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George Catlin’s 1860s painting of men of the Kickapoo Nation preaching and praying.

Kickapoo Nation Was Scattered and Driven South from Michigan to Mexico

Not long after Europeans came to North America, Native American tribes from the East began moving west toward the Great Lakes. Around the mid-17th century, a number of the more westerly tribes or nations, including the Kickapoo Nation, were forced west and south because of incursions first by other native tribes who were pushed west by Europeans, and then by Europeans themselves. Some Kickapoo people ended up far to the south in Mexico, and their descendants still live there.

The Kickapoo Nation, an Algonquian people, had originally been in southern Michigan and northern Ohio. They farmed beans, squash and corn and hunted and gathered. Those three crops were symbiotic: bean vines grew on the corn stalks, and the low-growing squash planted among the corn killed weeds.

As the tribes around the Great Lakes were forced out, they adopted new ways of sustaining themselves. The Sioux , who had lived around the western Great Lakes and Minnesota, and the Kickapoo Nation both took up bison hunting when they were displaced to the Great Plains.

A Native American garden with squash, beans, and corn. (Public Domain)

A Native American garden with squash, beans, and corn. ( Public Domain )

‘Those Who Walk the Earth’

The Kickapoo language is nearly identical to the language of another tribe, the Shawnee. Kickapoo and Shawnee people assume they were one nation at one time, but history does not remember when they were together or how they grew apart.

The Milwaukee Public Museum has a page on the Mexican Kickapoo which states:

“The Kickapoo, meaning “those who walk the earth” or “he who moves here and there,” are grouped with other tribes in the Algonquian linguistic lineage, and were situated in what A.M. Gibson refers to as the “Algonquian heartland.” This area was bordered on the east and north by the Great Lakes, on the west by the Mississippi, and on the south by the Ohio River. Tribes living in this region also possessed common cultural traits – a quasi-sedentary lifestyle, similarities in their methods of raising war parties, and their hospitable nature towards visitors.”

Kickapoo Ke-chim-qua, Big Bear. (Public Domain)

Kickapoo Ke-chim-qua, Big Bear. ( Public Domain )

The Beaver Wars

The Kickapoo Nation were caught up in the Beaver Wars of the 1640s. These wars included Native American tribes and the French, who were involved in the fur trade. Beaver pelts were a popular fur item among Europeans.

The Iroquois invasion of the 1650s forced the Kickapoo to south of Lake Michigan and southern Wisconsin as far west as the Mississippi River.

The museum article says the “Kickapoos maintained a love-hate relationship with the French.” It says the relationship centered around which tribes made alliances to fend off the French, the trade goods the French brought to the area and the actions of settlers.

Fur traders in Canada, trading with Indians (1777). (Public Domain)

Fur traders in Canada, trading with Indians (1777). ( Public Domain )

 “In 1765, the Kickapoo, Sauk, and Fox made their way into Illinois, where the Kickapoo set up camp near the city of Peoria,” the article states. “This tenuous relationship, experienced first with the French, would be repeated with the English and the Americans.”

Kickapoo Nation Became Bison Hunters

As happened with other tribes, the Kickapoo Nation made a new life for themselves among the bison herds of the Plains. Then, they were displaced yet again after they arrived in Illinois. Displacement happened a few times to the Kickapoo, who became quite scattered from their origins in Michigan and Ohio, to Illinois and Wisconsin, to Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Mexico.

Kickapoo Chief Babe Shkit of Oklahoma, around 1900. (Public Domain)

Kickapoo Chief Babe Shkit of Oklahoma, around 1900. ( Public Domain )

Past population numbers are hard to calculate, but the Kickapoo Nation now number about 3,000. At one time not long after Europeans came, it was estimated there were about 4,000 Kickapoo people. But by 1660, a Web page on Kickapoo history says nearly all Algonquian-speaking tribes were mixed with each other on territory in Wisconsin. The French put Kickapoo population numbers at 2,000 by 1684 but at 3,000 by 1759.

A Complicated History

The history of the tribes of this region is very complicated and intertwined, involving multiple different peoples making war, being displaced, trading with the French and, later, other peoples. The Kickapoo learned new life ways on the Plains, lived in a new, unfamiliar territory and must have had difficulty coping with the loss of loved ones and their homes in the East.

The Kickapoos’ cousins the Shawnee had lived in the Southwest for some time, but the Kickapoo and Shawnee still shared cultural practices. Both tribes lived in villages and had longhouses in the summer. After the harvest in the fall they did a bison hunt and then sub-groups went to winter hunting camps.

Kickapoo groups were organized as patrilineal clans. Patrilineal means they traced their ancestral descent through the father. However, the mothers’ sisters and brothers played a role in raising their nieces and nephews.

Kickapoo Nation woman A'h-tee-wát-o-mee. (Public Domain)

Kickapoo Nation woman A'h-tee-wát-o-mee. ( Public Domain )

The Kickapoo Nation Refuses to Acculturate to Western Society

The Kickapoo strenuously refused to be acculturated to Western culture and life ways. People of European descent tried to convert them to Christianity and Western economics but failed. To this day, the Kickapoo are proud of their culture and like many other Native American tribes they are preserving and trying to recover their ancestors’ ways after they were suppressed.

Kickapoo religion continues to be mostly Native American, except among the Kansas Kickapoo tribe. Some Kickapoo are members of the Drum Religion or Dream Dance that emphasizes kindness and was introduced by a native woman in the 1870s.

A Kickapoo boy’s ceremonial dress. (Thelmadatter/CC BY SA 4.0)

A Kickapoo boy’s ceremonial dress. (Thelmadatter/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Others adhere to animism, according to EveryCulture.com :

“Traditionally, the Kickapoo religion has been an intrinsic part of every facet of life. The religion is animistic and includes a belief in manitous or spirit messengers. The supreme deity is Kisiihiat, who created the world and lives in the sky. Kisiihiat is assisted by a pantheon of manitous, or manitooaki (plural), who are embodied in the earth, objects of nature, and natural forces, and who serve as spirit messengers.”

The Kickapoo have a culture hero, Wisaaka, son of Kisiihiat, who taught them how to build their houses, which play an important role in their religion.

EveryCulture.com states:

“Religious practice is organized around sacred bundles, misaami, for clans and herbal societies. The religion is protected and practiced almost fanatically among the Mexican Kickapoo, whereas the Kansas Kickapoo have been strongly affected by Christianity. Most Oklahoma Kickapoo practice the traditional religion, but some other Religions, such as the Native American church and Protestant denominations, have made some impact.”

Now there are Kickapoo reservations in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and some live, as mentioned, in Mexico.

Top image: George Catlin’s 1860s painting of men of the Kickapoo Nation preaching and praying. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller

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