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THE Kickapoo Indianas

Joseph B. Herring Historical Research and Narrative

"Where can you go running or hiking, canoeing, fishing for trout, camping, hunting or scuba diving — all against a backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty?" an Illinois state park brochure asks. The answer is Kickapoo State Park, covering 2,800 acres just off Interstate 74 near Danville. Once strip-mined for coal, the land has been reclaimed by nature the past fifty years; forests have grown and the waters have purified. It is a great place for a vacation.

How did this recreation area get its name? Most visitors have only a vague idea. Older patrons might remember "Kickapoo Elixir" or "Kickapoo Joy Juice," an old-fashioned patent medicine made famous by cartoonist Al Capp. Others might know that the Kickapoos were an American Indian tribe. Few will recall, however, that these Indians once lived and prospered along the forested hills and bottomlands that are now Kickapoo State Park.

Indeed, when Illinois entered the Union in 1818, the Kickapoos remained a commanding presence from the Vermilion River to central Illinois. They had occupied that area since the seventeenth century when the Iroquois confederacy, a group of five tribes, pushed the Kickapoo out of lower Michigan. Those Indians lived in villages, tilled fields and harvested crops, gathered wild fruits, berries, and vegetables, and hunted game. Some looked like traditional Kickapoo Indians. Others, except for the color of their skin, resembled European Americans; by adopting many aspects of white society, they had become acculturated. These Kickapoos could be called Illinois' earliest pioneers. They tamed and settled the land, established farms, and paved the way for the whites who came to Illinois in ever increasing numbers after the War of 1812.

Because of the Kickapoos' frequent migrations and customary mistrust of outsiders, information on their traditional customs, social organization, and religion has remained incomplete. The Kickapoos shared cultural traits with such tribes as the Sacs and Foxes, and they spoke one of three dialects that make up the Sac-Fox-Kickapoo language, part of the Algonquian language group.

Each Kickapoo band, or group, was self-governing, with its own headmen and assistants who represented the village peace organization. Bands also had war chiefs and warriors. From spring through fall, each band stayed close to its village. The women maintained the brush-covered dwellings called wickiups, cultivated corn, beans, and squash, and gathered edible plants, while the men hunted game and defended against enemies. Following the harvest, they abandoned the village for the winter buffalo hunt. Over the decades the separate bands gained even more independence as they adjusted to particular environmental factors, encountered missionaries, traders, and settlers, and interacted with and adopted the traits of other tribes.


By the early 1800s, two major Kickapoo groups lived in Illinois: the Prairie Band and the Vermillion Band. The Prairie Band had camps from the Sangamon valley west to the Illinois River. The Vermillion Band lived at the confluence of the Middle Fork and Salt Fork of the Vermilion River, part of the present-day Kickapoo State Park. Although both were Kickapoo, the two bands were quite different. The Prairie Band observed traditional Kickapoo Indian customs and ways: they vigorously resisted interference from outsiders, especially government agents and white settlers. They earned a reputation for raiding white settlements and dealing in contraband and for enjoying gambling, alcohol, and other vices. In contrast, the Vermillion Kickapoos readily adopted many European American practices, rejected vice, and generally welcomed white visitors to their village.

Originally, status among both Kickapoo bands was based on membership in clans, or family groups. These name groups were further divided into subgroups—the oskasa, or black, and the kiiskooha, or white, which formed the basis for competition in lacrosse and other games, and determined seating at religious ceremonies.

The Great Manitou, or Creator, stood atop the Kickapoo spiritual world, with lessor manitous, or spirits, existing in the four winds, the sky, the moon and stars, and grandmother earth. Wisaka, son of the Great Manitou, created the earth and everything in it, including the Kickapoos. Wisaka also gave the Prairie Kickapoos the sacred bundles; possessing special powers, these animal-skin pouches contained revered mementoes and objects representing past glories. Medicine societies organized and performed the spring ceremonies centering on clan bundles. Selected members of each clan led the week-long bundle ceremonies, which, along with the Green Corn Dance and Buffalo Dance, strengthened group cohesion and helped the Prairie Kickapoos maintain traditional ways.

An important member of the bands was the shaman, or priest, who communicated with the spirit world. Followers believed a shaman could predict the future and cure the sick. Because one's personal welfare depended on relationships with the spirit world, individuals often consulted the shaman, whose authority sometimes exceeded that of the chiefs.

