Kanza Language and Landscape

The Kansas River region was home for the Kanza (or Kaw) Indians as early as AD 1700. Although living in villages near the Missouri River around this time, the Kanza hunted and traveled along the river that bears their name at an early date. By the late eighteenth century, they had moved to a village near the confluence of the Big Blue and Kansas Rivers and made this stream valley their primary home for nearly half a century. Even after moving southward to the upper Neosho River valley in the mid-nineteenth century and later to northern Oklahoma, the Kanza recognized (and continue to recognize) the Kansas River region as one of their homelands.

Today we refer to this river by the name that recognizes its relationship to the Kanza people. However, the Kanza knew it and its tributary streams by other names in their own language. A few of these remain, but many have been lost through time. Fortunately some of the Kanza names were recorded in the late nineteenth century by James Owen Dorsey, who worked as a linguist and ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnology in the late nineteenth century. His informants were Kanza then living on the Kaw Reservation in northern Oklahoma. Today the records of Dorsey's work are archived in the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The Language and Landscape project seeks to link the Kanza language with the landscape and stories of the historic Kanza. With this tour, we focus on the mainstem of the Kansas River and its tributaries, striving to bring words and stories of the historic Kanza together with the landscape that figured so importantly in the lives of the ancestral Kanza.

Image credits: Photographs of the Kansas River courtesy of Glen Fell

Painting: Mincho zhinga ‘Little (White) Bear’ by George Catlin

image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art museum.