Lone Star State


Tribal Society among Texas Indians

By M. M. Kenney

When we seek to know the early stages of human society, we derive aid in the Old World from the light of written history, which discloses with more or less clearness the conditions existing in the past for some thousands of years, supplemented by a twilight of old tradition.

In the New World, however, the light of written history closes in sudden darkness only four centuries back, and is but feebly supplemented by obscure tradition of short duration. As to the peculiar race of men who inhabited these regions before that time, we are thrown upon the resources of natural history. The fragments of flint weapons and rude pottery which are here found buried in the soil, sometimes in deep strata, inform us that these continents were inhabited by savage people in very great antiquity. The mounds and traces of fortifications widely dispersed, and the so called ruined cities of Mexico, Central America, and Peru, inform us that the builders were tribes, and that from time to time partial civilizations arose among them and progressed to the point of erecting great public structures and executing rudimentary works of art, and lapsed again into barbarism and savagery, as it has done in the Old World within recorded time.

But there is another trace, which we may say has been recently discovered, and which is both more ancient and more distinct than any mounds or ruins. The great advance in recent years in the science of Comparative Philology, or the science of language, has opened to us "vistas into the past hitherto undreamed of," and affords a record of great antiquity of many barbarous, unlettered tribes and nations. We are thus enabled to trace migrations which occurred long before the dawn of history, even in the Old World. In the western hemisphere we are enabled, by comparing the languages of the aborigines, to locate the grand divisions of the race. in times much earlier than our histories of discovery disclose, or their traditions indicate, and to trace .some of their wanderings long forgotten among them.

The region of North America which the fortunes of war and political council have now defined as the State of Texas was in the early years of this century inhabited by about thirty tribes of Indians. Twelve tribes of these spoke dialects of the Caddo language, which is an off shoot of the Pawnee stock, including the tribes of the Ricaree and Mandan far up the Missouri River, and farther north. The intervening region, more than a thousand miles in extent, was peopled by tribes alien in speech and unconnected with either. At what time the parent stocks parted company is unknown. Hut as their languages had diverged so much as to be not readily understood by each other, we know that the time had already been considerable when these tribes were first discovered.

The twelve tribes of the Caddo stock were the Caddos, Adaes, Bedaes, Keechies, Nacogdoches, Ionies, Anadarkos, Wacos, Tawakanees, Towash, and Texas. All inhabiting east of the Brazos, from about a hundred miles from the coast, northward nearly to the Arkansas River. Of course, there was no distinct boundary. The Indian tribes knew nothing of a country. They believed that they had a right to the land the same as to the air and water throughout the universe as known to them. The tribes above named hunted across the country as far west as the San Antonio River; but their permanent villages and habitual ranges were within the vague limits described. They had a tradition that they had formerly been confederated together, forming one nation; but whether they were at that time one tribe, from which smaller ones broke off, as bees swarm from the parent hive, is unknown. They were more advanced toward civilization than other tribes north of Mexico, and afford the best examples of tribal government and society.

Of the thirty tribes alluded to as forming- our aboriginal population, two obscure tribes, the Coushatta and Alibama, occupied villages on the Neches and Trinity Rivers not far from Nacogdoches, where they still remain. They also are offshoots far removed from their parent stock, the Muscogee of Georgia and Florida, with many intervening alien tribes. The Lipans ranged from the Rio Grande to the Brazos, along the foot of the mountains. They were an Apache tribe, and their speech a dialect of the Athabascan language, prevailing in the far north, from Hudson Bay nearly to the Pacific Ocean. They also must have broken off from the parent stock in ancient times.

The Comanche, more numerous and powerful than all other tribes combined, roamed the great plains, from Oregon southeastward nearly to the Gulf of Mexico. Their language is a dialect of the Shoshone, spoken by the Bannocks of Montana and the Piutes of Southern California. They were ferocious savages, but their tribe was particularly well organized.

Three tribes of the thirty spoke, each, a language peculiar to itself, in which no connection can be traced with any other tongue. The first and worst of these was the Carankawa, inhabiting along the coast from Galveston westward a tribe of cannibals, noted for their gigantic stature and hideous aspect. All of them were over six feet in height, and each man carried a bow as long as himself, from which they shot arrows with great force and precision. Their language was an almost inarticulate guttural, impossible of imitation, and the lowest form of human speech.

The second of the three tribes, unconnected with any other stock by affinity of speech, was the Tonkaway, ranging from the Brazos to the Nueces, and from near the coast to the mountains. They were friendly with the white people, and often joined in expeditions against the Comanche, with whom they were always at war. They were in alliance with the Lipans, though there was no affinity of speech between them.

