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Tonkawa Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Tonkawa Indian tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Tonkawa site for more in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Tonkawa pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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   Tonkawa Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Tonkawa"? What does it mean?
Tonkawa is pronounced "tong-kuh-wah." It may have come from a word meaning "they keep together" in the language of their Wichita neighbors, but this isn't certain.

Where do the Tonkawas live?
The Tonkawa Indians are original people of Texas. The Tonkawa tribe was forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1800's along with many other tribes, and most Tonkawa people are still living in Oklahoma today.

How is the Tonkawa Indian nation organized?
The Tonkawa Nation has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Tonkawas are also US citizens and must obey American law. In the past, each Tonkawa band was led by its own chief. Today, the Tonkawa tribe is governed by councilmembers who are elected by all the tribal members.

What language do the Tonkawa Indians speak?
The Tonkawa people speak English today. In the past, they spoke their native Tonkawa language. Although there are no native speakers of Tonkawa any more, some young people are working to learn their ancient language again. If you'd like to know an easy Tonkawa word, "ta'en" (pronounced similar to "tah-ayn") means "friend."

What was Tonkawa culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Tonkawa Tribe. On their site you can find information about the Tonkawa people in the past and today.

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How do Tonkawa Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Tonkawa children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play in their daily lives, just like colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys, and games to play. Here is a picture of a hoop game played by Plains Indian kids. Tonkawa girls and boys also enjoyed running races. A Tonkawa mother traditionally carried a young child in a cradleboard on her back--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were men and women's roles in the Tonkawa tribe?
Tonkawa men were hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Tonkawa women did most of the child care and cooking. Only men became Tonkawa chiefs, but both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Tonkawa homes like in the past?
The Tonkawa Indians lived in large buffalo-hide tents called tipis (or teepees). Tipis were carefully designed to set up and break down quickly. An entire Tonkawa village could be packed up and ready to move within an hour. Here is a website of tepee pictures.

Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage, not for housing. Most Tonkawas live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Tonkawa clothing like? Did the Tonkawas wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Tonkawa women wore wraparound deerskin skirts, while Tonkawa men wore loincloths. Here is a website with pictures of American Indian loincloths. Shirts were not necessary in Tonkawa culture, but some Tonkawa warriors wore elaborately decorated war shirts like those used by northern Plains tribes. In cooler weather, Tonkawa women wore shawls made of rabbit fur and the men wore painted buffalo robes. The Tonkawas made beautifully decorated moccasins, but wore them only for special occasions. Normally they went barefoot. Here is a site about Tonkawa regalia, and some photos and links about Indian clothing in general.

Tonkawa Indians did not wear headdresses. Sometimes they would tie a few feathers to a lock of their hair. Tonkawa men wore their hair long and braided, but warriors would sometimes cut the hair on the left side of their heads short. Tonkawa women wore their hair either loose or in one long braid. The Tonkawas wore American Indian tattoo designs and also painted their faces for special occasions. They used different patterns for war paint, religious ceremonies, and festive decoration.

Today, some Tonkawa people still have moccasins or a buckskin dress, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear traditional regalia on special occasions like a wedding or a dance.

What was Tonkawa transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
No--the Tonkawa Indians weren't coastal people, and when they traveled by river, they usually built rafts. Over land, the Tonkawas used dogs pulling travois (a kind of drag sled) to help them carry their belongings. There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.

What was Tonkawa food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Tonkawas were big game hunters. Tonkawa men hunted buffalo and deer and sometimes fished in the rivers. The Tonkawas also collected roots, nuts, and fruit to eat. Though the Tonkawas were not farmers, corn was also part of their diet. They got corn by trading with neighboring tribes. Here is a website with more information about typical Indian food.

What were Tonkawa weapons and tools like in the past?
Tonkawa hunters used bows and arrows. In war, Tonkawa men fired their bows or fought with war clubs and hide shields. Here are pictures and information about the Native arrows and other traditional weapons.

What other Native Americans did the Tonkawa tribe interact with?
The Tonkawas traded regularly with other tribes of the southern Plains and the Southwest. They particularly liked to trade buffalo products to farming tribes like the Caddo and Pueblo Indians. in exchange for corn.

The Tonkawas also fought wars with other tribes. Plains Indian tribes treated war differently than European countries did. They didn't fight over territory but instead to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death or destroyed each other's villages. Instead, their war customs included counting coup (touching an opponent in battle without harming him), stealing an enemy's weapon or horse, or forcing the other tribe's warriors to retreat. Some tribes the Tonkawas frequently fought with included the Apaches and Comanches.

What are Tonkawa arts and crafts like?
Tonkawa artists are known for their hide paintings and copper jewelry.

What kinds of stories do the Tonkawas tell?
There are lots of traditional Tonkawa legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Tonkawa Indian culture. Here is a webpage which contains a Tonkawa Indian legend (scroll down to the bottom of the page.)

What about Tonkawa religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Tonkawa life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Native American people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Tonkawa ceremonies or this site about Indian religions in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Hold Up The Sky, a collection of legends and folktales of the Tonkawa and other Texas Indians. You can also browse through our recommendations of Native American fiction. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Tonkawa Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Tonkawas

Tonkawa Indian Tribe
An overview of the Tonkawa people, their language and history.

Tonkawa Language Resources
Tonkawa language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Tonkawa Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Tonkawa tribe past and present.

Maliseet Words
Tonkawa Indian vocabulary lists.

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