Native Languages of the Americas: Kickapoo (Kikapoo, Kikapu)
Language: Kickapoo is an Algonquian language
closely related to Mesquakie-Sauk (some linguists even consider it a
dialect of Mesquakie-Sauk). Kickapoo and Mesquakie-Sauk are both polysynthetic languages with complex verb morphology and fairly free
word order. Unlike Mesquakie-Sauk, however, Kickapoo is a tone language--the high or low pitch of a vowel can change a
Kickapoo word's meaning. Kickapoo is spoken in three distinct language areas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico, by a combined
800 people. The language is most vigorous in Mexico, where some children are still learning it at home; in America Kickapoo is
endangered, though revitalization efforts are ongoing. In the past, Kickapoo
Indians also used a unique linguistic code called "whistle speech" to convey simple utterances, but today that is a lost art.
People: The Kickapoo tribe was originally an offshoot of the Shawnee tribe
("Kickapoo" is thought to be a corruption of a Shawnee word for "wanderers,") but their language and customs had more in common with the
neighboring Fox and Sauk. Fiercely resistant to European cultures, the
Kickapoo Indians never assimilated, preferring to continue relocating further south from their original Michigan-Wisconsin-Illinois homeland.
Today, 3000 Kickapoo people live in three groups in the US--the Kickapoo tribes of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas--and one community in
History: Native American tribes are frequently defined by their historical reaction to European colonists.
The Cherokee tried to fit
into the new civilization; the Apache fought them tooth and nail.
The Kickapoo tribe primarily withdrew. Wanting neither to fight the powerful invaders nor surrender to them, most Kickapoos left their native lands and
moved southward to get away from white Americans, a process they repeated several
times until the Kickapoos were living in Texas and Mexico--a far cry from their native Michigan, Wisconsin and
Illinois. Some of the Kickapoo Indians in Mexico did eventually return to the United States, but
their ancestors may have had a point--Kickapoo culture is most traditional and the Kickapoo language
most alive in the Mexican Kickapoo tribe, furthest from the reach of the United
States government and its programs.