicking Bird

Historical non-fiction books on the Plains Indians

Kicking Bird / Texas 1860 to 1875

The Kiowa and the Legend of Kicking Bird by Stan Hoig

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The Buffalo War/ History of the Red River War
Satana: life and death of a Warrior Chief
The Indians of TexasThe Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times


The Indians of Texas
Adapted from the Book: The Kiowas and the Legend of Kicking Bird by Stan Hoig

Kicking Bird was born into the Kiowa tribe around the year 1830 and lived until May 3, 1875 when he died suddenly due to possible poisoning by his own people.

Kicking Bird’s alliance with the US military and his status as a leading peace chief earned him many enemies among the Indians. His fate may have been sealed after he helped send a group of Cheyenne to prison in Florida. Two days later, following a meal, he fell ill and died. However, Kicking Bird’s life was more complex than his death, as he himself had committed murders and depredations that could have ended with imprisonment, yet during his life he found reason to change and sought to protect the future of his people. He was one of many Indian leaders who saw change as inevitable in the 1800’s.

The Kiowa were one of several nomadic tribes occupying the Great Plains in the 1800’s. They had no written history and not much is known except they migrated to Oklahoma and Nebraska from the Dakotas and adopted a culture of raiding and hunting on horseback. Gone were the days when dogs pulled their sledges from one encampment to the next, and by the 1800s wealth-on-the-Plains was measured by the number of horses and mules controlled by a tribe.

Kicking Bird lived in a volatile society as tribes competed for scarce resources and fought each other for the right to survive. It was a hard existence. Without farming, they didn’t have stores of hay and grain to see them through the winter. People died young for lack of food and medical care. Indians killed other Indians for their clothes, and food, retribution and honor. These conditions locked the Plains Indian culture into continual strife as each group sought advantages for members of their tribe.

The Kiowa had experienced change in the past, both when they moved to the Plains and when they adapted to horseback raiding, but the arrival of the 1800’s caused a radical shift in Indian culture. White people were arriving in greater numbers and they brought a more successful way of allocating resources, and this change profoundly affected Kicking Bird’s life.

Known among the Kiowa as T’enč-angópte or ‘eagle who strikes with talons’ or ‘striking eagle,’ Kicking Bird was named for the way he fought in battle and against those who opposed him in his own tribe. Kicking Bird rose to prominence among his people for his fierce defense of traditional Kiowa culture, yet he came to see in his 30’s, like other Indian leaders, that peace was inevitable. He began working for peace while still leading war parties that committed the thefts and murder commonplace from Mexico to Canada and this paradoxical behavior encompasses the man and the times in which he lived.

Kicking Bird could not have become a Kiowa chief without exhibiting great skills at hunting, warfare and raiding. In traditional Plains Indians culture, skillful hunting and negotiating were viewed favorably just as were theft, murder and hostage-taking. Indian culture rewarded predation of any resource that maintained alliance and brought wealth and prestige to the individual and his tribe. It was a culture of young people who were raised aggressively and taught to capitalize every opportunity.
The prevailing culture meant the fiercest and most resourceful men were held in highest regard, and therefore fearless war-making was an essential trait. Kicking Bird could only have become a chief among the Kiowa by proving he had these traits.

However during the 1800’s, the Indian culture grew increasingly dependent on the abundant goods that White settlers and traders offered such as metal pots, food, tobacco, clothing and weapons. The Indian demand for these goods created common ground, and in exchange the Whites wanted the Indians to stop attacking along the Santa Fe Trail and stop raiding wagon trains and White settlements.

The distribution of goods, in the form of yearly annuities to each tribe, was used by the US government to leverage peace talks with the Indians. This exchange became a vehicle for Kicking Bird and other leaders to meet with government officials. However, the peace treaties brokered with trade goods were short-lived for the most part, and peace lasted until Indians became hungry or felt betrayed by one perceived inequity or another. Government agents that were 
responsible for Indian affairs often stole the goods that were intended for various tribes. At the same time, many tribal factions demanded warfare against the Whites to restore traditional values and to stop the intentional killing of buffalo. Indians conducted vicious raiding parties that killed and kidnapped people, including White settlers and travelers. The violence was common on both sides. The outbreaks of violence also cause the government to cut the promised yearly annuity of goods. This was also done intentionally to force Indians to relocate near a fort where they could be monitored closely by the military.

