They smelled the stench of death: the decaying flesh of their horses, gunned down by the soldiers; the putrefying wounds of Dagoi, shot by the soldiers as he attempted to reach water; the bloated corpse of one of their comrades, mortally wounded on the first day of the siege which the Kiowas now endured at the hands of the Mexican troopers.
They tasted the maddening dryness of thirst in the mouth and throat and suffered the incessant gnawing of hunger in the belly. They tried to lick water from the damp surfaces of the cave’s stone walls. They tried to eat the rotting flesh of their dead horses. It only added to their torment. They felt the darkness closing over them like a shroud in this dimly lit primeval chamber, its moonscape of dark jumbled stone forged in the molten heart of the earth.
The siege had begun nine days earlier, in the summer of 1839, when the militia struck the Kiowas in the amphitheater in the heart of the hills of Hueco Tanks, in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. Hundreds of miles from home, the Kiowas, who had called off a planned raid on El Paso, understood that no one from their tribe knew of their plight nor of the need to rescue them. They stood alone, cut off, beyond help.
He wondered if he would ever again smell buckskins soaked in the sweat of his hard-run pony, buffalo meat roasting over a campfire fueled by the wood of a pecan tree, the aromatic smoke of kinnikinick rising from the pipes of the old men lazing in the sun. Like the other raiders, trapped and desperate in the blackness of the Hueco Tanks cave, Konate wondered if he would ever again experience the tribal Sun Dance, that magical early summer moment of annual renewal for the Kiowas, the festive spiritual pinnacle of their year.
He knew that the tribe would celebrate next year’s Sun Dance in the northern Panhandle’s Canadian River Breaks, where that historical stream receives the waters of Mustang Creek. He could visualize the coming together of the tribal bands, the rekindling of friendships, the great circular encampment of teepees, the festiveness of the days, the feasts of buffalo meat, the joining of young women and warriors, the deeply ceremonial and joyous raising of the medicine lodge, the offering of the sacrificial buffalo hide, the dancing of warriors to the throb of drums and trilling of eagle bone flutes.
In his mind’s eye, Konate could see the Sun Dance Chief take his place at the western side of the medicine lodge. He could see the annual unveiling and display of the Tai-me, an icon of the Kiowa’s powerful and beneficent god and the spiritual centerpiece of the Sun Dance. Fashioned from a dark green stone shaped like a human head and adorned with ermine, feathers and blue beads, the traditional Tai-me icon, no more than two feet in length, evoked a profound sense of holiness for Kiowas in the medicine lodge, much like the sense of spirituality that the icon of a patron saint brings to the faithful in a Catholic cathedral.
Together, the Sun Dance and the Tai-me symbolized the new season’s resurrection of the earth and the renewal of the tribal soul. The yearning for home and family and tribe magnified the desperation of the raiders, imprisoned in their dark cave at Hueco Tanks.
Before the Kiowas could make their break, however, the Mexicans discovered the opening, promptly pouring stone and earth into the shaft to re-seal it.
Hope turned to despair.
They could see other openings in the roof of the cave, but a climb up precipitous stone to these openings looked treacherous, all but impossible. Besides, the soldiers had surely posted watches at these potential escape routes.
As the siege wore on, one of the soldiers’ Indian scouts stood on a ridge above the cave and called down to the raiders, speaking in the language of the Comanches, who were Kiowa allies in the Texas Panhandle and Western Oklahoma. “Don’t give up,” the scout cried. “The Mexicans are going to throw some food down to you soon. It will be all right, because they want to take you alive.”
Despair turned to hope.
The raiders heard something thud to the floor of the amphitheater, at the front of their cave. Driven by thirst and hunger, they rushed out, only to be met by gunfire and the “food,” which they discovered to be...rattlesnakes. They scrambled madly to avoid the venomous fangs and kill the snakes. They heard the derisive laughter of their tormentors in the hills above.
Hope turned to despair.
The tenth day of the siege. Despondency. Hopelessness.
Finally, one of the Kiowa warriors, Tsone-ai-tah, said to his comrades. “We are going to die here like helpless women.” The raiders raised their heads and fixed their eyes on Tsone-ai-tah. “If you are willing to die like women, there is no help for us,” he said. “Let us get out of this foul place and die in the open like men and warriors!”
His words galvanized the Kiowas. They decided that when night fell, they would make a desperate attempt to ascend through one of the perilous openings and break for their freedom. They would not – could not – stop for anyone who might fall to a Mexican bullet. That could mean death for them all.