The other solitary tribe was the Kioways, roaming the Great Plains with the Comanche, with whom they were in alliance, though there was no resemblance between their savage tongues. The rest of the thirty tribes were small and obscure; many of them perished before any vocabulary of their languages was secured. The first mention in history of any of our tribes is in 1530, when a Spanish officer reports capturing, near the Bio Grande, one of the Texas nation, whom he made his servant.

About 1536, Cabeza de Vaca, with several companions, members of a Spanish expedition which was shipwrecked on the coast, spent six years among the aborigines in Texas. De Vaca has left a narrative of their somewhat severe experience. He names several tribes, none of which we are able to recognize. His description of the country, however, and some incidents, indicate some of the same tribes we know; one of these is mention of the extemporaneous fortification, which we know as the rifle-pit, used by the Tawakanas, which I supposed was a modern invention of that tribe, who alone used that defense against the white people in our time, but which, it is plain from the old narrative, was understood and used by a tribe in Texas more than three centuries before. His description of the Indians on the coast also tallies with our knowledge of the Carankawas. About 1630, Maria de Agreda, a Spanish missionary lady, spent some years among the wild tribes of Texas. None of her writings are known to be in existence, but she is quoted by Father Manzanet, in 1692, he having seen her report to the "Father Custodian of New Mexico." In this quotation, there is mention of the "Kingdom of the Theas," showing that the same tribes then inhabited this country which we found two hundred years after.

The French expedition of La Salle, in 1685, of which a narrative has survived, describes the Carankawas, and the Cenis, a Caddo tribe on the Neches, at whose village the distracted Frenchmen were kindly treated.

Captain Francisco de Leon's expedition, in 1692, crossed Texas from the Rio Grande to Red River. The narrative by Father Manzanet, the missionary priest who accompanied it, gives a full account of the various tribes visited by them in "This province of the Texas, which by another name is called Acenay and also some chiefs of the Cadodoches." The French governor, D'Iberville, about 1714, gives a list of tribes, in which the Caddos, Comanche, and Lipans, appear. From that time to the advent of the American settlers, a hundred years later, there is frequent mention of our tribes.

It is plain, then, that the aboriginal tribes which occupied Texas had come from widely different and distant localities, arriving in different ages, extending back some four centuries, and in all probability very many ages. There is nothing to indicate a common parentage but the race, while their languages, having no common radical words, show that their ancestors were aliens in extremely ancient times. Yet, all the tribes were organized on the same identical plan. There was but little difference in their low scale of advancement, yet there was a difference.

Taking a low tribe for an example. It was divided first into two bands, or brotherhoods. The members of each were prohibited from marrying in their own band, but had to seek husband or wife, as the case might be, in the opposite division. Thus the bands were continually changed and perpetually renewed. The Carankaways were divided into two such bands, each with a chief. The only two of whom we have any knowledge did not agree in the policy they were to pursue toward the white people. But tribal law did not admit of separation; and the advocate of peace was overruled, and all involved in common destruction. The Tonkaways, also a tribe low in the social scale, had this division into two equal classes; but they had, also, as had many other tribes, a secondary division into classes, each of whom was designated by the name of some beast or bird, and had a chief. Theoretically, they were married by clans, though to all appearance they were individual families, each occupying a tent or hut. The affection of the men for their wives and children was to all appearance the same as in civilized nations. But their way of designating kinship showed that it was clanship. The children all belonged to the mother's clan. The mother's sister was not the aunt, but ranked as mother, and her children were brothers and sisters, not cousins; while the mother's brother was uncle, and his children cousins. The father's sister was aunt, and her children cousins of his children; but his brother was not uncle, but counted as father, and his children brothers and sisters. There was some property a few utensils and horses but, upon the death of the owner, his children did not inherit, because they did not belong to his clan; but his nephews and nieces inherited, because they belonged to his clan.

This curious arrangement preserved the equality of the members of the tribe, whose government was a pure democracy. The men of the nation assembled to discuss the policy of their small state in two bands, on either side of a council fire, or place marked as such, for it was often imaginary. The speeches were made by chiefs of clans, and the vote taken of all the men. Such a council they held in this city when it was a small group of cabins in the wilderness in 1841, upon the occasion of the death of a chief, to select a successor. Their sessions were long, and discussion very earnest. A delegation of Lipans, with whom they were in alliance, attended in some advisory capacity, and the election was at last satisfactorily adjusted.

The Caddo tribes had an identical organization, with the addition, perhaps, of more deference and ceremony in the treatment of the chiefs. As described by Manzanet in 1692, the principal chief of the Texas held a court, whose amusing state and ceremony suggests children playing king and queen. Their councils were held in tin- same manner as those which I have just described, and questions of life and death were decided by a vote of the whole tribe.

