All things, animate and inanimate, contained spirits, or manitou. Kicitiata, the supreme manitou, or creator, dwelled in the sky. Tobacco facilitated communication with the manitous. Young people may have undertaken vision quests. Dreams, which may have been encouraged by fasts, also had spiritual significance.
The main ceremony was a weeklong renewal and thanksgiving in early spring, at which time sacred bundles were opened and repaired. The people also celebrated the Green Corn and Buffalo Dances. Priests were in charge of religious observances. There may have been a ritual office, held by a woman, which gave approval to hold certain ceremonies.
The Kickapoos were divided into constituent bands, which were probably led by chiefs. A council of clan heads made decisions by consensus. Kickapoo society was organized in patrilineal clans. Furthermore, a dual division formed the basis for various cultural features such as "joking" (informal enforcement of social norms), games, races, and ritual seating. Personal names were tied to dreams or visions. Menstrual seclusion was particularly long and rigorous the first time, at which time the woman was advised by older women on how to behave as an adult. After killing their first game, boys were given a feast, which included songs and prayers.
Courting may have involved the use of a flute. Marriage was finalized by gift giving between the families. Funeral or death ceremonies included feasting, song, and prayer as well as quiet moments. People left the village for four days following a death, after which time ceremonial adoptions were often performed.
Rectangular summer and round or oval winter houses were framed with green saplings. Summer houses were covered with elm bark and often attached to an arbor. Sleeping platforms lay along the sides. Doors faced east, and there was a smoke hole in the roof. Temporary winter houses were covered with woven cattail or tule mats.
Kickapoos were heavily dependent on crops. Women grew corn, beans, and squash, and they gathered various wild foods. Men hunted deer, bear, and other game, including some buffalo, and they fished. Carved wooden prayer sticks recorded prayers and myths as well as events. Pottery containers could hold water. Kickapoos served as intermediaries in the midnineteenth century Comanche horse trade. Kickapoo dress depended largely on their location. The basic items were breechclout, dress or apron, leggings, and moccasins, although they tended to borrow local customs, especially with regard to personal ornamentation. Kickapoo warriors were known as extremely fierce, able, and enthusiastic fighters.
The Kickapoos may have originated in southeast Michigan. In the seventeenth century, pressure from the Iroquois drove them west to southern Wisconsin, where they encountered French missionaries. They may have shared villages with the Miamis at that time. Kickapoos entered the fur trade, but throughout the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries they resisted pressure to assimilate and cede their lands. They were often at war with the French during that period, although the two groups established an alliance in 1729. They also fought various Indian tribes.
In the early eighteenth century, the Kickapoos joined tribes such as the Ojibwas, Ottowas, Sauks, and Foxes to defeat the Illinois Confederacy and occupy their territory. The Kickapoos moved south to the Illinois River, where the tribe soon divided. One group headed farther south to the Sangamon River. Known as the Prairie band, they increased their buffalo hunting. The other group moved east toward the Vermillion Branch of the Wabash River. This band retained their forest hunting practices. The band also absorbed the Mascouten, or Prairie Potawatomi, tribe of Indians.
Part of the Prairie band moved into southwest Missouri in the mid-1760s. Following the French defeat in 1763, the Kickapoos transferred their allegiance to the Spanish. They participated in Pontiac's Rebellion and later accepted British aid against the United States, with whom they never had good relations.
The early nineteenth century saw greatly increased non-Native settlement in the region. Most Kickapoos participated in Little Turtle's war. The Vermillion band also supported Tecumseh's Rebellion, which the Prairie band opposed. Both groups, however, were drawn into the War of 1812. Some chiefs of each band ceded the people's Illinois land in 1819, a move that forced most Kickapoos to join the group already living in Missouri.
Some Kickapoos, however, under Chief Mecina and the prophet Kenakuk, continued to resist relocation by passive means as well as guerrilla tactics. They were finally forced to move to Kansas in the early 1830s following their defeat in Black Hawk's war. Most Missouri Kickapoos had accepted a reservation in Kansas in 1832. Some later fought with the United States against the Seminole in 1837.
From their base in Kansas, the tribe broke into several smaller groups, some remaining in Kansas and some migrating to Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. Horse-stealing raids, particularly in Texas, were an important activity throughout much of the nineteenth century. In 1862, some Kickapoo land was allotted and some was sold to a railroad company.
In the early to mid-1860s, fighting erupted between Mexican Kickapoos and Texas Rangers attempting to prevent some Kansas Kickapoos from crossing Texas to join their relatives. In the 1870s, the U.S. Army illegally crossed the Mexican border and destroyed the main Kickapoo village in Mexico. They also brought a group of women and children back to the Indian Territory as hostages; many men then agreed to leave Mexico and join them there.
In 1883, these people were granted a 100,000-acre reservation in Oklahoma. However, when that reservation was allotted ten years later and pressure to assimilate increased, many people returned to Mexico, first to Nacimiento and then to northern Sonora. In 1908, the Kansas reservation was allotted to individuals. In 1937, the Kansas Kickapoos reorganized under the Indian Reorganization Act. They successfully resisted termination in the 1950s.