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This is a time for serious reflection on direction, principles, and leadership. I have several thoughts on these as related to both our present and future. But as I am inclined to do, I consider the stories of the past when looking at both the present and the future. There are no perfect examples, only examples of imperfect humans who are caught in their own times and challenges. But the ones who truly leave us with examples of guidance can see beyond the mire of the moment, personal damage or false glory. They, by some trait, either acquired or momentarily blessed with, see with promise guided by lasting principles. They are the leaders who matter, regardless of the cost they pay.
Some of my thoughts of the last few days have reminded me of words from a Kiowa leader of decades past as he lamented that there were “too many weak and unprincipled men among us”. It brought to mind some words from another deep thinking observer of another age, C.S. Lewis: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise.”
On May 3, 1875, the Kiowa chief known to history as Kicking Bird was brought a cup of coffee by a Mexican servant. He drank it and soon after died. His death, as well as his life, is still a matter of both legend and study even now. He was probably around forty years of age and his legacy affected not just the direction taken by the Kiowa tribe during the 19th-century but still shapes it today. He was a proven fighting man among the fiercest horseback tribe of the plains whose vision was peace, independence, and education.
As I have said he is known to history as Kicking Bird, but the Kiowa language can be even more of a barrier to the modern mind than most other native tongues. T’ene-angop’te has a more marital translation than the picture of some small bird shaking the water from its feet. A closer meaning would be “Eagle who Strikes with Talons” or “Striking Eagle.” It is a warrior’s name earned from blood and bone, close-quartered conflict.
The Kiowa were a “small numbered people” surrounded on the southern and middle plains by larger tribes with who they competed for resources. Despite their lack of numbers, they were probably the most independent and clannish of the tribes and took pride in it. Even among the plains tribes, they were horsemen without peer. On a per-capita basis, they held more horses than any other tribe. The growth of those herds depended not just on their husbandry skills but quite a bit on their ability in war and theft. Theirs was a culture built around following the widely drifting buffalo herds and raiding others. By the time the white man encountered them, they had long-standing feuds with the Ute, Apache, Osage, and Pawnee. They at first had the same status with the much more populated Comanche but had formed an alliance with them even if they did consider them cultural and moral inferiors. But they became valuable allies in raiding into Texas and New Mexico as well all along the very profitable Santa Fe Trail. Plunder and captives helped them to tolerate the Comanche.
Kiowa male society, like most warrior cultures, centered around military societies. Kicking Bird reached first-ranked social status as “onde” at an early age and was in his early to mid-twenties when he was accepted among the leadership of his people. He was a part of the combined plains tribes forces that met Kit Carson in the First Battle of Adobe Walls during the Civil War.
He was a favorite of the Kiowa principal chief Tohawson (Dohasan) but was considered too young to secede him. But the two shared an understanding of the probable future of their tribe and their way of life. Their tribe’s own tradition recalled how they had been pushed before other tribes until they had reached the plains and were given the gift of the horse. The two leaders could see that their people were again facing an overwhelming force but this time with no place to retreat to. Like they had adapted to the plains life and culture, they now had to plot a path that would ensure their survival while retaining their identity.
Kicking Bird played a major role in the implementation of the Little Arkansas Treaty of 1865 in getting the return of several white captives which had been a big stumbling block. This treaty, as most of the ones to follow, had the promise of generous annuities to the Kiowa in return for tamping down the raids along the Santa Fe Trail and into Texas. But as with most government promises of prosperity, the annuities were usually short, late or not at all. There are some things in life that remain constant. As one Kiowa came to observe, “Promises are a poor thing to live on”.
And besides, the Kiowa were hardly a docile people. They were accustomed to long-ranging hunts and raids that often lasted over a year, stretched for hundreds of miles, and resulted in huge captures of both animals and human captives. They were not inclined to sit and wait to be fed, or to be inactive. History, both ancient and modern, tells us that nothing good comes from either.
