Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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Around A.D. 1400 major changes in the lifestyles of Native peoples took place across much of the southern Great Plains. Before that time populations in what is now central and western Oklahoma resided in comparatively small groups distributed along stream valley edges and derived their subsistence from a mix of farming, gathering, and hunting. The exact mix varied from place to place, depending on available resources. In eastern Oklahoma complex societies developed, represented by mound construction and based on a subsistence of farming and deer hunting. Settlements were generally small and dispersed.

Beginning in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century people in the western parts of Oklahoma increasingly came to rely more upon bison hunting than farming. The exact cause is uncertain, but it likely involved a climatic change that increased bison population numbers. Either because the productivity of bison hunting was greater or because moisture became insufficient, maize farming declined. Those people who adopted a bison-hunting lifestyle in western Oklahoma are best represented by the Wheeler Phase (Wheeler and Edwards complexes).

Other people coalesced to form large, aggregated villages that depended heavily on farming and, to a lesser degree, on bison hunting. Coalescence was a response to increasing conflict, probably over access to bison. Some people who had once been farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas aggregated into large settlements comprising the Little River Focus in central Kansas and the Lower Walnut Focus, along the Walnut River in south-central Kansas. Coalescence brought substantial changes in social, political, economic, and religious organizations.

Spanish explorers entered the southern Plains early. The central Kansas settlements were known to the Spanish as Quivira and were visited by Coronado in A.D. 1541. People comprising the Wheeler Phase were known as the Escanjaque to the Oñate expedition of 1601. The Walnut River settlements were the Oñate expedition's destination. At these settlements the expedition captured an Escanjaque Indian, whom they named Miguel. Miguel provided information on the lifestyles of not only the Escanjaque but also the people of the Little River focus, whom he called Tancoa, and those of the Lower Walnut Focus, whom he knew as Etzanoa. Quivira, or Tancoa, is likely the ancestor of the Tawakoni subdivision of the present Wichita tribe, while Etzanoa is the ancestor of the Wichita subdivision. The Iscani subdivison is probably the descendant of the Escanjaque.

People who resided in eastern Oklahoma also were not immune to social, political, and economic reorganization. The complex societies represented by the Spiro Phase of east-central Oklahoma collapsed for unknown reasons around A.D. 1450. These societies were replaced by less complex organizations associated with the Fort Coffee Phase of A.D. 1450-1650 or 1700. Other similar societies are represented by the Neosho Focus or phase of northeastern Oklahoma, northwestern Arkansas, and southwestern Missouri. While the people still engaged in farming, bison hunting increased in importance.

Early European explorers also visited eastern Oklahoma. The people of Tula, encountered by de Soto's expedition in 1541, likely represent the Fort Coffee Phase or a related group in western Arkansas. During the seventeenth century some residents of eastern Oklahoma moved to south-central Oklahoma and north-central Texas, where they become known as the Keechi. The Keechi today are represented in both the Wichita and Caddo tribes. Others appear to have stayed in eastern Oklahoma for a while longer, including the Canicons, who were known to the La Harpe expedition of 1719.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert E. Bell, ed., Prehistory of Oklahoma (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984). Richard R. Drass, "Southern Plains Villagers," in Archaeology of the Great Plains, ed. W. Raymond Wood (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998). Chris Lintz, "Texas Panhandle: Pueblo Interactions from the Thirteenth through the Sixteenth Century," in Farmers, Hunters, and Colonists: Interaction between the Southwest and the Southern Plains, ed. Katherine A. Spielmann (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991). Susan C. Vehik, "Conflict, Trade, and Political Development on the Southern Plains," American Antiquity 67 (January 2002). Susan C. Vehik, "Oñate's Expedition to the Southern Plains: Routes, Destinations, and Implications for Late Prehistoric Cultural Adaptations," Plains Anthropologist 31 (February 1986).

Susan C. Vehik

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