Kiowa Belief and Ritual

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Benjamin R. Kracht
Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indians
  • Lincoln, NE: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , July
     402 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Benjamin R. Kracht’s Kiowa Belief and Ritual is a welcome, important contribution to the literature on Plains Indian Religions, specifically the Kiowa. The work is a critical resource, a comprehensive, careful examination of the fieldnotes collected by a team of graduate students working in Anadarko, Oklahoma, for the Santa Fe Laboratory of Anthropology in 1935, directed by Alexander Lesser, and the corollary work of Alice Marriott during the same years. Kracht’s preface notes the two ethnographic field schools sponsored by the Santa Fe Laboratory in the early 1930s—the second of which was in 1935 with the Kiowa—focused on pre-reservation horse and buffalo culture. The graduate students, R. Weston LaBarre, Jane Richardson, Donald Collier, William R. Bascom, and Bernard Mishkin, worked for nine weeks cross-interviewing thirty-five Kiowa men and women elders, in “memory ethnographies” (xv) to produce over thirteen hundred pages of fieldnotes. Three publications emerged from this work (two in 1940, one in 1944), so this study brings forth a wealth of curated information, deftly situated within the field, that serves as a major resource on Kiowa belief systems. It is significant that the author established relationships with the descendants of several of the elders who were interviewed, which he attests has reinforced his assessment of the quality of the data collected. 

In the introduction, Kracht provides an overview of ethnographic research on Plains Indian religious traditions and affirms the importance of tribally specific studies. He maps the research according to the categories of eyewitness accounts, folklore and mythology, the Sun Dance and the various societies; monographs, dissertations, and articles; Native and collaborative accounts—where he emphasizes the role of Native collaborators/translators who are often not acknowledged—and sources on Kiowa culture and religion. Deserved attention is given to James Mooney, including how Mooney’s name had impressive currency with the interviewees who remembered him fondly. Kracht then describes the 1935 Santa Fe field party, the methodologies they employed, the challenges they faced (issues of trust, the need for rapport with the interviewees and translators), and the differences in their training. By 1935, Kiowas had either converted to Christianity or the Native American Church, which was a factor in the work of the Santa Fe party, just as political affiliations impacted how the research team was received. While there were ten reservation encampments established by 1882, “the Santa Fe field party worked mostly with Kiowas living in the Mount Scott, Hog Creek/Red Stone, and Carnegie communities” (26). Kracht provides the engaging and familiar biographical “snapshots” that LaBarre collected for eighteen of the thirty-five elders, including three he names as “chief informants,” Charley Apekaum, Mary Buffalo, and Old Lady Kintadl [Moth Woman].

Chapter 1 presents the story of how the Kiowas became horse people and buffalo hunters, how they acquired horses (by trading or raiding), how a “three-tiered class system” (36) developed based on horse ownership, and how this new culture resulted in alliances or conflicts with other tribal peoples, all of which impacted Kiowa cultural beliefs and kinship. Kracht details how Kiowas “employed a generational kin, or Hawaiian type of kinship system in which relatives are identified according to gender and generation” (39), and the stratified class-system. Topadoga, or bands, were the principal political units, distinct from the five Kiowa Sun Dance bands; this method of social organization was characterized by a fluidity of movement, with bands also including non-Kiowa—members of other tribes and non-Indian captives—many of which were Mexican. The author recounts the difficulties that marked Kiowa (and Plains) alliances and conflicts, the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1868, and the Red River War of 1875, which marked the end of the prereservation period.

The subsequent chapters focus on “Kiowa Beliefs and Concepts of the Universe”, “Acquiring, Maintaining, and Manifesting Power,” “Bundles, Shields, and Societies,” and “The Kiowa Sun Dance”, forming the heart of the study. I appreciated the deliberate use of the Kiowa language throughout, as well as the provided pronunciation guide. Kracht indicates the Kiowa language is “classified in the Kiowa-Tanoan branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family ... distantly related to the Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa languages” (37). Readers devoted to recognizing how indigenous languages inform the work on—and with—indigenous peoples, and how indigenous concepts embedded in the languages can be vital to theoretical and methodological approaches to these subjects of study, will be thankful for this aspect of the text. In chapters 2-5, what stands out is the meticulous attention to the way Kiowas perceive(d) themselves in relation to an infinitely complex universe of worlds—and the sometimes fluid movement between the worlds of pre-reservation, Native American Church, and Christianity—the intricate delicacy by which the elders explained the rules or protocols of their prereservation world; the stories of cultural heroes like Saynday who always “reanimates”, and who brought bison to the people, how the Ten Medicines came to be; how Wind is the “authority” of the middle realm, holding the Sun, Moon, and Sky beings in place, and how Buffalo mediates between the Sun and the people. These chapters remind us of the responsibility and accountability tied to power, how power is negotiated, especially via the three shield societies, Eagle/war, Buffalo/healing, and Taime/Taime bundle and the Sun Dance, and the Bear/women’s society, all of which worked to ensure the well-being of the people.

In his conclusion, Kracht describes the “last days of freedom” (251)—the difficult, heartbreaking period between the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1868 and the Red River War of 1874-75—that marks the end of the pre-reservation period. While the author explains the “Kiowa Sun Dance has been defunct for over one hundred twenty-five years and will never be revived” (249) he also states “if the dance were to be revived, the decision would have to be made by the Taime keeper’s family” (248). This qualification is appreciated given it is an acknowledgment that, ultimately, it is the people who will decide for and with their own “wisdom traditions” (Walter Echo-Hawk’s term). Kracht observes that “Today, the [zaide thale, Split Boys] bundles are ready when needed” (194), and “for the sake of protecting the sanctity of Taime, it’s best to let the mystery remain intact” regarding who has the bundle now, indicating the care he has taken with this study.

In her notes, Alice Marriott wrote, “Fieldnotes are an anthropologist’s investment in the future. Each time they are reviewed, different facts emerge, and differing relationships are established among them” (vxi). Kiowa Belief and Ritual is a work, a storied narrative that opens multiple paths for future researchers who can now go to the Santa Fe fieldnotes from 1935 with specific goals concerning Plains (specifically Kiowa) history and culture(s), Kiowa women’s roles, Kiowa ceremonial aesthetics and practice, the shield societies, indigenous language(s), and possibly, how indigenous languages speak to each other conceptually and precisely to explain humans’ place in a sentient, ordered, reciprocally-relational universe. Kracht has accomplished excellent, dedicated work in providing his assessment of these incredibly important fieldnotes from, it should be recognized, an exceptionally special group of honored elders.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inés Hernández-Ávila is Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin R. Kracht is a professor of anthropology at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. 


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