Traditional religious belief held that spirits dwelt in all aspects of nature, such as celestial objects. The sun was a deity to which prayers were offered and donations made, as were the wind and a sacred salt spring in northern Kansas. Pubescent boys were taken by their fathers to a remote spot for at least three days, where they sought visions via fasting and self-deprivation.
Each village was ruled by a council-elected chief; a head chief ruled over all the villages. War chiefs led military operations. Sixteen patrilineal clans, each including several families, combined into seven larger organizational units. There were also two tribal divisions: Nata and Ictunga. Men were mostly concerned with war and hunting whereas women did most of the work around the village. Kaws placed an extremely high value on the chastity of women. Dog Soldiers served as camp police and administered public punishments as needed. After being painted and covered with bark, corpses were buried in a sitting position facing west.
Circular or oval lodges were framed in wood and covered with mats woven of reed, grass, or bark and then a layer of earth. They ranged up to sixty feet in diameter and housed five or six families. The people also used skin teepees on hunting trips. Buffalo, and other animals as well, were the most important food source. There were two large, communal buffalo hunts a year. Women grew corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in valley bottom-lands. There were generally two harvests: one in the midsummer and another in the early fall. Women also gathered prairie potatoes and other foods.
Farm implements included hoes, digging sticks, and rakes. Most items came from the buffalo, including utensils and the raw material for various woven items. The Kaws traded in buffalo skins and products. They also supplied the French with slaves in exchange for guns and other items. Dogs carried burdens before horses, which were acquired from the Apaches in 1724. Kaws dressed in typical Plains skin clothing. The men plucked or shaved all of their hair except for a single lock at the back. Weapons included bows, arrows, and buffalo hide shields. The people chose war chiefs as needed.
Perhaps at one time one people with other southern Siouans such as the Quapaws, Omahas, Poncas, and Osagse, the Kaws remained in the Wabash Valley until driven out, possibly by the Iroquois, with the others in the early sixteenth century. They traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and then north to near present-day St. Louis. Finding the lower Missouri Valley open, the Kaws moved north on that river to the Kaw Valley, where they stopped and built lodges. They lived peacefully, at least for a while, with their Pawnee and Apache neighbors.
Direct trade with the French out of New Orleans began at least as early as 1719. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Kaws were frequently at war with both Indians and non-Indians. In 1724, at the request of French officials but also out of their own self-interest, over 1,000 Kaws traveled to Apache villages on a successful peace mission. The Kaws acquired their first horses at that time, and a brief peace was also established between the Apaches and the French, the latter hitherto actively engaged in the trade in Apache slaves. Shortly thereafter, however, French traders resumed their purchase of Apache slaves from, among others, the Kaws, the latter preferring good trade relations with the French to peace with the declining Apaches.
By the late eighteenth century, the well armed Kaw, along with other tribes such as the Osages, Pawnees, and Wichitas, represented the eastern boundary of the huge Comanche country. The Kaws ceded all of their Missouri land in 1825 in exchange for a 2-million-acre reservation in Kansas. That land in turn was ceded in 1846, and they were removed to a 265,000-acre reservation farther west, at Council Grove, on the Neosho River. The United States took those lands in 1873, and the remaining Kaws were removed to the Indian Territory. Their remaining lands were allotted in 1902, and the tribe was legally dissolved. A significant number of the full-bloods, such as Chief Al-le-go-wa-ho, had opposed allotment, a situation that exacerbated factionalism and the legal struggles that followed tribal dissolution. An example of the "progressive" faction was Congressman and later Vice President Charles Curtis, who was largely responsible for the Kaw Allotment Act of 1902 that stripped the Kaw people of their tribal lands.
The tribe reconstituted itself in 1959 under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. Tribal holdings at that time included 260 acres near the mouth of Beaver Creek. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army built the Kaw Reservoir, flooding most of these lands. The cemetery and council house were moved, the latter to a fifteen-acre tract that was subsequently enlarged by Congress to 135.5 acres.