At last they stood ready.
Dagoi, the warrior who had lain wounded throughout the siege, begged the warriors to take him with them. “I want to see my father’s face again,” he said. <“It is our life or yours,” Dohasan told him grimly. “Make your heart strong. Die like a Kiowa warrior. “Very well,” said Dagoi, “I stay. Tell my father to come back and avenge my death.” He sang his death song. He knew that he would die the next morning before the guns of the soldiers.
Dohasan, a member of the elite warrior society, the Kaitsenkos, sang his death song.
Oh, sun, you remain forever, but we Kaitsenko must die.
Oh, earth, you remain forever, but we Kaitsenko must die.
The time had come.
Dohasan, silently, in the darkness, made his way up the precarious rock slope and into the night air. He extended his bow back like a lifeline to haul up the others in their ascent. One by one, he helped them to the top. Guadalonte, who was the original leader of the raiding party. Konate, who was about to begin the fateful experience which would grow into legend. Hone-geah-tau-te, who would endure a searing experience of his own in the escape attempt. Tsone-ai-tah, who inspired the raiders to attempt the escape. Au-tone-a-kee, whose brother was the raider who died from gunshot wounds the first day of the siege.
Finally, all the Kiowas except the doomed Dagoi had climbed through the mouth of the opening. They could see the Mexicans’ campfires burning on the surrounding hills. Suddenly, a slight noise drew a shot into the darkness from one of the soldiers, and Konate felt the shocking pain of a bullet smash through his body.
At that moment, Konate could scarcely have envisioned what fate now had in store for him. Another shot and Hone-geah-tau-te fell on the rocky hillside, no longer able to move, though,
With Dohasan in the lead, the warriors, with Konate struggling desperately to keep up, made their way as silently as specters through the darkness over a saddle in the hills and down to the desert floor, where they stole Mexican horses and turned east through a pass in the Hueco Mountains and raced through the night into the following day and freedom. Their remarkable courage and endurance had given them a chance.
A day out of Hueco Tanks, the Kiowas reached a hill where they had left spare horses and supplies, guarded by two young boys, en route to the aborted raid on El Paso. The foresight proved to be a lifesaver for the raiders for they arrived suffering from the ordeal of the siege. They had ridden the stolen Mexican horses to exhaustion. They came burdened with Konate, whose untreated and now festering wounds seemed to drain him of his life. Uncertain whether the trouble lay behind them, they rested only for the night.
The following morning, the Kiowas, replenished, pushed toward home on fresh horses, putting the threat of the Mexican military behind them for good. Their troubles, however, were not over. As they reached a spring near the summit of a promontory they called Sun Mountain, named for the glisten of its stone crest in the sunlight, it had became evident that the suffering Konate could go no farther. He had lapsed into unconsciousness. His infected wounds and fevered body made it certain, the Kiowas believed, that death would take him within hours.
They placed Konate within reach of the water of the spring. They surrounded him with stones to ward off scavengers anxious to eat his flesh and savage his bones. They built an arbor to shade him through his final hours. They rode away in sadness, never expecting to see Konate alive again. In accordance with Kiowa custom, they planned to send a party back from home to recover his bones and return them for burial.
Hours passed. Shadows lengthened. The desert heat softened. Konate emerged from the darkness of unconsciousness. He discovered that he lay in absolute aloneness, left behind in the desert. He knew that his companions had headed for home, expecting that he would die. He believed now that he would die, a bitter fate after he had survived the siege, the shooting, the long hard ride from Hueco Tanks. He could feel the larvae of blowflies feeding in the decaying flesh of his wounds. He knew that his family would mourn, his women would cry. He knew that the members of his band, in accordance with Kiowa tradition, would kill his horses and burn his belongings. They would never speak his name again. He awaited his end.
As darkness enveloped the land like a black cloak drawn from the eastern to the western horizon, Konate, at the edge of consciousness, could hear the desert’s chorus of nocturnal sounds. Perhaps the light click of a mule deer’s hooves striking stone as it stole cautiously to the spring for water. The yelps of coyotes as they hunted down their evening meal. The startled cry of a doomed desert cottontail as it fell victim to the talons of a great horned owl.
Then, Konate heard the howl of a gray wolf, distant and unearthly. Silence. The temperature of the dry desert air began to fall as night closed its grip. Konate heard the voice of the wolf again, this time closer.
