Kickapoo Indians

By: M. Christopher Nunley

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 11, 2020

The Kickapoo Indians, an Algonkian-speaking group of fewer than 1,000 individuals scattered across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Mexico, are the remnants of a larger tribe that once lived in the central Great Lakes region. When first encountered by French explorers in the early 1640s, the Kickapoos, or Kiikaapoa, as they call themselves, were still living in the region between lakes Michigan and Erie-the area considered to have been their ancestral home. By the 1660s, however, accelerating conflicts with the Iroquois over access to hunting grounds rich in fur-bearing animals had driven the Kickapoos and other central Algonkians to seek refuge in what is now Wisconsin. There they formed a loose alliance with other displaced Algonkians while carrying on a vigorous trade with the French. At the time of first contact with Whites, the Kickapoos were an independent and self-sufficient people whose mode of life was well adapted to their rich environment. Their self-reliant attitude set them apart from other Indians and continues to be a distinguishing characteristic of the group. It suited them well, for in the seventeenth century the Kickapoos, like other closely related tribes such as the Sacs, Foxes, and Shawnees, lived in a fashion best described as seminomadic. Their yearly subsistence pattern was split between periods of sedentary village life, when the group practiced horticulture and performed religious ceremonies, and time spent on the prairies, where, broken down into smaller, family-based bands, they hunted game and gathered wild foods. For generations, this roving life provided the Kickapoos with adequate nutrition while helping them maintain their autonomy.

Nonetheless, over the next two centuries, the pressures of White expansion, Indian removal policies, and the escalating cycle of frontier violence forced the Kickapoos into a series of relocations, divisions, and reassociations. On two occasions-Pontiac's so-called conspiracy of 1763–69 and the crusade led by Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, during the first two decades of the nineteenth century-the Kickapoos were in the forefront of unsuccessful multitribal Indian resistance movements. These associations not only turned frontier Whites against the Kickapoos but also effected deep divisions within the tribe, so that by the mid-nineteenth century the tribe had divided into three distinct groups-the Kansas Kickapoos, the Oklahoma Kickapoos, and the group known as either the Mexican Kickapoos or the Texas Band of the Oklahoma Kickapoos. With time, these divisions became more distinct as each group adapted to its particular situation.

Of the three, the Kansas Kickapoos, followers of the prophet Kenekuk settled near Fort Leavenworth since 1834, have become the most settled and acculturated. At the other end of the spectrum stand those who journeyed through Texas and into Mexico. These people, living in virtual isolation, have been remarkably successful in preserving much of the traditional Kickapoo way of life. They are also the largest of the Kickapoo divisions. The Kickapoos were initially invited to settle in Texas by Spanish colonial officials who hoped to use displaced Indians as a buffer against American expansion. This goal proved unreachable, however, as declining Spanish influence and the Mexican War of Independence worked to encourage Americans to settle in Texas. For their part, the Kickapoos adjusted to their new life by joining Cherokee chief Bowl's alliance of immigrant Indians living in northeastern Texas. Unfortunately for the Indians, they claimed the very lands coveted by the White American immigrants. The two groups proved unwilling or unable to live in harmony.

After the Texas Revolution, President Sam Houston attempted to secure peace on the frontier by offering a treaty that would have given land grants to the tribes allied with Bowl. The treaty was never ratified, however, and on October 8, 1838, violence erupted on Richland Creek (later known as Battle Creek) in what later became eastern Navarro County. There, in the Battle Creek Fight, twenty-five members of a surveying party engaged an estimated 300 Kickapoo, Cherokee, and Delaware warriors. Only seven Whites survived. A short time later the tense frontier situation grew worse when an alliance of Kickapoos and Mexican guerrillas led by Vicente Córdova attacked the settlement of Killough (see CÓRDOVA REBELLION). These acts of violence, combined with the threat of an Indian-Mexican combination, provided Houston's successor, Mirabeau B. Lamar, who was already predisposed to regard all Indians as enemies, the necessary justification for attempting to force all Indians out of Texas. By 1839 most Kickapoos had fled the republic for Mexico or Indian Territory. In Mexico, however, they continued to make trouble for Texans by allying themselves with the Mexican military and serving their new country as raiders into Texas and as border sentinels. For the next thirteen years these Kickapoos, operating out of Morelos, Coahuila, with Caddo, Cherokee, Delaware, and Seminole partners, harassed settlements in South Texas while successfully repelling Comanche and Apache encroachments from the north. In return for this service the Mexican government awarded the tribe 78,000 acres of land near Zaragoza and Remolino. In 1852 the tribe traded this grant for 17,352 acres at El Nacimiento and an equal amount in Durango that the tribe never occupied. This El Nacimiento grant established a permanent Kickapoo presence in northern Mexico, and the settlement remains home to most of today's Kickapoos.