The 1866 death of Tohawson brought a change of leadership. Guipago (Lone Wolf) had been tapped by Tohawson as the successor because of Kicking Bird’s age, he was of the old school and even if he did attempt some of the “peace path” in the beginning still saw his leadership as a day to day reaction instead of a long reaching direction. Two other older, well-established leaders who were much more of the war camp were Satanta (White Bear) and the aging, ever hostile Satank (Sitting Bear).
Satanta was an imposing and often impressive figure, especially to outsiders. He was larger than most Indians of any tribe, had a booming voice which he had a fondness for using, an impressive record as a warrior, and a sense of drama as long as he was the center of it. Satank was approaching 70 but still, an active raider, entitled to wear the red band as one of the “Ten Bravest”, was sullen and hard to be around even for friends and believed to have magical powers he did not hesitate to use.
Among those who lined up behind Kicking Bird’s vision of trying to maintain a path to an agreement with the Americans were the high priest Napawat and Settern-ka-yah (Stumbling Bear), an established fighter of the old-order who had probably taken part with distinction in every major engagement involving the Kiowa between 1850 and 1870.
The later 1860s were a trying time between the Americans and the Kiowa. The poor delivery of promised annuities was a constant issue as well as their distribution. With the end of the Civil War and an uncompleted transcontinental railroad, the trade route along the Santa Fe Trail offered more prospects to a raiding culture than undetermined installments from the government. And the cattle trade in Texas was beginning to boom and sending herd after herd toward the Red River and Kansas beyond. A couple of those late 60s years were tense and bloody.
By 1870, some of the disagreements between what could be considered from the outside as the “peace” and “war” fractions of the tribe had become extremely taunt. After strong accusations of being a “coffee chief” and the white man’s errand boy, Kicking Bird reaffirmed his war leader credit with a raid into Texas to capture a cattle herd pointed toward the Red River. When some extra raiding on a near-by town by some young warriors drew a detachment of the Sixth Cavalry, Kicking Bird set up below a hill to encourage a frontal attack, used two pincer movements to flank the pony soldiers and charged into the column to lance an officer and send the army heading back to Fort Richardson.
1871 brought added tensions between the Americans and the Kiowa. The year began with a raid into Texas killing some freighters hauling supplies between the western forts. And by summer, old Satank was seeking vengeance for the death of his favorite son who was killed in an earlier raid into Texas. Carrying some of the son’s bones in his medicine bag, he was part of what became known as the Warren Wagon Raid that resulted in the loss of an entire supply train, seven burned and scalped freighters as well as a very upset General William T. Sherman. The general had just missed being a victim of the same party and he had a new and intensified interest in keeping the Kiowa north of the Red. Both of the raids had been “inspired” by the spiritual planner Maman-ti which can be translated as Walks Above the Ground or Sky Walker. He claimed great power and vision by way of the owl and was also known as the Owl Prophet. He was not a proponent of peace. (WINGS OF AN OWL AND A SEARCHER, February 22, 2019)
The second raid might well have gone unpunished if Satanta had been able to keep from bragging about it to the Indian Agent. Sherman ordered three chiefs to be taken back to Texas to stand criminal charges of murder, a first-ever measure. When Satank was put aboard a load of corn to be taken away, he pulled his red blanket over his head, gnawed at his wrists until his hands were free, pulled out a hidden knife – or, according to legend, used his magic to vomit it up, attacked the soldiers guarding him and died fighting. (SATANK: BONES AND PROMISES, July 5, 2016). Satanta and Big Tree went to prison and were later released on parole, in part due to the efforts of Kicking Bird.
Lone Wolf had since also lost a son to American soldiers and had lost all interest in the “peace path”. He carried the young warrior’s bones on a packhorse and planned raid after raid for blood vengeance.
Kicking Bird and the dramatic Satanta became the faces of what could be called the “peace” and “war” fractions of the tribe. But more than once Kicking Bird was able to “keep a lid” on things and actually prevented the older man’s arrest a couple of times.