Violations of treaty were common to both sides since no leader, White or Indian, could control everyone’s actions over such a large area. Whites hunted buffalo in part to eliminate Indians. White raiders stole Indian horses. White raiders,
settlers and hunters encroached on reservation lands and the government couldn't stop them, nor was there local support among White settlers for honoring Indian treaties. The government program of providing yearly annuities had some success in stopping the violence, but widespread White settlements meant more encounters, and the fighting continued with neither side able to gain decisive advantage.

The Indians also saw that peaceful tribes were ignored by the government, and received no allotments of trade goods, while Indians who continued raiding received goods and commitments of land from the government.

Government trade annuities therefore reinforced Indian raiding, however little else could be done since the fierce Indian fighters couldn’t be overcome by military action alone. The Indians fought the military to a standstill in the first three quarters of the 19th century.

The problem for the military was that Indians were not easy to find on the Plains and when engaged, their ponies were faster than the grain-fed military horses. When Indians chose to fight, they used knowledge of the land and picked spots that favored their tactics. Fighting to protect hunting grounds was a natural part of Indian culture, and the people of the Plains had been fighting home-turf wars for centuries. The fight against White encroachment was a continuation of the Indian way of life, and the war-like culture, coupled with expectation of fierce bravery, gave advantage to the Indians despite a shortage of modern weaponry.

Kicking Bird was a participant in this Indian culture, and accounts from the era hold him responsible for murderous raids that netted hostages and goods for his people. He was a leader and this behavior was expected. At the same time, there were other accounts that told how he interceded to stop the murders of Whites. This was accepted by his culture also. Indian culture was complex, and no single account captures the essence of a man nor fully reckons the decisions he must make.

The 1800’s were filled with seemingly contradictory accounts of predation and friendship between Whites and Indians. Western exploits stoked the imagination of eastern populations who demanded newspapers provide the latest stories, and journalists pried narratives from everyone who had a tale to tell.

Kicking Bird was subjected to contradictory accounts perhaps based on what the narrator believed or wanted others to believe. General George Custer wrote about pursuing Kicking Bird after a Texas raid, but a revisionist writer later claimed the war party wasn’t Kicking Bird’s at all. The truth was fuzzy depending on what source you believed.

Kicking Bird was wrongly named as the leader in the infamous Box Affair in September 1866 which ultimately led to Congressional hearings. The Box family, consisting of James Box, his wife, and four daughters, was attacked in Texas while returning to their homestead from visiting relatives.

James Box was killed immediately and scalped while the Box women were tied to horses and carried off to different Kiowa camps. The baby, Laura, died or was killed en route and was never recovered. Two daughters were released a month later in exchange for ransom paid by the U.S. military and Mrs. Box and the remaining daughter were later rescued. Kicking Bird was cleared when Mrs. Box named the Kiowa chief Santana responsible for leading the 23-man war party.

Santana had said Kicking Bird led the raid. However it was Santana who negotiated with the military, and received ransom for the release of the first two daughters. Later while confined in Leavenworth prison, Santana didn’t deny his action, and complained that another Kiowa chief received more goods in the hostage-exchange than he had. Santana was demanding equity for a hostage he rightly owned.

In traditional Indian culture, hostages were hard-won commodities to be bartered in trade, used as slaves or married into the tribe. Intermarriage with hostages was no doubt necessary to introduce genetic variety among Indian tribes, and therefore it was acceptable not only to take hostages, but also for hostages to assimilate into the tribe.

Kicking Bird’s grandmother was a captured Crowe Indian, making him a true product of the hostage-taking culture, yet his capacity to become a chief among Kiowa wasn’t affected by his bloodline. He was a Kiowa because he behaved like a Kiowa, and he acted that way because that was what he was taught. Perhaps his experience let him see that all Indians, peaceful or warlike, were a mixture of many different people, and therefore could choose to act differently when circumstances changed. It’s likely he saw that people who were taught to farm became farmers and people who were taught to make war and take hostages committed those depredations.

As Whites and Mexicans increasingly entered Indian lands, they became a source of hostages, and ultimately this became a lucrative trade as the government continuing paying for release of abducted people. Some claimed the government ransoms encouraged the practice.

Kicking Bird did not hold hostages, and during the 1860’s, he worked with the U.S. Military to gain release of people taken in various raids. It’s a dangerous and dirty business working both sides of the fence, but the military wanted hostages freed and the Indians wanted the pay-offs. It’s unclear exactly what Kicking Bird gained from his role, but as chief, he had to provide for his people, so certainly he received something. Hostage-taking was just one facet of life on the Plains, and the many competing social practices illuminate the complex and dangerous times in which Kicking Bird lived.

