Wichita State anthropologist hopes to unearth a Plains people’s lost story

Ancestors of the Wichita tribe cut this 160-foot-long image of a serpent into the sod of Rice County roughly 600 years ago. This photo was taken in the 1980s when an archaeologist poured biodegradable lime into the cut to highlight the shape.
Ancestors of the Wichita tribe cut this 160-foot-long image of a serpent into the sod of Rice County roughly 600 years ago. This photo was taken in the 1980s when an archaeologist poured biodegradable lime into the cut to highlight the shape. Courtesy of the Coronado Quivira Museum

In Gary Miller’s Rice County cow pasture, miles from anywhere, there’s a long depression in the prairie grass that zig-zags along the western slope of a ridge.

It’s a faint image, only inches deep. But in springtime, wild onions grow in an egg-shaped circle at one end. And in 1983, a scientist named Clark Mallam poured lime into the zig-zag and had an airplane fly over to take a photo. The yellow lime contrasted with the pasture grass and revealed the image of a serpent, 160 feet long, jaws closing around an egg.

Before Columbus and smallpox showed up on the continent, this place was sacred and was thickly populated with daring, artistic people mostly now lost to history.

The story that goes with the serpent has been lost for 600 years.

Donald Blakeslee plans to go find it.

An underestimated people

The serpent is roughly 600 years old, a work of art cut into the sod by the Quivirans, ancestors to the Wichita. Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist, teaches at Wichita State University. Many years of digs turned him into an expert on the Plains Indians.

Two miles north of the serpent are the remains of a string of Quiviran towns Coronado visited on his 1541 historic trek into what is now Kansas. Coronado came looking for gold, and left disgusted when he found none.

There are remains of big council lodges and another sacred place – a spring alongside a rock outcropping alongside a creek. Bare earth, springs and rock outcroppings were considered portals to the underworld by Plains Indians, Blakeslee said.

He thinks what he and others find there next year might rewrite parts of American history.

For centuries, Blakeslee said, we and our ancestors assumed that people using Stone Age tools were unremarkable.

He has spent decades studying artifacts taken from the ground just north of the serpent. He says we’ve seriously cheated those people of their place in history.

Before smallpox destroyed American Indian populations, they built complex villages, more populous than most Kansas towns today. The serpent shows that they created a powerful mythology that no doubt motivated people for hundreds of miles around, Blakeslee said.

They made musical instruments, decorated themselves with tattoos and walked hundreds of miles to lug home brightly colored stones to be made into arrowheads, jewelry, tobacco pipes and hammer heads that looked like works of art.

The biggest surprise of all, Blakeslee said, is the one he hopes to prove: that the Quivirans, ancestors to the surviving members of the Wichita tribe, turned trained dogs into pack animals and with them created a long-distance trading network, bigger than we’ve ever imagined, with the Pueblo Indians near Santa Fe. They established foot-path trade routes 550 miles long to swap buffalo hides for cotton cloth and jewelry.

Trade network

Blakeslee and archaeologist Scott Ortman of the University of Colorado plan expeditions in Kansas and New Mexico next year that will involve digging, dozens of volunteers, DNA analysis of Indian dog remains, ground-penetrating radar, linguists and money from Wichita State, the National Geographic Society and other sources.

Blakeslee even plans to deploy a thermal-imaging camera hung from a motorized parachute to hover over lost towns of the Wichita ancestors.

“Coronado was Kansas’ first disappointed tourist,” Blakeslee said. The Spanish conquistador shortchanged the Quivirans, he said. So has history so far, he said.

“The assumption of many people even today is that people using stone tools were savages,” Blakeslee said. “But that’s not what the artifacts show.”

When Blakeslee invited leaders of the Wichita tribe to see the serpent in May, they noticed the peace and quiet: breezes blowing; the song of meadowlarks. There was sage growing there; the Wichita have burned sage for centuries in cleansing rituals.

Terri Parton, president of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, was surprised to learn that her people once numbered in the tens of thousands in what is now Kansas before Columbus arrived in the Americas.

Perhaps ten thousand were living north of the serpent. Another 20,000 were living around what is now Arkansas City. Thousands more lived near what is now Augusta, Blakeslee said.

