What do you think of when you think of a Plains Indian? A painted and feather-adorned brave dashing through a bison herd on a galloping Paint horse?
While it is true that the Plains tribes who inhabited Kansas relied heavily on game for food, it would be a mistake to think of these tribes as solely carnivorous. On the contrary, raising crops was an important part of their life.
The Kaw, the Osage, and the Pawnee all built earth lodges and established villages to live in when hunting season was over. These villages were typically close to a river in eastern Kansas. The Kaw lived along the Missouri River, although by the beginning of the 19th century they had moved to the Big Blue. The Osage also started out on the Missouri, where they had a warm friendship with the Kaw, but they had moved by the early 1800s, as well, taking up residence near the Little Osage, Verdigris, Neosho, and Arkansas rivers. Both tribes were driven away from the Missouri by more aggressive tribes such as the Pawnee, who frequented the Republican and Smoky Hills rivers.
Corn, beans, and squash were nearly all the Kaw, the Osage, and the Pawnee tribes grew, but these crops thrived in the rich, moist soil of the river floodplains where the Indians built their villages. They were also easy to care for. The Indians would plant their crops in the spring, cultivate them once, and then leave the villages all summer long as they traveled west to scour the prairie for buffalo. Not until harvest time would the tribes return to their food plots. They would bring in the crop and enjoy a feast, and then they would be off again hunting game until winter began, although the Pawnee might not return until spring planting time came around.
Farming was the domain of the women of the tribe, since hunting, horse racing, and battling other tribes occupied the time of the braves. And the women grew quite skilled at their trade, too. The Pawnee were particularly noted for their agricultural and culinary prowess. They raised several varieties of each type of crop, all drought-tolerant and all kept pure for use in religious ceremonies.
For the rest of their produce needs, the Indians found it easier to gather the food growing in abundance on the plains than to try to cultivate it between buffalo hunts. They harvested nuts, berries, sand plums, and sunflower seeds, among other things. One of their staples was the prairie turnip, a native root vegetable that could be pounded into flour. In fact, the word Topeka comes from from a Kansa word (Kansa is the language of the Kaw tribe) which means, “a good place to dig prairie turnips.”
When the first settlers arrived in eastern Kansas, they brought with them many ideas of how farming should be done in the new territory, most of them based on their experience with agriculture in wetter climates. It is not surprising that the most successful pioneers ended up adopting something of the strategy of the Plains Indians. The farmers who managed to thrive in their new home generally settled along the rivers and streams and raised—you guessed it—corn, beans, and squash, with perhaps a few other grains and vegetables for variety.
Accordingly, the river valleys were the first parts of the territory to be settled. It was not until the whites discovered the cattle-raising potential of the uplands that these regions became important to the agriculture of Kansas.
Pawnee Indian Museum
Learn more about the way the Plains Indians lived at this highly recommended destination near Republic, Kansas.
More about the prairie turnip.
Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses
And here’s a more complete online resource by the same author.