Way back on day #7 in G is for George, I mentioned my great grandfather whose parents permitted him to enlist in the Kansas Light Artillery in1963 when he turned sixteen. I’ve made two trips to Kansas to visit the towns where he and my ancestors lived, to search out their headstones in cemeteries, and to absorb a landscape that was in the bones of my forbearers, but foreign to me. There are stories to be learned and told, and background to bring into my being.
In Topeka, I saw the bronze Kanza warrior atop the state capital dome. In books, I found anecdotes about the Kansa in Ghost Towns of Kansas and Faded Dreams: more Ghost Towns of Kansas by Daniel Fitzgerald. The word Kansa kept coming up.
Spellcheck immediately produced squiggly red underlining and suggested that I might want Kinas, kanga, Kansan, Kansas, or Kwanza. Kinas and Kanga, words unknown to me, could turn on my rabbit hole research switch, but I really do mean Kansa. The OED knows that. When you insert Kansa into the search box, you’re immediately taken you to a definition: “A Siouan Indian people formerly of Kansas and now in Oklahoma; also known as KAW. n. a member of this people; the name of their language. If you look up Kansas, however, it takes you to Kansa. Way to go OED!
Kaw came from the Sioux word aca, meaning Southwind. These native Americans were known as “people of the Southwind.” French traders and other Europeans called them Kanza or Kansa. Kansa became the dominant tribe, and the tribe from which the state gained its name.
No diaries or letters are extant from my great-grandfather. I do not know if he served with any people of the Southwind. I do know, from records in the national archives that seventy Kaw men enlisted in the Kansas Calvary and twenty-one of them died.
Here’s a more positive story about the most famous Kansa tribe member of all: Charles Curtis (1860-1936). Charles was three when his mother, one quarter Kansa Indian, died, but he spent his early youth with the Kaw Indian tribe. In 1868 Cheyenne warriors attacked the Kaw Reservation. One of the Kaw tribe, an interpreter named Jojim took off on horseback to ask for help from the governor. Charles, eight years old, rode with him: 60 miles! Curtis grew up, became a jockey (no wonder! what an experience), was admitted to the bar in 1881, and practiced law in Topeka was elected to the House of Representatives, then the Senate. He became Republican whip and majority whip. He became the 31st vice-president of the United States in1928, serving with Herbert Hoover.
Now I know a smidgen of Kansa history—and have no way to tie it to my grandfather, the impetus for this post.It’s not quite enough to say that my great grandfather lived in Topeka, that he too was Republican, and that he ran for local political office, but lost.
I never know where a single word will take me—sometimes a little off the track. The last fluent speaker of Kansa died in 1983. The last full-blooded Kaw died in 2000, but the tribe, based in Oklahoma continues, and their impact on Kansas remains.
*PHOTO CREDIT for Kanza Indian Warrior Topeka: CHRIS MURPHY