Perhaps the most influential shaman was Kenekuk (ca. 1790-1852), who guided the Vermillion Band away from many traditional Kickapoo customs. Beginning about 1816, Kenekuk, the Kickapoo Prophet, instructed followers in a new religion combining the ancient Kickapoo ceremonies with Roman Catholic rituals. The doctrine differed radically from traditional Kickapoo beliefs and closely resembled the preachings of the Old Testament prophets. Like those prophets, Kenekuk had "died" and gone to visit God—the Great Manitou—who told him that because the Kickapoos had abandoned traditional ways, they suffered defeat in battle and loss of tribal lands. Kenekuk had been chosen as the messiah to guide the Kickapoos to tribal renewal.

Approximately four hundred Kickapoos and about one hundred neighboring Potawatomis converted to the new faith, venerating the Kickapoo prophet while worshipping Jesus, the Virgin, and the saints, and believing in heaven, hell, and purgatory. The Indians also attended formal services on Sundays and holy days. Sinners, who admitted their misdeeds at public confessions, readily submitted to whippings. White observers noted that Kenekuk himself bore visible scars from such lashings. To remember the commandments of the Great Manitou, each adherent possessed a prayer stick—small wooden boards on which appeared three sets of five traditional Indian figures. Kenekuk urged followers to discard their sacred bundles, asserting that the more powerful prayers sticks meant to Indians what the Bible meant to Christians.

The Kickapoo leader also instructed


followers to reject the "foolish and wicked" vices of the Prairie Band, to remain forever at peace with their neighbors, and to adopt the clothes and other outward trappings of white society. He told them to stay sober and to concentrate on hard work. In a striking departure from tradition, Vermillion Kickapoo men worked alongside women to plant and harvest the fields, and for many produced surpluses of corn and other crops to sell to local merchants. The Vermillion Kickapoos were so successful that William Clark, the regional Superintendent of Indian Affairs, did not press them to abide by two 1819 land cession treaties. Those treaties required both Kickapoo bands to move as soon as possible to a new Indian territory, west of the Mississippi River. Those treaties had been negotiated after land-hungry Illinois citizens had lobbied hard to expel all Indians from the state. The rich lands were valuable, especially in those areas where the Kickapoos had cleared the fields, broken the soil, and made improvements.

In July 1819, federal commissioners had persuaded the Prairie Kickapoos to sign a treaty, exchanging fourteen million acres in Illinois for annual annuities, or cash payments, and new homes in Missouri. Within a few years, most Prairie Kickapoos had left Illinois. Never comfortable near white settlements, the Kickapoos soon moved beyond Missouri seeking less crowded territories. Today, their approximately 2,700 descendants, still living in bands and abiding by traditional customs, have homes in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico.

In August 1819, Indians claiming to be Vermillion Kickapoo chiefs signed a similar treaty. However, neither Kenekuk nor any actual chief had signed that treaty. A primary principle of Kenekuk's faith was a strict prohibition against parting with tribal lands. Because the peaceful Indians dressed and acted much like their white neighbors, state and federal officials initially put little pressure on them to abide by the agreement.

On several occasions during the 1820s Kenekuk urged William Clark to let the Vermillion Band remain in Illinois. The Kickapoo Prophet noted that his followers had always worked hard to follow the "good path." Although the old explorer of Lewis and Clark fame sympathized, he was under increasing pressure from state officials to expel the Indians. White voters wanted the land, and Kenekuk's followers, not being citizens, held little sway with Illinois politicians.

Finally, trouble erupted in western Illinois. In May 1832, the Sacs and Foxes under the leadership of Black Hawk, along with about one hundred Prairie Kickapoo allies, tried to reestablish a village along the Rock River. In the white towns, the alarm quickly sounded. Fearing that the Indians had hostile intentions, Governor John Reynolds called out the Illinois state militia. Despite its inexperience, the militia quickly chased Black Hawk's ill-equipped followers north into Wisconsin and virtually annihilated the Indians that August in a battle near the mouth of the Bad Axe River.

Although the hostilities ended quickly, frightened citizens called for firm measures against all Indians, including those far removed from the conflict—the peaceful followers of Kenekuk. A short time later, Clark pressured Kenekuk to sign the Treaty of Castor Hill, requiring the Vermillion Kickapoos to leave immediately for Kansas. Thus, by October 1832, Kenekuk and his followers set up winter camp along the banks of the Mississippi in western Illinois, a short distance from the home of Indian agent Thomas Forsyth. The white man was impressed by the peaceful tribespeople, who had "never made war against any people." Forsyth believed that the government should help promote


Kenekuk's religion, and he had little doubt that Kenekuk would find new converts in Kansas. He hoped that other tribes would flock to the religion that could well hasten the "civilization" of all Indians.