They had one law which I very much wish could be established in the land to which they have left their name. It was prohibited for any one in a quarrel (of which they had many) to strike a tribesman with a weapon. All their contests had to be settled with the fist. They had no dead-letter laws, and this one was, we are assured, effectively enforced. They had more property than other tribes: good huts, dress and ornaments, and some store of provisions. Manzanet, who passed some time at the village of the Texas in 1692, expressed surprise and perplexity at their rules of marriage and inheritance. Had he taken the pains to inquire, he would have found the same in all tribes of savages.

The Comanche were divided into ten clans, each with a chief, and they kept separate camps, but their law forbade them to marry in their own clan. They had a head chief over all, but their government was a pure democracy, and all questions were settled by a council, either of clan or tribe, according to the importance of the matter.

Such a council was held on the Staked Plain in 1843, to decide upon the fate of the ambassadors sent by President Houston to invite them to a treaty. About five hundred assembled, sitting in circles in a council tent. Back speaker, as his turn came to speak, delivered a vociferous oration in an invective tone, but never interrupted. When all who were entitled to speak (probably the clan chiefs) had spoken except the old head chief, the interpreter brought word to the ambassadors that all the speakers favored putting them to death. But the head chief, whose time it was to speak, remained silent, and no one moved or spoke from noon to 4 o'clock in the evening. Either he was pondering the weighty question, or seeking by this long silence to impress upon his audience the importance of the matter before them. Whatever might have been his motive, this long argument of silence has always impressed me as a notable example of mute eloquence. When he did speak, it was in a stentorian voice and long-continued. He succeeded in turning enough that when the vote was taken the ambassadors were spared.

In all Indian tribes, provisions were shared as long as there were any in the camp; and they all fasted alike in case of need, and none went hungry if any of the tribe had provisions; and this rule extended to prisoners and enemies as well.

They were notoriously improvident and careless of the future. But their wandering life is chargeable with much of their improvidence; and, on the other hand, the fact that they hunted in parties, and could of right claim a share of the game taken each day, explains some of their willingness to divide provisions, which in some cases I saw were refused, and in others grudgingly given.

In the Comanche tribe, I think the children belonged to the clan of the father. They may have changed from one plan to the other. The clans would remain the same. It would favor the idea of property, and a tendency to recognize superior families, which in time might have progressed toward civilization. I do not know what the rule was in the other tribes, but believe they all recognized descent only from the mother.

It has been the commonly received theory that the Indian tribes by some intuition recognized the Creator, whom they worshiped as the Great Spirit. I could never verify this theory. In 1692, the Texas worshiped a deity whom they called "Ayemat Caddi," Chief Spirit, or Spirit of the Chief, Spirit of the Father of the Tribe some traditional and probably fabled hero from whom they claimed descent. And such ancestor-worship existed wherever traces of it have been sought.

All tribes believed in a man's other self, which left him in sleep and wandered in the realm of dreams, returning when he awoke. Hence the impression that the other self could be recalled; and the custom in many tribes, among whom were the Tonkaways, to call the name of one recently dead, begging him to return and inhabit the body; which, in case of trance, must sometime have been verified after many hours of apparent death. So, also, they buried provisions and weapons with the dead, believing that they took the spirit of those things with them. The Comanche, when lighting the pipe of peace at a treaty, blew the first puff of smoke towards the sun, the second to the earth, and the third to the air and sky, thus seeming to recognize spirits in those powerful elements.

It has been said that there was no moral element in their vague religious beliefs, but this must be taken with grains of allowance. The virtues of savages, courage and fidelity to the tribe, were, in their belief, to be finally rewarded, and this belief must have reflected some influence on tribal society.

We may finally remark upon the persistence of the tribe. While there is a remnant of the tribe left, the members persist in maintaining its old tribal organization. There is no instance of a tribe, as such, adopting the political or social organizations of civilization.

The study of tribal society throws light on some subjects which have hitherto been dark to us. We are not yet removed by very many ages from the time when our ancestors had similar tribal organizations; and as we see our domestic animals repeating with amusing fidelity the precautions and preparations which their wild ancestors made for their surroundings, the reasons for which have wholly ceased, but the instinct remains, so we find our ignorant and simple-minded, or, as Carlyle says, "dim instinctive classes," continually proposing political measures, which probably served for small tribes of ancient savages, but are preposterous in civilized and modern nations.

Source: The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Volume I, July 1897 to April 1898, Published by the Association, 1898