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Tonkawa Tribe

By Brooklyn Wayland

Deep in Kay County, a bingo hall generates revenue for the Tonkawa tribe and a museum preserves its heritage. This is the site of its former reservation and land allotted to 73 individual tribal members in 1891.

Later replaced by a single chief, The Tonkawa people were originally a matrilineal society of extended family clans forming two moieties. Today, tribal matters are guided by a three-member committee elected biannually.

Because their language was so unique and rare, it is no longer spoken. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Waco term meaning “we all stay together” is the closest and most accepted translation to the origin of the name Tonkawa although the true meaning is unknown. That is because the Tonkawa were a nomadic people, supporting themselves by trading and hunting.

The Tonkawa were originally believed to be indigenous to Texas, but today, historians have traced tribal origins to 1601 in what is now northeastern Oklahoma. They traveled to the Red River by 1700 after being forced south by the Apache, whom they were closely allied with.

Historians believe the tribe settled on the Brazos River Reservation in Texas in 1854. When they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Wichita Agency in 1859 due to their dwindling population, they found themselves in the Leased District of Indian Territory.

Their loyalty to the Confederacy during the Civil War resulted in the Tonkawa Massacre of October 1862. This massacre by pro-Union Native Americans led to the near extermination of the tribe.

The Oklahoma Historical Society recorded that after 92 members of the tribe were removed from Fort Griffin, Texas, in 1884, they were relocated to Indian Territory where they settled in 1885 and continue to live to this day.

Brooklyn Wayland is a reporter with Gaylord News, a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.