By the spring of 1833, the Vermillion Kickapoos had settled in Kansas, constructing a new village along the Missouri River, a few miles north of Fort Leavenworth. For many years, even after the prophet's death, they continued to follow Kenekuk's teachings, enabling them to resist further efforts by whites to expel them from their lands. Today, the approximately 1,300 descendants of the Vermillion Kickapoos still hold a small reservation in northeast Kansas—one of only four reservations remaining in the state.

Like their Prairie Band kinsfolk living in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico, the Vermillion Kickapoos lost their Illinois homes but not their identity as Indians. These proud people had once been part of the color and fabric of Illinois—they had settled and tamed the land, making life easier for those who followed—and they remain part of the state's rich heritage. They hold an important place in Illinois history.

Delores F. Rauscher


Main Ideas

This lesson highlights cultural aspects of the Kickapoo Indians and other American Indian tribes as perceived by European Americans. It also emphasizes how and why one culture may adopt practices of another. Since different cultural settings provide different opportunities for learning, an important concern of the lesson is ways in which cultural and environmental factors may influence an individual's understanding of self, others, and the world.

Connection with the Curriculum

Studies exploring American Indian cultural practices have become increasingly important to the field of history. This unit's emphasis on aspects of the Kickapoo Indians' daily lives furthers the students' understanding of how these early people worked, played, and dealt with European-American encroachments on their expanse of land that we now call Illinois.

Teaching Level

Grades 10-12

Materials for Each Student
• The narrative portion of the article
• Copies of the handouts

Objectives for Each Student
• Define acculturation
• Explain acculturation relative to American Indian tribes
• Recognize stereotypes about early American Indians
• Find biases in primary source writings
• Examine and analyze historical sources


Opening the Lesson

Before and during the reading of the article, students should complete Activity 1. After the students have read the article and finished Activity 1, work through the remainder of the activities with the students.


Developing the Lesson

• Activity 1 is a reading activity designed to increase reading comprehension and understanding. The map work done prior to the reading aids the student in better visualizing the location of the people and places mentioned in the article. You may wish to go over the chronology with the students. The chronology follows the events in the narrative of the article and adds a few other important historical happenings as well.

• Activity 2 aims to increase students' awareness of historical misinterpretations, biases, and inaccuracies. The questions are meant to prompt discussion. Questions, for the most part, have no one correct answer. Ask students to consider what biases and assumptions they themselves might have that affect the answers they give to the questions. Teachers should note that the spellings and wordings remain as they are in the original text.

• Activity 3 focuses on sports, which students may find most connects their own way of life with that of early American Indians'. Once students have completed the reading and discussion, tell them that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 emphasized activities that were considered "important" to the Indian cause. That Act did not consider sports as conducive to Indian well-being. One main reason for the de-emphasis on sports seems to have been that officials felt athletes were becoming "students in name only."

Concluding the Lesson

Review the objectives with the students. Be sure that they have grasped the big ideas that have been the focus of this lesson: acculturation of American-Indians with European-American; misrepresentations and biases in historical documents; and misunderstandings of other cultures that result from lack of knowledge.

Extending the Lesson

• Before and during the lesson, decorate the room by having students bring in any artifacts, pictures, or objects that reflect North American Indian culture— blankets, baskets, artwork, and so on. Students might also wish to draw patterns and designs for wall hanging. Eva Wilson's book North American Indian Designs contains numerous examples (see bibliographical information at the end of this publication). Discuss which of the decorations that the Kickapoo tribes might have used or designed and which decorations reflect other American Indian tribes.

• To incorporate literary aspects of American Indian culture, have students do a research project that requires them to find stories, poems, or songs of the Green Corn Dance, the Buffalo Dance, the Ghost Dance, or other dances and songs of North American tribes. They may discover various versions of the same dances and songs.

Assessing the Lesson

• Have students write a persuasive essay in which they assume the roles of spokespersons for either the Prairie Kickapoo Band or the Vermillion Kickapoo Band. Prairie Band spokespersons should argue against acculturation. Refer to the article and have students brainstorm as to what sorts of arguments such spokespersons might have made. Prairie Band arguments might expand on the following: The Great Spirit rewards those who do not forsake him; whites use their religion as an excuse to annihilate Indians; the whites have broken many treaties; the whites are cruel; wherever the whites go, diseases follow, killing the Indians. The Vermillion Band spokespersons should argue for acculturation. Their arguments might expand on the following: The Great Spirit is obviously displeased with Indians, since he allows Indians to suffer at the hands of the whites; the whites increase as the Indians decrease; yielding to the religion and ways of the European-Americans is the only way to avoid total destruction.