He realized the animal could smell the foul odor of his wounds. He lay helpless, unable to rise, chilled by the awareness that the animal could attack and dismember him, still alive, for his flesh. On the edge of consciousness, Konate heard the wolf snuffling at the stones that surrounded him. Konate braced for the savage attack that he felt sure would come. He heard the wolf climb over the rock wall, but instead of attacking, the animal lay down gently beside him. It warmed him in the chill desert night. It licked his wounds, trying to clean them. At daylight, the wolf disappeared, but when night fell again, it returned, perfectly gentle, protective.
Four days and nights passed. Growing weaker, drifting in and out of consciousness, Konate heard from some distant place the faint trilling of eagle bone flutes and the song of his warrior society. The sounds drew nearer and nearer as though carried on a gently swirling wind from the spirit world to a point directly above him. A vision of Tai-me, the god of the Sun Dance, appeared before him. “I...shall not let you die.” Konate heard the words quite clearly. “You shall see your home and friends again.”
In the darkness of the desert night by the spring, the Tai-me gave to Konate special mystical powers, or “medicine.” Tai-me gave him instructions for making a new war shield. He directed Konate to create a sacred staff that would serve as proof and symbol of new power. As he departed, the Tai-me told Konate, “Help is near.” The Tai-me sent a heavy rain to cool Konate and wash his wounds.
The wolf returned in the night and resumed its vigil. Konate heard horses approaching in the darkness. The wolf disappeared. Konate would never see the animal again.
He heard Comanche voices. Unable to speak, he groaned to make himself heard. The Comanches, a raiding party of six warriors headed south and west on the Indian trail, were astonished to discover Konate still alive. Several days earlier, they had met Dohasan and the Kiowa raiders on the trail headed north toward home. The Kiowas asked the Comanches to cover Konate’s body to protect it from wolves until a party could be sent back to recover the bones. No one anticipated that it would be a wolf that would save Konate’s life.
The Comanches gave Konate water and buffalo meat broth. They cut away his filthy and bloodstained clothes and dressed him in clean clothes. They bathed him and dressed his wounds with buffalo tallow. They cared for him for several days, until he recovered enough strength to travel. They gave up their journey to raid and placed the Kiowa warrior on a shaded travois behind a gentle horse and turned north to take Konate home...home!
Within a few days, Konate had healed enough to sit a horse, and he rode with the Comanches. Once again, he saw the southwest wind ripple the vast sea of buffalo and grama grasses, the great herds of buffalo and the bands of antelope. He heard the gobble of wild turkeys, the call of the bob white quail, the scream of golden eagles, the yelps of hunting coyote, the howls of gray wolves.
One day as the party drew nearer the Kiowa homeland, Konate crested a gentle rise and discovered, driven into the prairie soil, the icon of a Tai-me. He realized that it represented the vision of the Tai-me that had appeared before him by the desert spring at Sun Mountain.
The Comanches told Konate that the icon had been captured by one of their warriors from the Crows in a raid years earlier. Its Comanche owner had been killed in battle. His family discarded the icon on the trail. Konate was free to take it.
When, at last, Konate rode with his rescuers and his Tai-me icon into his home camp, his band and family erupted with joy to see him alive. They held a feast and dance for the six Comanche warriors. They gave them many horses. The Kiowas and Comanches strengthened their alliance.
Konate never forgot his experience in the desert nor the commands of the Tai-me. With his new medicine, his spirituality evolved and deepened. He rose to a venerated place in the Sun Dances, his story becoming a parable for the annual celebration of renewal. Perhaps more than any, Konate cherished the tribal gathering, the friendships rekindled, the great teepee circle, the festiveness, the feasts, young women and warriors riding together, the medicine lodge rise, the sacrificial buffalo hide offering, the Kiowa warriors dancing to the sounds of drums and eagle bone flutes.
He assumed an integral role in the medicine lodge ceremonies. The Sun Dance Chief took his place and unveiled and displayed the tribal Tai-me in the medicine lodge. Konate unveiled and displayed his special Tai-me icon next to the tribe’s icon. As his Tai-me had commanded, he made a new war shield. He made a sacred staff, an adorned forked stick of stripped and seasoned chinaberry wood, as the symbol of his medicine. It, too, became an icon of Kiowa spirituality.