When Blakeslee drove Parton and other tribe members along the eastern edge of the six miles of ancient settlement near the Arkansas City area, “they all got real quiet.”

“Standing there, trying to imagine 2,000 grass houses, trying to imagine that many of our people there – that was amazing,” Parton said.

What the scientists will hunt for, in Kansas and in New Mexico, will be evidence of a big trade network crossing hundreds of miles, from the serpent in Kansas to the Pueblo Indian tribes of New Mexico.

Blakeslee thinks the Quivirans created all this before Columbus, with no horses, no wagons, no wheels and no pack animals except dogs.

The people who created all this, he said, raised children, loved art, and thought that eagles and hawks were sacred because when they flew in spirals upward, they took prayers with them to the top of the sky and beyond.

In search of gold

Francisco Coronado came north from Mexico to get rich.

For the Spanish king, Coronado claimed the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.

In what is now New Mexico, when Indians resisted them, the Spaniards marched in with swords drawn.

Coronado’s soldiers took prisoner a Plains Indian visiting the Pueblos. They nicknamed him “the Turk.” The Turk told the Spaniards his people were rich and told Coronado a story about a huge river and big towns.

The Spaniards thought he’d help them find gold. They told the Turk to lead the way.

Blakeslee says the Turk was a Wichita Indian. The Turk, probably trying to spare friends in what is now Kansas from meeting this armed gang, led Coronado’s army straight east across Texas, Blakeslee said.

But after Coronado lost trust in him, he was put in chains, and the Spaniards followed another Wichita guide, all the way from Texas to Kansas.

When they got to the headwaters of today’s Little Arkansas River, they found soil that was black and rich. There were springs and pools of clean water. Springs, bare earth, springs and rock outcroppings were considered portals to the underworld by Plains Indians, he said. And in that place, a few miles northeast of what is now the town of Lyons, Coronado found a string of big towns, with big beehive-shaped grass lodges.

Coronado called the region Quivira.

He saw Indians raising corn, pumpkin, sunflowers and beans. Millions of bison grazed nearby. By any standard, the Quivirans were wealthy – farmers and skilled hunters so resourceful that they were multiplying rapidly, thousands of them in the pre-smallpox centuries.

If he had not been so fixated on finding gold, perhaps Coronado would have given them more credit, Blakeslee said.

But Coronado found no gold.

So he erected a Christian cross and ordered his soldiers south, to Mexico.

And he told his men to strangle the Turk.

Made their mark

The lost serpent people left their mark in place names.

Wichita – our city, their tribe.

Quivira – the name of a National Wildlife Refuge and a Boy Scout chapter.

Waco – the name of a tribe and a Wichita traffic artery.

Kechi – an affiliated Wichita tribe and a local town.

Tawakoni – another affiliated tribe and the name of roads in Benton and Augusta.

They left behind thousands of tools, weapons, tobacco pipes and goods at what are now Arkansas City, Augusta, Waconda Lake and at a site north of the serpent called the Tobias site. Hundreds of artifacts from there can be seen on display at the Coronado Quivira Museum in Lyons. Blakeslee said those tools hint at a vast, compelling and mostly lost story of art and trade, religion and daring.

They tattooed each other, using bone needles to draw images on their faces, embedding long lines of decorative dots onto their arms.

They could have made arrowheads out of any flint but often sent craftsmen on foot 330 miles, to what is now the Texas Panhandle, to fashion arrowheads of gorgeous-looking and multicolored Alibates flint they quarried there.

They smoked tobacco in little stone pipes, hand-carved from fine-grained and velvety red pipestone. To get pipestone, their foragers walked 175 to 200 miles to glacial deposits in northeast Kansas.

From there, they also carried home heavy hunks of hard pink Dakota quartzite and carved them into artistically shaped pink sledgehammer heads. Stone Age people didn’t expend enormous amounts of energy such as those hikes required unless their entire community appreciated art, Blakeslee said.

They turned bison ribs into musical instruments, making cuts across the width of the bone. Those cuts turned the rib into a rasp. They would hold a rasp across the mouth of a pottery cooking pot and run a stick over the rasp. The echo-chamber grunt that this produced mimicked the guttural snort of a bison bull.

Stories disappeared

Historians have long known there was some trade between people from the Little Arkansas River headwaters and those of the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Blakeslee and Ortman hope to prove it was much bigger than historians have realized.