With the beginning of the Civil War both the Union and the Confederacy sought the aid of the various Indian tribes. Attempting to avoid involvement, many of the Kansas and Indian Territory Kickapoos set out through Texas to join their relatives in Mexico. On January 8, 1865, their effort to remain neutral came to an end when three Kickapoo bands, camping on Dove Creek, a tributary of the Concho River, were attacked by the Confederate cavalry in the battle of Dove Creek. Although surprised and outgunned, the Kickapoos repelled the aggressors. Convinced that Texas had declared war on them, the Kickapoos quickly abandoned camp and completed their journey to Mexico. For years they used the Dove Creek ambush as an excuse for raiding across the Rio Grande. By the early 1870s Kickapoo depredations had become such a serious problem that many Texans called on the cavalry to violate the international border and subdue the offending Indians. On May 18, 1873, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's Fourth United States Cavalry, under orders from Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, did just that. Planning their attack so as to coincide with a major Kickapoo hunt, the cavalrymen, some 400 strong, fell on the Kickapoo camp near Remolino while most of the men were away. After a brief skirmish, forty surviving Indians, mostly women, children, and those too old or infirm to hunt, were captured, tied two or three to a horse, and marched to San Antonio. From there they were transferred to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, where they were held hostage to encourage the surrender of fugitive Kickapoos. Those that gave up, 317 in all, were removed to Indian Territory, but most of the tribe refused to leave and gathered anew in El Nacimiento.

Life in Indian Territory was less than satisfactory. Gathered on a small reservation shared with the Sacs and Foxes, the Kickapoos were subjected to allotment schemes, pressured to send their children to government schools, and forced to endure the presence of White squatters on their supposedly protected lands. Increasingly unhappy, many Kickapoos sold their lands in 1894 and moved to rejoin their relatives in Mexico. This was an equally unsatisfactory situation because the Kickapoos at El Nacimiento, asserting that the recent immigrants had been contaminated by White culture, refused to allow them to join the principal band. With nowhere to go, the emigrants initially settled in Sonora and then, after complex legal haggling, regained their allotments in Oklahoma, to where most of this band returned by the 1920s. Even so, El Nacimiento remains the home for most Kickapoos and is recognized by the Oklahoma and Kansas groups as the repository of all that is truly Kickapoo.

The Kickapoos did not legally hold title to land in Texas until 1985, but because they have traditionally camped near the international bridge between Piedras Negras, Coahuila, and Eagle Pass, Texas, they have long been identified with this state. On January 8, 1983, Public Law 97–429 resolved the Kickapoos' ambiguous land situation. Under this statute they were officially granted lands near El Indio, Texas, and became identified to United States authorities as the Texas Band of the Oklahoma Kickapoos, thereby becoming eligible for federal aid. Nevertheless, the people still call themselves the Mexican Kickapoos, as they are called in Mexico, their primary place of residence. Today the Mexican Kickapoos are distinguished by their retention of their traditional culture. From religion to home construction to language and education, the coherent Kickapoo way of life has survived, even if somewhat modified by a veneer of western civilization. The group, which numbers between 625 and 650, spends the major portion of the year in El Nacimiento-about 130 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas-but still lives a seminomadic life that has been adapted to modern economic conditions. In middle to late May most of the residents of Nacimiento divide into family-based bands and set out across Texas and other western states to work as migrant agricultural laborers. By late October or early November the bands make their way back to Nacimiento, where they pass the winter hunting, planting crops, raising cattle, and participating in religious ceremonies. Though some earn money by selling agricultural products and crafts, most depend upon federal and Texas welfare programs to supplement their meager incomes.

The Kickapoos' disregard of outside influence in other matters is further evidenced by their relationships with Mexican and United States authorities. Since, in spite of their receipt of government money, they regard themselves as a nation unto themselves, the Kickapoos have migrated across the international border with little regard for political boundaries. Mexico and the United States, in turn, have informally granted the Kickapoos the privilege to seek employment in both countries by giving them, in effect, dual citizenship. Consequently, the tribe is free to cross and recross the border at will. Mexico also allows the Kickapoos certain freedoms not granted to regular Mexican citizens. For example, they are not required to license their vehicles in Mexico and can take electrical appliances into the country without paying duty. However, as the result of a provision in United States Public Law 97–429 that seeks to clarify the Kickapoos' citizenship status, they may be forced to declare allegiance to one or the other government.

To a large degree the persistence of Kickapoo cultural forms is related to the continuing importance of the extended family as the basic unit of society. The Kickapoos take kinship obligations and communal responsibilities very seriously and are reluctant to act in ways contrary to tradition. Consequently, though marriage outside of the group is possible, it remains rare, and most Kickapoos prefer to marry within the tribe. A self-contained social structure is also revealed by the Kickapoos' continuing resistance to efforts to introduce formal education among them. Since they believe that exposure to outside ways will result in rapid disintegration of their culture, Kickapoo adults respond by keeping their children away from government schools and have, on occasion, destroyed school buildings. The tribe's migratory life also hampers attempts to enforce attendance. Therefore, education is frequently carried on in the traditional fashion, by tribal elders, and most Kickapoos remain illiterate in English and Spanish. Yet there are some signs of change. In 1937 the Mexican Código Agrario forced the tribe to adopt an elective governmental system, the ejido. This system, which requires the Indians to elect a president, secretary, and treasurer while providing for a tribal police force, has coexisted with the traditional system of hereditary chief and tribal council. The ejido, however, has become more important. Tribal government changed again in 1984 when Public Law 97–429 placed the Mexican group under the auspices of the Oklahoma tribe. Also, the Kickapoos' hostility to formal education abated somewhat as they acquired televisions and as some of them began to look outside the community for employment. Nevertheless, the Kickapoos remain among the most traditional of all North American Indian groups.

Arrell M. Gibson, The Kickapoos, Lords of the Middle Border (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963). Felipe A. and Dolores L. Latorre, The Mexican Kickapoo Indians (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976). Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Frederick A. Peterson, The Mexican Kickapoo Indians (Milwaukee Public Museum, 1956).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Tribes (Major)
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

M. Christopher Nunley, “Kickapoo Indians,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 03, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 11, 2020