It’s a society that never forgets.
“We must never ever forget them,” Lyndreth “Tugger” Palmer said of veterans. “(We) pay honor to the people who make the supreme sacrifice. Their name will never die, never.”
The Ton-Kon-Gah, Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society, was established generations ago to honor veterans, and it continues to celebrate each year with a ceremonial at Indian City in Anadarko, Okla. This year the 52nd annual ceremonial was held Oct. 9-10. The society also has a color guard that has traveled extensively.
“The Kiowa Tribal Nation has had an elaborate warrior organization since before any recorded history of the tribe. The structure of the organization, songs, dances, and dress were well established and carried on when first discovered by white explorers,” Patrick Redbird, secretary and public information officer for the society, said.
The society was revived in 1958 by Gus Palmer, Sr and his two brothers George and Dixon Palmer. They first established the Kiowa Veterans Association (KVA) on Nov. 23, 1958 in Carnegie, Okla. and then incorporated the society, according to “Kiowa, Apache and Comanche military societies” by William C. Meadows. They wanted their brother, Lyndreth Palmer, who was killed in World War II to always be remembered.
“My dad and my uncle’s didn’t want my uncle Lyndreth’s name to ever be forgotten,” Palmer, commander of the society, said.
Palmer succeeded his father Gus as commander of the society when he died in November 2006. He said veterans are held very highly in the Kiowa tribe, especially the warriors who lost their lives in battle. He also said he encourages Kiowa people to attend their annual ceremonial because everyone is descended from a mighty warrior.
Meadows states, “In 1958 there were still several tribal elders who had been active society members when the group ceased to function in 1927. When approached for knowledge about the society, the older members were pleased and encouraged Palmer’s interest in reviving the society.”
Dixon Palmer remembers being encouraged by his elders.
“They said you young men, you deserve great honor for yourself and for your tribe,” he said. “They were the ones that taught us everything about the Ton-Kon-Gah, everything.”
The reason for naming the society Ton-Kon-Gah differs for some people, but overall still reflects the way of life when the society began.
“Some say it was because the dust from the trail made their legs black. This was before there were horses. Others say it was because their legs were blackened while running back into action after an enemy thought they had burned out an area to repel an attack,” Redbird said. “The name, Black Leggings, remained the name of the society even though they became one of the best ‘horse mounted forces’ on the Plains.”
Redbird said society officers also want to keep the regalia as authentic as possible. A black string shawl is worn on the waist, from the knees down the legs are black with paint or leggings, a decorated lance or spear is carried and the red cape is draped over their shoulders.
“A red cape must be worn to honor one of the Ton-Kon-Gah chiefs. Gool-Hay-Ee (Young Red Colt) killed a Mexican officer and took his red cape as a war trophy,” Redbird said. “The society is still in possession of the original cape.”
Dixon Palmer said Gool-Hay-Ee was given his name because when he got mad his face got red. He said there are still Gool-Hay-Ee descendents, and he sang a song in Kiowa made in his honor. The lyrics of the song, he said, translate into: “Gool-Hay-Ee, he killed that officer and when he got him, he got his cape and brought it home.”
The adornment each member chooses to place on their lance represents their individual military experience. “I had eagle feathers that represent the combat,” Dixon Palmer said. “I went all the way through 511 days of being fired at.”
According to Meadows, Gus Palmer “had 21 eagle feathers on his lance to represent the 21 bombing missions he made in World War II.”
Membership requirements are to be an enrolled Kiowa tribal member, male and served in the Armed Forces. There are approximately 45 active members, with some still serving in the military, Redbird said.
“The Ton-Kon-Gah was an organization of warriors, fighting men who served the tribe with honor. They had four members that were very special to the organization, two little boys and two little girls. They were considered so special that the families of each would have large give-aways in their honor,” Redbird said.
The 2010 ceremonial for the society honored female veterans. Palmer said, “Women made the supreme sacrifice like men.” On last day of the ceremonial a special dance called the “Turn Around Dance” is held.
“The Kiowa name for this dance is ‘Tsat-Koie-Gya’ or Encountering the Enemy. The dance, which is actually a rite, is a re-enactment of a battle that occurred in the early 1800s. During the dance, the tempo increases, pistol and rifle fire is heard, war hoops heard everywhere, lances raised and the drum rises to a crescendo,” Redbird said. “This continues until a society member rushes in and strikes the drum. After he stops the drum, he must relate a war deed either witnessed or performed personally.”
According to the Meadows book, the society wanted to continue, “The tradition of holding military society meeting in tipis.”
“The society (Since 1973) uses a tipi derived from the famous Jòqìgácút (Return from the Battle Marks Tipi) or “Battle Tipi” of Jòhâusàn (Little Bluff Recess/Concavity). The yellow stripes on the south side of the tipi were already present when it was given to Jòhâusàn by the Cheyenne leader Sleeping Bear in 1840 and are believed to have represented successful war expeditions he had led,” Meadows states. “Jòhâusàn then added black stripes to represent successful war expeditions that he had personally led on which he had brought back scalps with no loss of members. The other side was filled with depictions of battle scenes by noted Kiowa warriors who were invited to display their personal war deeds and periodically changed with the acquisition of higher-ranking battle deeds.”
According to the Department of Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board Web site, “The earliest battle scene painted on the tipi is the 1864 battle with Kit Carson near Adobe Walls in the Texas panhandle.” A new 21 foot Battle Tipi was introduced at the 50th annual ceremonial and depicts Iraq war battle scenes.
Redbird said each year the society ceremonial is supported by the “Kiowa Gourd Clan, O-Ho-Mah Lodge and all of the Kiowa Service organizations in making each veteran’s observance a success.”
“The Kiowa’s had six divisions of warrior societies, Po-Lanh-Yope (Little Rabbits), Adle-Tdow-Yope (Young Sheep), Tsain-Tanmo (Horse Headdresses), Tdien-Pei-Gah (Gourd Society), and Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Legs or Leggings). The last being our ten bravest called, Qkoie-Tsain-Gah (Principle Dogs),” Redbird said. “The songs, dances, dress and ceremonies for each society were unique to each society as were the rules of war for men’s society.”
He said everyone is always welcome to attend their ceremonial. “We want to help out all veterans so all veterans are welcome to come out,” Redbird said.
Videotaping is not allowed at the ceremonial and although still photography is permitted, permission must be acquired first.
“The dance, regalia, the songs, where we perform, is all copyrighted at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.,” Palmer said, adding that the ceremonial is dedicated to their fallen soldiers, and he encourages all Kiowa male veterans to join the society.
“I hope the next generation can learn this and keep it going,” Palmer said. “I want them to keep it going for our people.”