• For a more challenging lesson, have students conduct group research and present their findings about the following cases: Williams v. Lee, 1959; Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma, 1970; United States v. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, 1987; Lyng v. Northwest Cemetery Protective Association, 1988; Brendale v. Yakima Nation, 1989; and Oregon v. Smith, 1990. After the presentations, discuss again the big ideas of the lesson.


Before you read the article, make a list of things and/or descriptive words that come to your mind when you think of American Indians.

Before you read the article, locate and circle the places and Indian tribes listed below on the map of Illinois. (See page 19 for the map guide.)

Kickapoo State Park
Vermillion Band
Middle Fork/Salt Fork

Vermilion River
Sangamon River
Rock River

Prairie Band
Illinois River
Sac and Fox

While reading the article, as you come across the words listed below, write their meanings in the blanks. These words are defined for you in the article.

wickiups ____________________________
vices _____________________________
clans _____________________________
sacred bundles _________________________
Great Manitou__________________________
shaman _____________________________
messiah ___________________________
prayer stick___________________________



1673 French explorers, Jolliet and Marquette travel up Illinois River.

Late 1699 Cahokia mission becomes first permanent white settlement in Illinois.

1730s to 1800s Kickapoo move into Illinois area from Wisconsin area. Prairie Band and Vermillion Band formed.

1765 Britain gets Illinois area from France in Treaty of Paris.

1778 George Rogers Clark wins Illinois from British in battle; Illinois becomes part of Virginia.

1784 Virginia gives up Illinois to United States government.

ca. 1790 Year of birth of Kenekuk, the Prophet.

1795 Treaty of Greenville signed between the United States and several tribes, some Kickapoo.

1809 Illinois Territory, which includes Wisconsin, is created.

1818 Illinois becomes twenty-first state admitted to the Union.

1819 Treaty of Edwardsville and Treaty of Fort Harrison are signed by some Kickapoo.

1820 Vandalia becomes state capital.

1832 Treaty of Castor Hill, signed by Kenekuk, the Prophet.

1833 The Vermillion Kickapoo, the last of the Indian tribes in Illinois, leave the state.

1852 Death of Kenekuk, the Prophet.


James Buchanan of Britain traveled throughout the United States and Canada from 1818 to 1821 observing the Indians of North American. In his book written for the British public he describes his observations and those of Reverend John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who had given accounts of his life among the Indians to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of the North American Indians, with A Plan for their Melioration

by James Buchanan, Esq., published, 1824.

From the introduction:

I confess that I had no other idea of an American Indian, than that he was the most ferocious of human beings. Whenever he became named [was spoken of] his scalping-knife, tomahawk, warwhoop, and thirst of blood, were at once associated in my mind; and hence I was led to concur in the almost universal opinion, that he was totally incapable of being rendered subservient to the arts of civilized life... Little did I imagine, that one of the most interesting subjects that can present itself to the human mind, would open upon me; the full development of which would require the united and extended labours of men of talent and research ... to place before the world an impartial view of the Indians of North America, whose virtues, Independence of mind, and nobleness of character, have procured from their oppressors, as a justification of those measures of severity which have been practised toward them, the most foul and unjust representations.

from Chapter VIII:

The following diverting anecdote is told by my old friend the Moravian missionary:

"As I was once resting in my travels at the house of a trader who lived at some distance from an Indian town, I went in the morning to visit an Indian acquaintance and friend of mine. I found him engaged in plucking out his beard, preparatory to painting himself for a dance which was to take place the ensuing evening. Having finished his head-dress, about an hour before sunset, he came up, as he said, to see me, but I and my companions judged that he came to be seen. To my utter astonishment, I saw three different paintings or figures on one and the same face. He had, by his great ingenuity and judgment in laying on and shading the difference colours, made his nose appear, when we stood directly in front of him, as if it were very long and narrow, with a round nob at the end, much like the upper part of a pair of tongs. . . . When we viewed him in profile on one side, his nose represented the beak of an eagle, with the bill rounded and brought to a point... When we turned him the other side, the same nose represented the snout of a pike.... He seemed much pleased with the execution; and having his looking glass with him he contemplated his work, seemingly with great pride and exultation. He asked me how I liked it? I answered that if he had done the work on a piece of board bark, or any thing else, I should like it very well, and often look at it. 'But,' asked he, 'why not so as it is?' 'Because,' said I, 'I cannot see the face that is hidden under these colours, so as to know who it is.' 'Well,' he replied, 'I must go now; and as you cannot know me to-day, I will call tomorrow morning before you leave this place.' He did so, and when he came back, he was washed clean again."



1. What did James Buchanan believe American Indians were like before his travels across the United States and Canada? Do any of the nouns, adjectives, or phrases that he uses to describe his previous conception of the Indians resemble any of those you listed in Activity 1? What does that resemblance or lack of resemblance reveal about stereotypical images of American Indians?

