The Tonkawas recognized numerous deities. They may have engaged in cannibalism, possibly for religious reasons. Psychotropic plants also played a part in their religious practice. There were at least twenty autonomous bands with loose, decentralized governing structures. The Tonkawas were excellent runners. For most of their existence they were nomadic hunters. On the Plains, the people lived in skin teepees.
Men hunted large and small game, especially buffalo and deer. Women gathered roots, seeds, nuts, prickly pear, and other wild foods. The people also ate fish, shellfish, and rattlesnake meat but neither wolf nor coyote. Like all Plains tribes, most of their material goods came from the buffalo and other animals. Tonkawas traded buffalo-derived materials for feathers and other items. They were also well-known horse traders. Pueblo groups were among their trade partners. They imported copper from the north. Painting—of shields, teepees, and their own bodies—was a major part of Tonkawa art.
Women made all clothing from animal skins. They wore short wraparound skirts and either let their hair hang long or made one braid. Men wore long breechclouts and long, braided hair. Men also plucked their beards and eyebrows. Moccasins or fiber sandals were rarely worn. Both sexes wore buffalo robes, and both tattooed and painted their bodies and wore many personal ornaments.
Tonkawa men had a reputation as fierce raiders, with many enemies, especially the Apaches and Comanches. Their weapons included the bow and arrow, hide vests, feathered helmets, and hide shields. They were considered excellent shots. They painted for war in red, yellow, green, and black. Warriors may have cut their hair on the left side, leaving the long hair on the right to be tied with a thong.
The Tonkawa may be descended from Indians who lived in southern Texas and northern Mexico. They had contact with the Spanish in the 1530s. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the people were caught up in the colonial struggle between Spain and France for control of Texas. The Tonkawas lived around Mission San Gabriel in east Texas for a time before it was abandoned in 1758. They acquired horses in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.
El Mocho was a captured Apache who became a Tonkawa chief in the late eighteenth century. His dream was to unite the Apaches and the Tonkawas against the Spanish. At a council attended by over 4,000 Indians, the two peoples failed to resolve their differences. El Mocho was captured and killed by the Spanish.
After Mexican independence in 1821, the Tonkawas became allied with Anglo-Texans against the Comanche and Waco Indians. Along with other Texas tribes, the Tonkawas were assigned two small reservations on the Brazos River in 1855. Despite their past alliance with non-Native Texans, in 1859 the Tonkawas were deported from Texas and relocated to Fort Cobb on the Washita River, Indian Territory (Oklahoma). From there some fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and in 1862 more than half of the tribe were killed in a raid by Unionist Caddo, Shawnee, and Delaware people.
Survivors returned to Texas, where they remained until 1884, when they were assigned to the former Nez Percé Reservation in the Indian Territory. This reservation was allotted in 1896. Some Tonkawas participated in the Pawnee Ghost Dance in the early twentieth century.