One account handed down through the tribe tells of Satanta and some of his followers having a conflict over the “holding” of a buffalo herd with Kicking Bird’s brother and brother-in-law. It resulted in the two men being beaten and having their arrows broken by the larger group. Kicking Bird was not in camp yet having stopped for a few days because one of his wives was sick. After a couple of days, Satanta rode out to talk with the younger chief. He was greeted with, “Did you come to fight?” Satanta assured him that he did not and offered 4 horses, a white mule, some saddles, a gun, and blankets as a gift to smooth things over.
An elder retelling the story in later years said, “Satanta was a big man, and he was older than Kicking Bird. But he was not as wise. Furthermore, I think Kicking Bird had the stronger medicine.”
Another story is of a dispute concerning a celebration after a returning raid. A young offended warrior who did not know Kicking Bird from his more war-like days stormed into the chief’s lodge aiming a gun. He fell back with three arrows in his chest.
But Kicking Bird had a vision of what he considered necessary for the survival of his tribe and he worked to develop it through a growing relationship with the Quaker teacher Thomas Battery and Indian Agent James M. Haworth. He saw that becoming educated into the language and ways of the Americans would be needed before any measure of independence could be gained by the Kiowa. By 1873, Kiowa children, led by Kicking Bird’s daughter, were being taught in classes. By 1875, a school was opened at Fort Sill with 44 Kiowa students. With Agent Haworth, Kicking Bird discussed possible plans for dividing range lands among the Kiowa and developing a livestock industry on a competitive basis.
But Lone Wolf and Satanta found the lure of plunder, battle glory, and blood vengeance too hard to stay away from. The intense raiding of 1874 and the early days of ’75 broke out into a major uprising. If the situation was not settled quickly, a major campaign would have reduced the Kiowa to starvation and ruin. After some tense action, Satanta was captured to be sent back to Texas prison and Lone Wolf was finally corralled and being held. The army felt they had no choice but to name Kicking Bird as principal chief of the Kiowa much as they had done with the young Quanah with the Comanche.
The government determined they would send a total of 70 prisoners to Fort Marion, Florida as tribal punishment if Kicking Bird could hold the rest down. And they asked the young chief to pick the 70 who had to go.
There was little doubt that hard-liners like Lone Wolf, Maman-ti, and White Horse would have to go if any order was to be kept. But after them, Kicking Bird selected mostly obscure members of the tribe and several Mexican captives, trying to leave the core of the tribe’s social order intact.
Kicking Bird spoke to the prisoners before they were taken away and Maman-ti, the Owl Prophet, told him he would soon pay a price for his help to the Americans. Such a Kiowa curse normally takes about three days to play out. Five days later, Kicking Bird was brought the coffee by the Mexican captive servant and was dead that afternoon. The common explanation, besides a curse of course, is that he was poisoned. But he also showed signs the night before of what might have been a heart condition while visiting with a white trader. He rose the next morning and washed in the running waters of Cache Creek in line with custom and felt better. There was no autopsy.
Three months later Maman-ti was dead himself in the old, damp Spanish prison in Florida.
During his last years, Kicking Bird bore the brunt of the hostility from some of his tribe because of his leadership toward a safer, more secure future for his tribe. Some claimed he profited from the annuities while his people suffered. Actually, this chief who had been the most prosperous of his tribe depleted a great deal of his own wealth trying to keep his fellow Kiowa fed and cared for. His own horse herd, once the largest of the tribe, was reduced as he traded to keep the peace. Because of his determination to preserve his people, he risked all that was important to a Kiowa chief; his well-earned status as a war leader, his tribal following, his wealth, and in the end, his life. The risk was taken for a future beyond the abyss that his nation faced.
History, at times, gives us stories of such leaders. They are imperfect men who at times make imperfect decisions. But they leave behind their own comfort and ease or even wealth because they feel they can protect something more important. Despite any faults or failures, they are worthy of our respect – and gratitude. They are often resented by those with shorter vision or less courage. Sometimes they are even betrayed. Seemingly, they are always resisted, or undermined, by those who prefer to cline to comfort in the “normal” regardless of how destructive it really is. I suppose that has been true of many past times. It might even be true of our own.Published in