During his life, Kicking Bird moved away from the tradition of raiding and became a leader for peace between Whites and Indians. To many Indians this was a cowardly betrayal, but to others, he was making an intelligent choice and adapting to change just as Indians had always done.

According to one account, the critical event causing him to convert to peace began when his friend’s son became gravely ill. Kicking Bird, in an act of personal bravery, approached a government fort expecting to be killed immediately but instead was greeted by friendly soldiers who offered medical help for the boy. This act of kindness changed the minds of both Kicking Bird and the boy’s father who decided to follow peace with the US Government.

Because he chose peace, Kicking Bird received death threats by those who said he was afraid of the White man and not worthy of being a Kiowa leader. To prove his enemies wrong, he led a war party into Texas in June 1870 that killed five drovers and stole their cattle. They later drove away 205 longhorn cattle from a supply herd that was headed to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. In July the raiding group crossed the Red River and stole horses and property and killed two more drovers, taking another hostage. A splinter party from the group then robbed a mail stage at Rock Station.

This was typical Plains Indian behavior, and Kicking Bird, despite the instinct to lead his people into peace, was still an Indian doing what his culture required. He was a leader, and leaders had to gain resources to feed the people. During these raids, young braves were expected to make life-long reputations for fearless courage. This was their time to prove they were warriors and leaders and bring back scalps to confirm personal feats of bravery. These were the actions needed to wrench food off the lawless Plains, but oddly, this behavior kept Indians from changing. No tribe could convert to farming. If Indians tended the fields, raiders would pillage off the homestead and attack the women.

Upon hearing of the depredations of Kicking Bird’s raiding party, a detachment of 53 Sixth Cavalry Troopers left Fort Richardson and intercepted the Indians near present-day Seymour, TX. A fierce battle erupted, and the Indians led by Kicking Bird, outflanked and pushed the troopers back, killing three and wounding twelve before disappearing at nightfall. Captain McClellan, who led the military detachment, wrote a report that praised Kicking Bird’s tactics in the battle.

Most telling however was the Indian story about Kicking Bird’s amazing feat of bravery during the conflict. Captain McClellan’s account tells of the same incident. With the battle raging and bullets flying everywhere, Kicking Bird announced to his band that they would have to recognize him now. Armed with only a lance and shield, he raced his pony through the firing troopers and pierced a soldier who stood to get a better shot. Returning unscathed, he shouted for his braves to do the same, but none dared. They were afraid of the White man, but not Kicking Bird.

Kicking Bird lived up to him name, Striking Eagle, and proved he was fearless and could strike at will.

According to the Indian account, Kicking Bird said ‘now you join me and lets have peace,’ and afterwards said, ‘I am going to quit now.’ He established his mantle as a chief, but many of his people hated him because he chose to live out of the White man’s hand instead of living fearlessly on the Plains.

It’s natural for people to resist new and different ways and those who stand in the crosshairs of cultural change face great danger from their own kind. This was Kicking Bird’s fate for taking the road to peace. He told his people that he sought to protect the ‘future of Indian women and children.’ His vision was shared by many Indian chiefs in the late 1860’s, especially after the Civil war ended and the U.S. military bore down on Indian raiders with more men and improved firepower.

According to an 1869 census of Plains Indians, Kicking Bird led only 180 Kiowa, although it was reported that he influenced as many as twelve other chiefs. Despite his influence, the militant factions of Kiowa ridiculed him as an ‘old coffee chief’ or ‘all day talker’ because he spent time in the fort talking peace and sharing the White man’s wish to turn Indians into farmers and put their children in school.

Despite being unable to speak the White man’s language, Kicking Bird came to value education for his people.
The Kiowas and the Legend of Kicking Bird
Perhaps he saw that those who fiercely defend culture are doing so in the belief that cultures are sacred objects of true bloodline, when culture is simply a menu of behaviors that ensure survival, and are open to continual change. The pragmatic man must be open to change. And maybe Kicking Bird’s own experience as the grandson of a kidnapped-and-assimilated woman showed him that Indian culture was mot different than any other culture, and that people have to accept the world is always changing.

This adaptation was resourced from articles and books including:
The Kiowa and the Legend of Kicking Bird by Stan Hoig. University Press of Colorado. Copyright 2000.
The Buffalo War by James L. Haley. Doubleday. Copyright 1976.
The Indians of Texas by W.W. Newcomb Jr. University of Texas Press- Austin. Copyright 1961.