Caddoan Language

The Caddoan Language Family

The Caddoan languages are a family of Native American languages. They are spoken across the Great Plains of the central United States, from North Dakota to Oklahoma.The Kitsai language is now extinct.

Caddo, Wichita, and Pawnee are presently spoken in Oklahoma. Arikara is spoken on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

Some of the languages were formerly more widespread; the Caddo, for example, used to live in northeastern Texas, southwestern Arkansas, and northwestern Louisiana as well as southeastern Oklahoma.

The Pawnee formerly lived along the Platte River in what is now Nebraska.

Genetic relations

Adai, a language isolate known only from a 275-word list, may be a Caddoan language, but the documentation is too scanty to determine with certainty.

Wallace Chafe finds the relationship unlikely.It has been proposed that Caddoan is related to Keresan or a part of a Macro-Siouan stock (along with Siouan and Iroquoian).

The Keresan-Caddoan connection is now mostly rejected. Caddoan as part of Macro-Siouan is a possibility, but more research is required to determine the validity of this proposal.

American Indian Language Family Trees
Goddard (1996) & Mithun (1999)
3. Caddoan (>Macro-Siouan?) (5)     

Northern Caddoan (4)          

Pawnee-Kitsai (3)               

Kitsai (1) (a.k.a. Kichai) Kitsai (USA)               

Pawnee (2)                    

Arikara (USA) (a.k.a. Ree)                    

Pawnee (USA) (dialects: South Bend, Skiri (a.k.a. Skidi or Wolf Band))

Wichita (1)               

Wichita (USA) (dialects: Wichita proper, Waco, Towakoni)      

Southern Caddoan (1)           

Caddo (USA) (dialects: Kadohadacho, Hasinai, Natchitoches, Yatasi)

The Caddoan languages are Caddo, Wichita, Pawnee, Arikara, and Kitsai, the latter four making up the Northern Caddoan languages.

The speakers of the Northern Caddoan languages are also referred to as the Plains Caddoans because all four tribes (and their various bands) lived in the Southern and Central Plains during historic times. Caddo is the only Southern Caddoan language.

The linguistic estimate is that prior to about 3,500 years ago, the distant ancestors of all of the Caddoan groups were a single people who spoke an ancestral language that linguists call Proto-Caddoan.

Of course, Proto-Caddoan has long been extinct or, rather, it evolved into the various Caddoan languages as the Proto-Caddoan ancestors split apart and went their separate ways.

It is estimated that about 3,500 years ago (1500 B.C.) the ancestors of the Northern Caddoan groups split from the Caddo and the two languages began to change.

Sometime after the time of Christ, the Proto-Northern-Caddoan speakers began splitting off from one another, first the Wichita, then the Kitsai, and finally the Pawnee. Still later, only 400-500 years ago, the Arikara split from the Pawnee.

The Caddoan languages are distantly related to the Iroquoian languages (such as Iroquois and Cherokee) and even more distantly related to the Siouan languages (such as Dakota and Crow).

Because of certain similarities, linguists theorize that these three language families have had a common origin (a shared ancestry) at some remote point in time, probably in the central part of the country, perhaps somewhere along the central valley of the Mississippi River.

But this was so long ago (perhaps more than 10,000 years?) that any historical reconstruction is little more than a guess. Within the Caddoan language family, however, we can reconstruct at least the general patterns of movement over time.

All of the groups that spoke a Caddoan language lived west of the Mississippi River, along its western tributaries.

During historic times the Caddoan groups were spread across an area that spanned about 1200 miles north-south and almost 500 miles east-west. At historic contact, the latest groups that had split off among the Northern Caddoans lived the farthest north.

The Arikara lived in what is now South and North Dakota, while the Pawnee lived in present day Nebraska.

The Northern Caddoan groups that had split off earlier, the Witchita and Kitsai, lived between the Pawnee and the Caddo, in what is today Kansas and Oklahoma.

Based on such geographical clues, linguists surmise that the original homeland of the Proto-Caddoan speakers was in the forested western fringe of the Eastern Woodlands, within or very near the Caddo Homeland.
To replay the outlines of Caddoan history, we can guess that Proto-Caddoan ancestors lived in the Caddo Homeland, perhaps in or near the valleys of the Red and Arkansas rivers and the intervening Ouachita Mountatins.

One group stayed on and became the Caddo and another split off and began moving north and west, probably up the Red and Arkansas river systems.

The Proto-Northern Caddoan speakers gradually moved farther out onto the Plains and split apart as they moved west and north. The ancestors of the Pawnee and Arikara moved farther and farther north and west up the Missouri River and its tributaries, eventually losing all memory of the Caddo.

