Published on January 16, 2011 by John
Big Bow (Zepko-ette or Za-ko-yea), Kiowa chief, was born in 1833 on Elk Creek, Indian Territory. He was descended from a line of prominent war chiefs and inherited his name from his father and grandfather. From his father he learned at an early age to be a warrior, and by the time he was eighteen he had been on two raids into Mexico. In 1851 Big Bow was made a war chief but lost popularity that winter after eloping with the wife of another warrior. What was more, he offended many Kiowas with his scornful attitude toward the tribal religion. He was especially skeptical of medicine men, particularly the prognostications uttered by Maman-ti through his inflatable “medicine owl.” Often Big Bow asserted that his own strength and courage, not the aid of a bird, would ensure him success in war. Consequently, he frequently went on raids either solo or accompanied only by one or two others. On a foray into New Mexico in 1855, he almost single-handedly captured several ponies and took a Navajo scalp. The following spring, after other tribal leaders expressed doubt about his boasts, he took another chief, Stumbling Bear, back with him to the scenes of his escapades in New Mexico. He frequently rode with the Quahadi band of Comanches on the Llano Estacado and became familiar with the areas between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande.
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Big Bow’s high rank was indicated by the fact that his leggings were fringed with human hair. He took part in raids into Texas and New Mexico during the 1860s and led one against the Utes in southern Colorado in the summer of 1869. Although he reportedly was an accomplice at the Salt Valley attack on May 17, 1871, he evaded arrest at Fort Sill. With his friend and fellow chief White Horse he staged the attack on the government wagon train at Howard’s Wells on April 20, 1872, and the attack on Abel Lee and his family near Fort Griffin on June 9. Thomas Battey, a Quaker missionary, later recalled Big Bow’s “treacherous and ferocious countenance.” At the outbreak of the Red River War in June 1874, Big Bow attempted to talk the Kiowa war faction, led by Lone Wolf and Maman-ti, into staying holed up in the canyons along Elk Creek. But when Maman-ti’s “medicine” predicted complete safety for the group in Palo Duro Canyon, they voted to go there. Big Bow thus participated in the siege of Lyman’s wagon trainqv on September 9–14 and fought a brief battle with Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry at Palo Duro on September 27.
Sometime before Mackenzie’s attack, Big Bow had disappeared briefly into the Llano Estacado, accompanied by Maman-ti’s adopted son, the white captive Tehan. He then reappeared with Black Horse’s band of Quahadis after killing and scalping a cavalry soldier. When defeat was inevitable, Big Bow was among the first of the Kiowa leaders to surrender in February 1875. It was reported that just before coming to the agency he killed Tehan because he was part white, but Big Bow and his family declared that Tehan had died of thirst on the plains. Big Bow readily submitted to the federal authorities and through the influence of Kicking Bird was enlisted as a scout to help bring in other bands. His cooperation kept him from going to prison in Florida with other Kiowa chiefs.
He subsequently emerged as a leader in his tribe’s difficult adjustment to reservation life. On occasion he made friendly visits to the Utes and Pueblos in New Mexico. He and his braves often bargained with white traders and ranchers, including James A. Whittenburg, whose son George he once tried to adopt for a price of seventy-five horses. In 1886, with agent Jessie Lee Hallqv’s permission, Big Bow led three Kiowas west to recover horses stolen by rustlers. He and a companion named Pay-kee overtook the thieves, killed one of them, and successfully recovered the stock, even though they had only a few rounds of ammunition with them. With his family Big Bow settled in the Rainy Mountain community and during his later years was converted to Christianity. One of his sons, Dom-ai-te, was noted in the tribe as a horse racer. The date and place of Big Bow’s death are unknown. Several of his descendants still resided in the Anadarko area in the late twentieth century.
Amarillo Daily News, October 20, 1936. Mildred P. Mayhall, The Kiowas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962; 2d ed. 1971). James Mooney, Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians (Washington: GPO, 1898; rpt., Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979). Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, Bad Medicine and Good: Tales of the Kiowas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962). Wilbur Sturtevant Nye, Plains Indian Raiders (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).