Henrietta Tongkeamha (1912–93) lived and documented her experiences raising a family in southwestern Oklahoma. Raymond Tongkeamha left home in the 1960s and encountered the world beyond southwestern Oklahoma through military service and jobs in Oklahoma City, Dallas, and elsewhere before returning to the homestead. Benjamin R. Kracht is a professor of anthropology at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is the author of Religious Revitalization among the Kiowas: The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity (Nebraska, 2018), among other books. Stories from Saddle Mountain: Autobiographies of a Kiowa Family (Nebraska, 2021), is now available.
Kiowas have lived near mountains for time immemorial. Today at least half of the thirteen thousand enrolled members of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma live north of the Wichita Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. Saddle Mountain, the northeastern sentinel of the Wichitas, is important to many Kiowa families, including the Tongkeamhas, who are spiritually connected to the surrounding countryside and have deep-rooted ties to a mission church about a mile north of the mountain. According to Raymond Tongkeamha, “You know, I don’t think or know if there’s any other place on earth that is more sacred or important to me than Saddle Mountain Kiowa Indian Baptist Church. And/or thirteen and a half miles south of Carnegie, Oklahoma. ‘Tongkeamha Place.’ It, Saddle Mountain, is ‘sacred ground’ to me.”1 Several years ago Raymond decided to share stories about life in these sacred grounds and began writing his life story. Around the same time his sister produced a copy of their mother’s memoirs, written almost a half century earlier. Together their autobiographies—presented forthwith—relate stories about twentieth-century life in the Saddle Mountain countryside.
To appreciate the terrain around Saddle Mountain, I suggest driving fourteen miles northwest of Meers Store on State Highway 115, a zigzagging two-lane highway running between the red-hued Wichitas to the southwest and the limestone ridges of the Slick Hills to the northeast. During the Middle Cambrian period, subterranean hot lava forced to the surface formed a dark gray-to-black gabbro, an igneous rock formation that solidified and uplifted several thousand feet. Sometime afterward a second hot granitic lava uplifted into the gabbro, forming the red granite that distinguishes the Wichitas today. Once the lava cooled, the surrounding land sank and filled with seawater, which over millions of years created the Slick Hills, a sediment of limestone over sandstone. Granite rock outcroppings in the mountains are visible through copses of post oak, blackjack oak, and eastern red cedar that grow in the gabbro layer. North from Saddle Mountain the prairie opens up between Saddle Mountain and Pecan Creeks, which originate in the Slick Hills and meander northward toward the Washita River. Cottonwood, pecan, cedar, blackjack oak, elm, hackberry, walnut, mesquite, and chinaberry trees line the watercourses. Extending northwest are the solitary limestone tumuli of Longhorn Mountain, Unap Mountain, and Rainy Mountain. To the northeast Bally Mountain and Zodletone Mountain represent the northernmost extension of the Slick Hills. Deer, elk, rabbits, coyotes, bobcats, and feral hogs populate the countryside, while quail, owls, scissortail flycatchers, eagles, hawks, buzzards, and other fowl soar above. During warm spring afternoons one might espy a bull snake or rattlesnake slithering across the road.
In the late seventeenth century, Kiowas migrated southeast from the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana to the plains in search of a new equestrian lifestyle. Toward the end of the next century, they reached the Black Hills, where Lakotas and Cheyennes pushed them farther south to the Southwestern Plains (see Ortman and McNeil 2017, 9–10). Since then the Wichita Mountains and Slick Hills have been prominent features of ancestral Kiowa homelands. Upon conclusion of the Red River, or Southern Plains, War in May 1875, the Kiowas and their Comanche and Plains Apache allies were confined to the 2.8 million acre kca Reservation in present-day southwestern Oklahoma (Kracht 2017, 35–39). By the summer of 1882, the Kiowas established ten distinct communities north of the Wichita Mountains near favored geographic locations, including Saddle Mountain, whose inhabitants settled near the numerous springs emanating from underground wells in the region between the mountains and the hills (Kracht 2017, 25–26; 2018, 9). By the end of the nineteenth century, every Kiowa received a 160-acre allotment, according to the provisions of the October 1892 Jerome Agreement that opened reservation lands for homesteading. Kiowa families led by Lucius Aitson, Domot, Odlepaugh, Spotted Horse, Kokom, Tonemah, Longhorn, and others chose their parcels near Saddle Mountain. After the August 1, 1901, “Opening,” non-Indian homesteaders settling in the Saddle Mountain area engaged in agriculture and commerce. Neighboring communities sprang up: Boone, Alden, Hatchetville, and Broxton to the northeast; Cooperton to the west; and Sedan to the northwest. Larger towns appeared: Lawton—the largest—thirty-eight miles southeast; Apache, twenty-three miles east; Gotebo, twenty-three miles northwest; Mountain View, seventeen miles north; Carnegie, twenty-two miles north; Fort Cobb, thirty-one miles northeast; and Anadarko, forty-two miles northeast.
Today the Saddle Mountain countryside is largely bereft of Kiowas, except for a handful who stayed—or returned—home in the decades following World War II, when kinfolk moved closer to the small towns or migrated to near and distant cities. Reaching the homes of the remaining families often requires pulling off the highway and negotiating miles of dusty, gravel roads. Barns, sheds, silos, farm buildings, and ranch houses dotting the landscape signify non-Indian denizens, many descended from the original homesteaders. Farmers and ranchers grow wheat, soybeans, peanuts, pecans, hay, and cotton and raise livestock on lands they own or lease from Indians who still own allotments. The sparsely populated countryside makes it difficult to imagine that a community thrived there a hundred years ago. Raymond muses, “I know a lot of things took place there and a lot of people came and went. Baseball games, powwows, Fourth of July blowouts, church revivals, etc. Other tribes came. So many things, but today you couldn’t imagine. All’s quiet now and I’m sure their long ago presence still lingers. I think all the animals and birds today could tell you a lot of stories handed down from their great or great-great-grandparents.”