People of the Grass House: 1750-1820
"Here they lived the woman fixing up the place, building their grass lodge and shed to dry meat, Man-Fond-of-Deer-Meat doing all the hunting . . . They lived here a good long while, the woman remaining at home, the man going out hunting every day. They always had plenty of meat, and the woman raised corn, so they had plenty to eat." - Niastor in The Mythology of the Wichita, 1904
The Southern Plains is a land of seasonal changes with spring thunderstorms, hot summer days, and cool but dry winter months. The Wichitas adapted to this environment and reaped abundant harvests from the land by farming and hunting. During the spring, summer, and early fall they lived in grass house villages while the women cultivated nearby gardens. Crops were planted together in the gardens. Each summer, beans climbed the stalks of multicolored corn, and green leafed squash or "pumpkin" plants spread their vines over the ground.
As summer days shortened and crisp fall mornings dawned, women preserved their harvested corn by roasting and drying it in the sun. Pumpkins were cut into long strips and also sun-dried before being woven into mats which could be folded and stored for later use. The dried corn and pumpkin were used in meat soups or boiled for side dishes. Cornmeal was made by grinding dried corn with a wooden mortar or grinding stone. This cornmeal was then made into bread. Pumpkin mats were often traded to the Comanches or Kiowas for dried buffalo meat. Preserved foods were stored in buffalo-hide bags in underground cache pits until they were needed later in the year or when the harvest was poor and food was scarce.
During the late fall and winter, the Wichitas left their villages for extended buffalo hunts. Living in tipis with family members camping near one another, the men tried to bring in enough game to provide meat for later seasons. Women prepared the meat by thinly slicing it and hanging it to dry in the cool winter's sun. Afterwards, the meat could be transported and stored in buffalo-hide bags for future use. Through the cooperative efforts of both men and women, the annual economic cycle began as the people returned to their summer villages.
Their grass houses, vacant through the winter months, often needed repairs before they could be reoccupied comfortably. Working as a team, family members cut bundles of bluestem grass; women or boys climbed up the cedar frames to repair the walls. The houses could accommodate a family of 10 to 12 people, including a woman and her husband, their unmarried children, as well as their married daughters and sons-in-law, and their grandchildren. Most matters were decided within the individual families, although each village had leaders chosen by a council of outstanding warriors. These leaders were selected because of their demonstrated wisdom, bravery, and generosity.
Wichita ceremonial life closely followed the seasonal round of economic activities. The deer dance, a ceremony performed by the medicine men, was held when the first grass appeared, when corn ripened, and when corn was harvested. The calumet ceremony, involving the presentation of a feathered pipestem to a prominent individual, was believed to be of lasting benefit to the tribe. Other ceremonies were performed to ensure good harvests, the successful return of war parties, or the abundance of buffalo.