The year before Konate died in 1849 of the great cholera epidemic which swept across the plains that year, he gave the staff to a nephew, Co-yante. At the 1857 Sun Dance, held on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma eighteen years after the siege at Hueco Tanks, Co-yante sacrificed Konate’s staff, driving the forked end into the earth inside the medicine lodge.
A year later, Co-yante returned to the site. He discovered the staff had been reversed, with the forked end pointing toward the sky. Konate’s seasoned chinaberry staff, cut and stripped of its bark years before Co-yante’s sacrifice, had sprouted leaves. Ten years later, in 1868, it had flourished, growing into a full tree, a memorial to that terrible ordeal in Western Texas so long ago, a haunting reminder of Konate’s mystical experience in the desert, a monument to the endurance of the human species.
In the summer of 1997, the rangers at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Hueco Tanks State Historical Park invited my family and me to attend their annual interpretive fair.
While there, I chanced to meet Dewey Tsonetokoy, a Kiowa who I learned to my delight is the great great grandson of Dohasan, the principal chief who led the raiding party from its entrapment from the siege at Hueco Tanks in 1839. Dewey introduced me to his 17-year-old son, Scott, and sister and niece. I introduced his family to my wife, Martha, and to my youngest son’s wife, Terry.
We hiked into the amphitheater, between its towering hills, past Comanche Cave on the right, where the Kiowas were encamped when the militia attacked; through deep grass, where the Kiowa horses had grazed; past the pool where Dagoi had been shot; to the caves, deep in the amphitheater, where the raiders had endured the siege.
Dewey stopped us before we entered the caves. “Kiowa warriors died here,” he said. “We can feel their spirits. We must have a ceremony.”
Near the site where the Mexican militia dropped rattlesnakes to the amphitheater floor, Dewey conducted a brief ritual called the “smoking ceremony” in remembrance of Dagoi and Au-tone-a-kee’s brother, then we crawled through the mouth and into the chambers of the cave.
We explored the labyrinth of stone, then we sought out and followed the long passageway that led to the ascending shaft and the opening where the Mexicans frustrated the Kiowa escape attempt. We could see a fleck of the blue of the daylight sky piercing the darkness at the top of the shaft. Over the years, the rush of rainwater had apparently re-opened the escape route. There appeared to be just enough room to writhe through to the surface. I suddenly understood why Scott carried the rope.
Terry and I, feeling that we may be intruding in something important to Dewey and his family, left the caves and returned to the park headquarters.
I learned later from Dewey that his son, Scott, the great great great grandson of Dohasan, had successfully ascended the shaft, clinging to handholds 25 feet above the cave floor, negotiating a ledge no more then four inches wide, working his way upward inches at a time, finally emerging through the opening at the top of the hill above the cave.
“I very nearly cried,” said Dewey. “I was seeing something they had seen 150 years ago. It was a revelation for me.”
Scott’s success earned him a Kiowa name, Hay-Gal-Oop Gal-Oye-Tope, or “He Went Through and Came Out.”
Primary Sources Brown, Jr., W. R., Comancheria Demography, 1805-1830, Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, v. 59, 1986 Capps, Benjamin, The Great Chiefs, Time-Life Books (The Old West Series), Alexandria, Virginia Grimes, J., Piece of Kiowa past found in park, The Lawton Constitution, November <11, 1997
Marriott, A., Saynday’s People, The Kiowa Indians and the Stories They Told, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska
Marriott, A., The Ten Grandmothers, Epic of the Kiowas, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, and London, England
Mayhall, M. P., The Kiowas, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, and London, England
Momaday, N. S., The Way to Rainy Mountain, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque
Mooney, J., Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1895-96
Noyes, S., Los Comanches, The Horse People, 1751 - 1845, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Nye, W. S., Bad Medicine & Good Tales of the Kiowas, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma
Tsonetokoy, Sr., D., Personal Communication, 1997
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Texas Parks & Wildlife Hueco Tanks State Historical Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
A Trip to Hueco Tanks
To reach Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, take U.S. 180 east from El Paso for thirty miles to Ranch Road 2775, turn north and drive six miles to the park entrance. The park has campsites with water, electricity, modern restrooms, showers and a dump station.
For additional information, contact:
Texas Parks and Wildlife Hueco Tanks State Historical Park
6900 Hueco Tanks Rd. #1
El Paso, Texas 79938
Note: the park has a limit on the number people that can be in the park at one time.
Source: Desert USA