The Kiowa Homeland in Oklahoma

By Schnell, Steven M. | The Geographical Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The Kiowa Homeland in Oklahoma

Schnell, Steven M., The Geographical Review

ABSTRACT. Kiowa Indians derive their common identity from deep roots in southwestern Oklahoma, an area they call their "homeland." On this landscape are recognized and distinctive marks, both visible and invisible: The Kiowa have blanketed it with their significant stories. The region is important as a psychological anchor in the Kiowa past and as a core for their modern identity as a distinct people. In this article I explore Kiowa stories, ideas, and feelings about specific landmarks of the homeland. I also step back to discuss how the homeland generates attachments that are not attributable to individual elements within it. Keywords: American Indians, homeland, Kiowa, Native Americans, Oklahoma, sense of place.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I was inculcated with the notion that the state has a rich American Indian heritage. More often than not, though, teachers would speak of this heritage in the past tense, and they left the impression that Indians had seamlessly blended into mainstream Oklahoma culture. Reality is, of course, more complicated than any such textbook generalization, and I gradually became aware that Oklahoma's Indian peoples are far from completely merged into the dominant EuroAmerican culture.

Oklahoma Indians remain distinct in their attachment to place. Although standard maps of the state may not show it, because there are no Indian reservations at all in the state, Indian groups maintain strong emotional ties to particular areas, ties that differ markedly from those of non-Indian residents in the same areas. The historian Arrell Gibson characterized Oklahoma as the "Land of the Drifter," describing a state whose economic history has hampered the development of a sense of rootedness (1986). But this displacement is certainly not the case among many Oklahoma Indians. Loyalties to places they call "homelands" provide Indians with an important part of their sense of themselves. In this essay I explore the particular attachment of the Kiowa people to a portion of southwestern Oklahoma.


Cultural geographers have taken to using the term "homeland" in a sense not explicitly tied to political concerns. This usage signals an increase in the complexity and sophistication with which geographers are exploring ethnicity. More than simply a refinement of the culture-area concept, the growing focus on homelands is a recognition of the inadequacy of broad culture regions to describe emotional attachments to place in the United States.

Perhaps the earliest use of the homeland concept in a formal study came in Alvar Carison's dissertation on the Spanish-American core in New Mexico (1971). Yi-Fu Tuan later explored the idea in an abstract sense (1977), but it was not until Richard Nostrand's 1980 study of Hispanos that "homeland" gained exposure among geographers as an analytical tool.

Consensus exists on only one aspect of the definition of "homeland": that it involves the emotional bonding of a self-conscious group (usually ethnic or religious) to a particular area of land. What separates this concept from ideas such as "sense of place" or "topophilia" is its explicit focus on group identity. Rather than being simply an individual's response to place, homelands involve attachments that reinforce a person's identity as a member of a group. Such attachments, as Tuan has discussed, are deeply rooted in the visible landscape of the homeland:

Landscape is personal and tribal history made visible; the native's identity--his place in the total scheme of things--is not in doubt, because the myths that support it are as real as the rocks and waterholes that he can see and touch. He finds recorded in his land the ancient story of the lives and deeds of the immortal beings from whom he himself is descended, and whom he reveres. The whole countryside is his family tree. (1977, 157-158)

Homelands are also different from culture regions, as traditionally defined by cultural geographers (Meinig 1965; Jordan-Bychkov and Domosh 1999, 7-13). …

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