The ancestors of the Wichita and Kichai stayed in the Southern Plains. Nonetheless, the Caddo were separated from all of the Northern Caddoan groups long enough ago that they had no tradition of a common ancestry, nor could they speak to one another.

By the end of the Plains Woodland era (about A.D. 900), if not before, the ancestors of most (all?) of the Northern Caddoan peoples were Plains villagers, farmers and buffalo hunters who lived in villages scattered through the wooded valleys across the Plains.

Some archeologists think that Caddoan-speaking groups spread westward across Oklahoma, north Texas including the Panhandle, and Kansas, as far as the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in what is today northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado.

After A.D. 1350 in the 14th and 15th centuries, the “southwestern” Plains villagers abandoned that area and moved north and east, apparently in response to climatic changes and the encroachment from the west and northwest of Apachean peoples.

The ethnic affiliations of the southwestern Plains villagers are not known, but some archeologists believe they may have included the ancestors of the Pawnee/Arikara and the Wichita.

All of the Northern Caddoan groups appear to have migrated hundreds of miles during the last two millennia.

Their inferred early history makes ecological sense. The relatively dry climate of the southern and central Great Plains is prone to periodic drought and thus marginal for dry land farming. (The western Caddoan Homeland is also drought prone, but to a lesser extent.) And without modern machinery and irrigation, the great grasslands of the Plains could not be farmed.

Hence the Plains villagers lived along the relatively narrow and well-watered river valleys where farming was possible.
The bands of each group had to spread out along the narrow valleys and were susceptible to raids from enemy groups.

Raiding and climatic change are two of the main factors that explain why the Plains Caddoans moved from place to place.

The complex histories and migrations of the Wichita, Kitsai, Pawnee, and Arikara peoples reflect their precarious existence on the Plains.
Northern Caddoan Peoples

Sadly little can be said about the poorly known Kitsai tribe (also spelled Kichai). The Kitsai language is no longer spoken and only a bit of it was recorded before the last Kitsai speaker passed away in the 1930s. The tribe no longer exists as a separate entity; surviving members joined the Wichita in the mid-1800s.

The Kitsai appear to have been farmers and hunters, like all Caddoan peoples, and are mentioned in various French and Spanish documents.

Throughout their known history during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Kitsai were relatively few in number and divided into two groups, a northern band allied with the Wichita, and a southern band allied with the Cadohadacho and other Caddo groups.

Their known territory was in south-central Oklahoma and north-central Texas, just west of the Caddo, especially along the Red River.

Several archeological sites in north Texas have been linked, speculatively, to the Kitsai, including the mid-18th century Gilbert site, although the evidence is not compelling.

Some archeologists believe that Kitsai ancestors were the prehistoric people of Spiro and the Arkansas Basin.

The Wichita are much better known than the Kitsai, because they were a more numerous people, and because they survived as a tribe. Like the Caddo, the Wichita were made up of a number of related, but independent groups including the Tawakoni, Yscani, Hueco, and Wichita proper, that probably each spoke a separate dialect.

The Wichita groups (along with the remaining Kitsai) became a single tribe in 1835 when they signed a treaty with the United States. Ancestral Wichita groups were first encountered in 1541 by Coronado’s expedition in the vicinity of the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in present day south-central Kansas.

The Spanish named the area Gran Quivara and reported visiting a series of large villages, some containing 200 large dome-shaped grass houses similar to those built by the Caddo.

During the historic era, the Wichita groups moved southward through Oklahoma and into Texas as far south as Waco, which was named after the Wichita Hueco band whose village once stood where the city was built.

Like the Caddo, the Wichita were resettled in Indian Territory after the Civil War and today maintain a tribal center near Anadarko, Oklahoma.

The Pawnee and Arikara had a shared history (i.e., were one people) until splitting apart perhaps 400-500 years ago, just before historic contact.

Their ancestors have been identified archeologically as the Upper Republican phase of the Central Plains Village tradition in Kansas and Nebraska. After they split apart, the Arikara moved farther north into what is today South Dakota.

Both groups lived in earthen lodges in compact villages that were sometimes fortified. Like other Caddoans, both groups had a mixed economy with farming and buffalo hunting being important.

The Pawnee relied heavily on bison, while the Arikara were also fishermen as well as traders. Prior to consolidation during the 19th century, both the Arikara and Pawnee were made up of independent bands speaking their own dialects.

Today the Arikara remain in North Dakota, where they settled on a reservation with the Sioux-speaking Mandan and Hidatsa. The Pawnee have a tribal center in north-central Oklahoma, where they were given land in 1876 in exchange for giving up much of Nebraska.

Famous Caddo