Why the Tonkawa are Called "Cannibals"

by Frank Mason

told by John Bear (Hočąk)

from the collection of W. C. McKern

Original manuscript pages: | 319 | 320 | 321 | 322 | 323 | 324 |

(319) There used to be many Tonkaway. There was a big village, larger than any other tribe. The chief had one son and this son had three aunts, the chief's sisters. The chief's son didn't associate with those on the warpath, he always stayed by himself. The chief's son was urged by his father to do as the others did, to go on the warpath and so on. Finally, he consented to do so. He asked these aunts to make extra pairs of moccasins for him, and also clothing. He picked out eight horses and started on a westward journey all alone. He traveled for many days. He came to a river, a small dried up creek, forming a hollow. He left his horses there and went on on foot. Looking around, he saw three men on horseback on top of a hill. They came closer towards him. When they came, he saw that they were a man and two women. They began to put up a tent near where he was. He heard them talking, and understood them. While they were talking, he found out that they were a man, his wife and his sister. He was hiding so that they did not see (320) him. Towards evening he sneaked in and went to the lone woman. He asked her to copulate with him. She got up and told her brother, "There is a man who has come here who speaks out language and wants to make me his wife." "That will be all right, if you want to do so," said her brother. The man stayed there and did not take up his journey further.

In the morning he told his new wife, "I have some horses with me. You take them and give them to your brother." But his brother-in-law was afraid to go alone, for he thought the newly arrived man might have a war party waiting for him. His sister said, "You go and we will watch for you." So he went and got the horses. He thanked him for the eight horses. Then he said, "I came here to hunt buffalo. Let's go and hunt now." So they went out and killed some buffalo. Every day they shot buffalo. One day they stayed in camp. The man said some of his people were coming, as previously arranged. "They are bad people," said the man, "and they might try to harm you, so I will stay with you." This he said because the chief's son had killed most of the buffalo. Towards evening these people came with some extra horses. When (321) they arrived, some of them tried to kill him. His brother-in-law was also a chief's son. In the morning they packed up their meat and started back towards the village. Always the man's wife's brother protected this man. So they all went home. When they arrived there, some again tried to kill the young man, but the woman's brother always defended and protected him. He explained to them that this young man had killed nearly all the buffalo that had been brought back; they should not kill him, therefore. Then the woman's brother gave the young man some horses; in return for his good hunting. The young man was not only a good hunter, he was a good warrior and fought valiantly whenever enemies attacked.

The chief said to his son, "I am getting old. You will have control of the village from now on. But he said, "Father, I'd like to say something to you. We have been greatly helped by my brother-in-law. I would like to pass the chieftainship to him and let him have control of the village instead of me." They had become great friends, hunting and fighting side by side. This young man had a baby by this time. The old chief said to the mother, "Daughter, my (322) son-in-law came from some place. His people must be worrying about him all this time. You ought to go there and visit his folks." She asked her husband about it. "Yes," he said, "we could go to visit my family if you want to." The brother-in-law said, "I'll go with you." So they gathered up some horses and started out with their wives for the other village. They reached the village. His parents were mourning, for they thought he was dead. Then he told his people of how some tried to kill him, but he had been protected by his brother-in-law. So he had returned safely. The horses were distributed among the young man's relatives. Then these friends were ever together. They were great buffalo hunters and conducted themselves with great valor in protecting the village against the enemy.

The old chief said to his son, "I am getting old, I shall pass over the control of the village to you." But the young man said, "No, I want to say one thing to you, father, in regard to this. My brother-in-law has come to us and has been of great help both in hunting and warfare. I wish to do to him as he did to me. His father appointed him to be chief of the village, but he passed the control over to me, where I am now chief. And I would like to pass control over to him so that he will be chief of our village." So the old man (323) said, "That is yours, so I have nothing to say." So his brother-in-law was made chief. Then they wanted to go back to the other place. So presents were exchanged. There many horses were given to the strange chief to take home with him. So they traveled back and forth, sometimes in the western village and sometimes in the eastern village. Finally, the two villages came together, and were set up on opposite sides of a river. It was the eastern village that moved over near the western village. So they helped each other defeat each the enemies of the other.

After awhile, some of the children of the eastern village disappeared, and no one could find out what had happened to them. So one time, they found part of one of the children's fingers. Some said, "Maybe these west village people at them up. They should be punished some way." Then some of the west villagers went to get foreign help to clean out all of the east village. So many tribes came to help, and, united, they tried to kill all of the east villagers. So they went towards the south. Only a few escaped. They met some soldiers, and they joined that party. The men folk went with the soldiers, and the women and children went on into Texas where there were no (324) Indians and they would be safe. After awhile, the men returned to their women folk, but they had a hard time, as there was little or no game there. They used to eat a kind of turtle (mątéhi), a "small prairie turtle." They were like these little turtles, only these were about one foot high. That is all the meat that they ate.

In 188–, about, they were brought down to Oklahoma. That is why they were called kiruč [cannibals].

Postscript. The Tongaway, in the first place, used peyote as a war medicine. Frank Mason said, "They used to use it to cure the sick also. The ground peyote was placed in a turtle shell, and mixed with water. The doctor then could look in the liquid and tell what ailed the patient." In 1886, John's brother visited Oklahoma. At that time only the Tongaway, of all the Indians there, used the peyote. The peyote cult was not yet in being.1

Commentary. "Frank Mason" — in the third sentence of the story, the Hočąk informant interjects, "[They] had interpreter, Frank Mason, he explained this."

"Tonkaway" — the title on the manuscript page has, "Tonkaway – kilrutc – cannibals. (Their own name for themselves.)"

"mątéhi" — described by Marino as a "little land turtle," and by Charlie Houghton as merely a "small turtle." Only two kinds of land turtles are found in Oklahoma: the Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) and the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). Both of these are small.

Three-toed Box Turtle Ornate Box Turtle
Carnopod Patrick Feller

"188–" — this would be in the year 1884 (q.v.).

"kiruč" — this is a Hočąk word meaning "to eat themselves, those who eat themselves," from ki-, the reflexive prefix; and ruč, "to eat"; cf. wągᵋruč, "man eaters."

"John's" — this refers to Jonathan H. Bear, McKern's principal informant (4-12), who had "paternal grandchildren in Oklahoma" (336). John Bear's address was given as "785 Caff Street" (no city) (16), which might be in error for "785 Cass St." which is at 8th and Cass in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where is found an old brick building. However, a 785 Cass Street existed in Milwaukee where in 1917, Dr. Julius Pratt had his residence.2 Since McKern was working for the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1927, this may be a more likely address, as it makes his primary informant a local man.

"peyote cult" — a reference to the Native American Church, where peyote was taken to acquire Christian visions.

Note — Since this is a Tonkawa story, it is not linked into the Hočąk corpus.


1 W. C. McKern, Winnebago Notebook (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1927) 319-324.

2 The Twelfth General Catalogue of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, ed. Leo Welden Wertheimer (New York: Executive Council of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, May, 1917) 137.