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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


The Tonkawa are an American Indian tribe of the southern Great Plains. Once believed to be indigenous to Texas, recent scholarship places the Tonkawa in present northwestern Oklahoma in 1601. The Tonkawa were on the Red River by 1700, having been pushed south by the Apache. Retreating further into central Texas, the Tonkawa joined other displaced tribes, including the Lipan Apache, with whom they became closely allied.

In 1854 the Tonkawa were settled on the Brazos River Reservation in Texas. With their population dwindling, in 1859 they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Wichita Agency in the Leased District of Indian Territory. Due to their loyalty to the Confederacy during the Civil War, the tribe was nearly exterminated by pro-Union Indians in the Tonkawa Massacre of October 1862. Ninety-two Tonkawa were removed from Fort Griffin, Texas, in 1884 and relocated to Indian Territory, and in 1885 they were settled on their final reservation in present Kay County, Oklahoma.

The origin of the Tonkawa name is unknown, but a Waco term meaning "they all stay together" is the accepted translation. The Tonkawa were a nomadic people who subsisted by hunting and trading. Their language was unique to themselves and is no longer spoken. They were a matrilineal society of extended family clans forming two moieties, whose leaders where eventually replaced by a single chief. Their religion was a mixture of beliefs, but they resisted Christianity. Because of their horsemanship and fighting spirit, Tonkawa warriors served as U.S. Army scouts.

In 2002 there were 404 enrolled members of the Tonkawa Tribe in Oklahoma. Most resided near the town of Tonkawa in Kay County on their former reservation, which was allotted to seventy-three individuals in 1891. Tribal matters are guided by a three-member committee. Elected biannually, the council is headquartered at the Fort Oakland complex. There a bingo hall generates tribal revenue, and a museum preserves the Tonkawa's heritage.

Jon D. May


Jeffrey D. Carlisle, "Tonkawa Indians," in The New Handbook of Texas, ed. Ron Tyler (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996).

William W. Newcomb, Jr., and Thomas N. Campbell, "Tonkawa," in Handbook of American Indians, Vol. 13, Book 2, Plains, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001).

Muriel H. Wright, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jon D. May, “Tonkawa (tribe),” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=TO003.

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