2. Buchanan has a plan for the melioration of American Indians (which means to make better or improve). What does "being rendered subservient to the arts of civilized life" seem to mean to Buchanan? What object does the missionary's Indian friend have that indicates he is adopting the white culture? What did the narrative part of the article say that the Vermillion Kickapoos did that helped keep state and federal officials from pressuring them to move?

3. Why does the missionary not like his Indian friend's face paint? Why might the missionary dislike of his friend's hidden face? What do you think the Indian means when he responds that he will "go now; and as you cannot know me to-day"? Do you think the Indian meant his response to be amusing? If so, to whom? Or was he simply being polite, not wanting to cause his friend distress and discomfort?

4. How might Buchanan's British nationality affect his viewpoint about Indians? What character qualities do Buchanan and the missionary seem to value? From these passages, have we found out more about the observers, Buchanan and the missionary, or more about those being observed, the American Indians? Does Buchanan present us with "an impartial view of the Indians of North America?"


Sports activities and games were important to Indian communities. One nineteenth-century observer noted that some great Chippewa ball players in the Wisconsin area "send the ball so high that it is out of sight." The narrative portion of this article says that Kickapoo played lacrosse and other games and that Kickapoo clan status had significance in sports, since it formed the basis for competition in lacrosse and other games.

Several historians have tried to access the importance of sports and games to Indian culture. The following lists some of their findings. In general, historians have found that Indian sports

— were important for social, spiritual, and economic activities
— highly emphasized sportsmanship and fair play
— regarded both males and females as important participants in sports, although expectations were different
— considered gambling on sports and games an important part of the play
— considered sports activities as artforms, expressive of identity, grace, beauty
— did not closely follow standardized rules
— did not expressly emphasize technical precision

Now read the excerpts from Willitt and Catlin, who describe how lacrosse was played. Decide if you agree with the historians' findings listed above. Consider these questions:

How important do sports seem to have been to the Indians?

What specific lines in the descriptions support the statements made in the list above?

In what ways do American Indian sports of the 1800s resemble sports today?

How are they different?


PLAYING FIELD: Typically about 200 yards in width and 440 to 880 yards in length. Today, the standard length is 100 yards.


Goalposts or Byes- Stand at each end of the field, six feet wide by ten to twenty feet high. A cross bar connects them near the top.

Lacrosse Stick- A racket-like netting attaches at the end of sticks. The sticks measure 4-5 feet in length for catching the ball. Player may use both hands to wield stick when playing the game.

Ball- Originally wooden knots carved from trees. Later were sewn from buckskin or other animal hide. No standard size. The home team furnishes the ball.



A game played by Muskogee Indians as narrated in A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Mann us Willitt (1831)

On the morning of the play, the players on both sides paint and decorate themselves, in the same manner as when they are going to war. Thus decorated and stripped of all clothing as would encumber them, they set out for their appointed field. The time of their arrival is so contrived, that the parties arrive near the field at the same time; and when they get within a mile, in a direction opposite to each other, you hear the sound of the war song, and the yell; when presently, the parties appear in full trot, as if fiercely about to encounter in fight... each player places himself opposite to his antagonist. The rackets, which they use are then laid against each other, in the center of the ground appointed for the game.... The play is commenced by the balls being thrown up on the air, from the center; every player then, with his rackets, of which each has two, endeavors to catch the ball, and throw it between the poles; each side laboring to throw it between the poles towards their own towns; and every time this can be accomplished, it counts 1. The game is usually from 12 to 20 ... Large bets were made on these occasions; and great strength, agility, and dexterity are displayed. Throughout the whole of the game the women are constantly on the alert, with bottles and gourds filled with drink, watching every opportunity to supply the players.

A game played by Choctaw Indians as narrated by George Catlin in North American Indians (1841)

In these desperate struggles for the ball, when it is up where hundreds are running together and leaping, actually over each other's heads, and darting between their adversary's legs, tripping and throwing, and foiling each other in every possible manner, and every voice raised to the highest key, in a shrill, yelps, and barks! ... In these struggles, every mode is used that can be devised, to oppose the progress of the foremost, who is likely to get the ball; and these obstructions often meet desperate individual resistance, which terminates in a violent scuffle.... There are times when the ball gets to the ground, and such a confused mass rushing together around it, and knocking their sticks together, without the possibility of anyone getting or seeing it... when the condensed mass of ball sticks, and shins, and bloody noses, is carried around the different parts of the ground, for a quarter of an hour at a time, without anyone of the mass being able to see the ball.


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