Thanksgiving weekend is a time when thoughts turn to football games, frenzied shoppers and the beginning of the Christmas rush as naturally as leaves turn to gold. But in the American narrative that is the foundation of the holiday, a lot of attention is lavished on the Pilgrims of the story and not as much to the other participants — the Indians, according to Jerry Zotigh, of Waco.
Waco’s very existence is tied to American Indian history. The city that was surveyed and incorporated as a village in 1849 is named for the Indian band that inhabited the banks of the Brazos River near the confluence of the South Bosque.
Jean-Louis Berlandier, a French-born naturalist and anthropologist who was part of a Mexican scientific expedition into Texas in the late 1820s, recorded a settlement of Wacos with about 60 permanent houses — conical structures of grass and sticks.
The heavily tattooed people (men and women both favored “raccoon eyes”) would live in the family lodges during the spring and summer to tend crops in nearby fields. But after the harvest of late fall, they would leave the village with their travel teepees to hunt buffalo all winter around the southern plains.
Zotigh, who is half Kiowa, grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where his father, Spencer, worked in the Chrysler plant with many Kiowa recruited by the company in the 1970s.
But his people come from southwestern Oklahoma, where the federally recognized tribe has more than 11,500 enrolled members.
Expelled from Texas
The Anadarko and Caddo counties region of Oklahoma is where the Waco tribe ended up, as well, after its expulsion from Texas around the time of the Civil War to what was known as “Indian Territory,” he said.
Before the founding of Waco in 1849, a Wichita group known as the “Waco” (or Hueco, in Spanish) lived on the land of today’s downtown Waco. An early explorer named Thomas M. Duke reported to empresario Stephen F. Austin in 1824 that he’d found a village “situated on the West Bank of the river. They have a spring almost as cold as ice itself. All we want is some Brandy and Sugar to have Ice Toddy.”
These Indians, he said, had planted more than 400 acres of crops, such as corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and melons.
Duke estimated the Wacos couldn’t raise more than 100 warriors — information that made Austin contemplate a raid to destroy the village of the mostly agrarian natives, but a year later he made a treaty with them instead.
The Wacos eventually moved out of the region (some histories said they were driven out by more hostile tribes around 1830) and settled near Fort Worth.
“The Wacos got pushed around a lot,” Zotigh said, explaining that they were primarily farmers, not fighters, by nature.
By contrast, the Tonkawa (a Waco word meaning “They all stay together”) were a small tribe in Central Texas that enhanced their fierce “plains cred,” Zotigh said, by cultivating a reputation as savage cannibals.
“It wasn’t literally true that they were ‘people-eaters,’ but what a wonderful, clever way to ensure your survival when surrounded by enemies,” he said.
Because of continued raids by some tribes against white settlements and the attendant political fallout with white retaliation, Texas began to concentrate all American Indian bands together.
The work of removing Indians from Texas began in earnest on Aug. 1, 1859, with a march across the Red River, escorted by two companies of U.S. calvary. After the Civil War, more of the tribes in the Wichita family were rounded up and removed to the reservation in Oklahoma in the 1870s, Zotigh said.
Those were particularly trying times for all the tribes, Zotigh said.
“The federal government threw tribes that hated each other next to each other,” he said, likening the animosity to gang warfare behind bars.
The remaining Wacos are part of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, which also include the Keechi and Tawakoni (also known as Tehuacana). The Wacos shared a common culture with the Wichita and a similar language group, Caddoan.
The Wacos were included in the treaties made between the United States and the Wichita peoples in 1835 and 1846, and also in 1872, when their reservation in the present Oklahoma was established.
Dawes Allotment Act
In 1902, under the Dawes Allotment Act, the reservation lands were broken into individual allotments and the Wacos became citizens of the United States.
“In reality, a lot of Waco blood is still flowing,” said Zotigh, whose native name means “Drifting Wood.”
Although, he added, the last of the full-blood Wacos died in the late 1950s and the tribe’s numbers decrease with assimilation into the larger, white culture.
A band of “genuine Waco Indians” was the most celebrated attraction at the Cotton Palace Exposition of 1912.
A group under the supervision of Capt. Robert S. Ross (1848-1923) — a newspaper publisher and lawman who was the son of Indian agent Shapley P. Ross, a Waco pioneer — was escorted down by train from the Anadarko reservation.
The Indians performed ceremonial dances for exposition visitors day and night, along a carnival fairway known as the War Path, and lived in teepees erected for them on the Cotton Palace grounds.