Archaeologists decades ago found bits of New Mexico turquoise, obsidian (volcanic glass) and Pueblo Indian pottery at the Tobias site, now a hayfield two miles north of the serpent. Blakeslee walked out there recently and pointed to a number of shallow depressions, indications of houses and lodges built hundreds of years ago.

To create the network Blakeslee believes existed, the Plains people would have had to cross dry plains and drier deserts in large numbers, carrying many pounds of goods on A-frame travois harnessed to the backs of dogs.

Bison hides are thick and heavy, so this would have been quite a trick. “But if they had 50 or so dogs, they could have done it,” Ortman said.

Burdened heavily, they would have crossed rivers and mountain passes, hunting and gathering food along the way to keep themselves and the dogs alive. It would have taken months to travel one way.

In New Mexico among the Pueblos, Blakeslee said, they probably traded for cotton, obsidian, turquoise and glazed pottery that they then carried back, 550 miles, to those beehive-shaped lodges they lived in just north of the serpent.

The reason these stories disappeared, Blakeslee said, is that smallpox and conquest nearly destroyed the Plains tribes in the centuries after Columbus. Untold numbers died, probably a million or more across North America.

When settlers began crossing the Kansas prairie in the 1840s, they found a landscape mostly empty except for an occasional war party or village or an occasional Indian begging for coffee, tobacco or food.

Telling their history

You can see outlines of the great, lost story in the archaeological record, Ortman said: In Kansas, pieces of glazed pottery made near Santa Fe. Obsidian glass from the Jemez Mountains.

“And in New Mexico you see it in the form of stone tools from the Plains that show up in New Mexico. “In some of the Rio Grande sites, there are traces of a strong ramping-up of interaction.”

Ortman believes the Pueblos and the Quivira ramped up trade, mostly Plains buffalo hides for Pueblo cotton, starting in the 1400s. While Ortman is digging next year in New Mexico to find links to Kansas, Blakeslee will be digging in Kansas looking for links to New Mexico.

Ortman has asked the Pueblos what they know. They do not recall any traditions of extensive trade, Ortman said. But they did suggest that “trade” probably wasn’t what happened.

“They said it was likely more like gift-giving and not trade,” Ortman said. “They said that in the Pueblo communities today, most exchanges are gifts rather than monetary exchange, where people trade three blankets for two bushels of corn. And they said when the trader comes to town, the locals probably give more than his goods are worth, to encourage the relationship.”

You don’t do any of those things, or carve a giant serpent into the prairie, unless you’re part of a rich and vibrant culture, Blakeslee said.

“Their stories died with them, and so the people who made the serpent and everything that went with it, those stories were lost, and the people who built it all are nameless and unknown to us,” Blakeslee said. “The story is that they didn’t record anything. But in fact they did record things, in the things they left behind.

“What I do is find what they left behind and tell what it shows – and in doing that, I can give voice to all those who were nameless.”

Creation legend

Most spiritual history of the Wichita died with their ancestors. But among their friends and linguistic cousins the Pawnee, there are stories about the spirit world. And there is a creation legend that Blakeslee says gives a hint of what that serpent might have meant:

Morningstar wanted to meet Eveningstar, whom he loved.

So he crossed the sky on a long and dangerous journey. On the way, he met with adventures and dangers. In one, he was swallowed by a serpent.

In the Pawnee language, Blakeslee said, the word for “flint” and for “meteor” is the same. Flint was precious.

So it might not be an egg the serpent is swallowing, Blakeslee said.

It might be a ball of fire the serpent is coughing up as Morningstar fights to get free.

The serpent can still stir the emotions of the Wichita.

Gary McAdams, the former tribe president who saw the serpent site with Parton and Blakeslee in May, wrote a note to the rest of the tribe after he came home to Anadarko, Okla.

“Standing there, you can see for miles,” he wrote.

“There is a profusion of seeps and springs which seem to flow from the base of every sandstone bluff to feed the Little Arkansas River and its many tributaries and which watered the gardens of the thousands of Wichitas who made this their homes for hundreds of years.

“Standing there, serenaded by the songs of the meadowlark and other grassland birds, all seems right with the world.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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