Saturday, November 12, 2011

What the Heck Happened to the Karankawas?

The Karankawa Indians | Karankawa |

If you travel extensively in New Mexico, Oklahoma, or Texas, chances are you will encounter a reservation, cultural center or hotel casino administered by Native Americans once indigenous to Texas.   One tribe will not be among them.  For decades, the Karankawas once flourished along the Texas coast from Galveston to Corpus Christi.  By the late 1800’s, they were extinct.
Most of what is known about them comes from the first person accounts of European explorers and missionaries.  The most vivid was from Cabeza de Vaca, a shipwrecked Spanish explorer who lived among them for several years.  He describes a handsome race of nomadic hunters and gatherers that subsisted on seafood during the summer and deer meat during the winter.  Unlike their Plains Indian neighbors, these Native Americans were a staggering 6 to 7 feet tall.  The Karankawas also tattooed their bodies, pierced their breasts and chins with a piece of cane, and traveled coastal waters in dugout canoes.  Their preferred weapon was an extremely long bow that was as tall as or taller than the person shooting it.  Karankawa homes were similar to today’s camping tents.  Made of willow poles and animal skins, they were called wickiups.  For insect repellent, the Karankawas covered themselves with alligator grease.  Based on the eyewitness accounts, the smell of that stuff could knock the ticks off a bird dog. 
The treatment of Karankawa wives was like the way you would treat a fishing rod.  As long as she worked and bore children, everything was fine; you kept her around.  You might even loan her out to your friends.  Otherwise, you could simply divorce her and find a new one.  There was also an in-law taboo where the wife’s parents could not have any contact whatsoever with the husband or enter his wickiup.  It seems the Karankawas had a leg up on the in-law situation, long before we started making jokes about it. 
The Karankawas had some really strange and horrifying ceremonies called “Mitotes.”  During the ceremony, a drink made from Yaupon leaves was consumed by male tribe members.  Called the “Black Drink,” it produced a jolt more powerful than day old coffee at a truck stop.  Some of the Mitotes involved a ritualistic form of cannibalism.  Victims (usually prisoners of war) were tied to a stake near a roaring campfire.  The Karankawas would dance around the fire while brandishing knives.  As they passed the victim, they sliced off a piece of flesh, toasted it like a marshmallow in the fire, and then consumed it before the victim.  By doing this, they believed they were absorbing their enemy’s strength.   Unfortunately, the Karankawas got a bad rep for this practice, a common one actually among Gulf Coast tribes.  Anglo settlers, who had little regard for Karankawa customs, just assumed they included people on their daily menus.
The beginning of the end probably came in 1685 with the arrival of French colonists.  Sponsored by a French explorer named La Salle, the colonists landed at Matagorda Bay and built a settlement at nearby Garcitas Creek.  Everything that could possibly go wrong in a European colony went wrong at La Salle’s colony. Their supply ship wrecked off the coast, sending most of their essentials to the bottom.  In six months, disease, malnutrition and exposure reduced the population from 180 to 90.  To make matters worse, the colonists lifted a couple of Karankawa canoes.  Not ones to shrug off impoliteness, the Karankawas responded by relentlessly attacking them.  Usually successful when it came to Indian relations, the French failed miserably with the Karankawas.  Taking advantage of the colony’s decline, the Karankawas wiped it off the map.  Only a couple of children were taken into captivity.
Not thrilled with a French colony in their neck of the woods, the Spaniards countered by setting up missions near the Karankawa’s territory.  Despite their best efforts, the Spanish missions failed to convert the Karankawas; they simply weren't buying it.

Bringing disease with them, European colonists and missionaries infected the Native Americans along the Texas Gulf Coast.  The Karankawas began dying off in droves.  Warfare with Texas settlers, other Native Americans (mostly the Comanches), Mexican ranchers, and Pirates hastened their demise.  Before the American Civil War began, the Karankawas disappeared, never to recover.  Only the efforts of archaeologists, anthropologists and historians keep their story alive. 

 The plight of the Karankawas was best summed up by anthropologist, Dr. W.W. Newcomb, Jr., in his book, "The Indians of Texas" (1961, University of Texas Press):

"Our civilization is like a great blanket cushioning and protecting us from the raw world; the Karankawas blanket was thin and patchy.  Yet, they survived, even thrived, and were happy with their ways.  To Europeans and Texans it was astonishing and insufferable that such a people should prefer their own gods, food , and customs to civilization's blessings.  But they did, and they clung to these ancestral ways.  And for this they perished.  To persevere to such ultimate tragedy is a highway to continuing remembrance."

On a lighter note, here is a “You Tube” trailer for the 1966 Western parody film, “Texas Across the River.” It features Hollywood’s favorite Karankawa played by "Rat Pack" comedian Joey Bishop. Named Kronk, Bishop sounds more like a Chinese tourist than a Native American out of his element.  This is one those movies that is so goofy, it’s funny. The Karankawas, however, didn’t don the buckskin attire worn by Kronk.  They wore breech clothes.  After all, they lived on the beach.  Considering the attire or lack of attire on beaches today, that's not surprising.
Believe it or not, a few beers and this movie can make for a fun evening.  Check out Joey Bishop’s rain dance; that’s why you need the beer.

1 comment:

calvin white said...

Cool article. Thanks.☺

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