Karankawas’ resourcefulness helped them to survive

Early image of Karankawas

   The now-extinct Karankawa Indians played an important role in the early history of Texas. 
   The name Karankawa became the accepted designation for several groups or bands of coastal people who shared a common language and culture. 
   Those bands, identified in early historic times, included the Capoques (Coaques, Cocos), Kohanis, Kopanes (Copanes), and Karankawa proper (Carancaquacas). 
   They inhabited the Gulf Coast of Texas from Galveston Bay southwestward to Corpus Christi Bay. 
   All spoke a little-known language called Karankawa, and only about 100 words of that language have been preserved. 
   The significance of the name Karankawa has not been definitely established, although it is generally believed to mean “dog-lovers” or “dog-raisers.” 
   That translation seems plausible, since the Karankawas reportedly kept dogs that were described as a fox-like or coyote-like breed. 
   The Karankawas were poorly equipped, nomadic people who migrated seasonally between the barrier islands and the mainland. 
   Their movements were dictated primarily by the availability of food and secondarily by climate. 
   They obtained food by a combination of hunting, fishing, and gathering. 
   Fish, shellfish, and turtles were staples of the Karankawa diet, but a wide variety of animals and plants contributed to their sustenance.
   Always on the move, the Karankawas rarely remained at a single campsite for more than a few weeks. 
   Their principal means of transportation was the dugout canoe, a crude watercraft made by hollowing out the trunk of a large tree. 
   Those primitive dugouts, unsuited for deep, open water, were used primarily in the relatively shallow waters between the islands and the mainland. 
   Each canoe was spacious enough to carry an entire family along with their household goods. 
   The Karankawas traveled overland by foot, and were often described as powerful runners, as well as expert swimmers. 
   A portable wigwam, or ba-ak, provided shelter for the coastal people. 
   The crude structure, large enough to accommodate seven or eight people, consisted of a willow pole frame that was covered with animal skins and rush mats. 
   Karankawas crafted baskets and pottery, both of which were often lined with asphaltum, a natural tar substance found on Gulf Coast beaches. 
   The chief weapon of the tribe, for both hunting and warfare, was the long bow and arrow. 
   Bows were made of red cedar and reached from the eye or chin level to the foot of the bearer. 
   Karankawas were known for their distinctive physical appearance. The men, described as tall and muscular, wore deerskin breechclouts or nothing at all. 
   They painted and tattooed their bodies, and also pierced the nipples of each breast and the lower lip with small pieces of cane. 
   They often smeared their bodies with a mixture of dirt and alligator or shark grease to ward off mosquitoes. 
   Women also painted and tattooed their bodies and wore skirts of Spanish moss or animal skin that reached to the knees. 
   The social and political organization of the Karankawas was determined by their nomadic lifestyle. 
   They traveled in small bands of thirty to forty people headed by a chief. 
   Those bands often subdivided into smaller groups, probably individual family units, to facilitate foraging. 
   Communication was maintained by a well-developed system of smoke signals that enabled the scattered groups to come together for social events, warfare, or other purposes.
   Karankawa ceremonialism centered around gatherings known as “mitotes,” which were held for a variety of purposes, each involving different activities. 
   The ceremonies often included dances and the consumption of an intoxicating beverage brewed from the parched leaves of the yaupon (Ilex cassine or vomitoria), a small shrublike tree native to south Texas. 
   That “black drink” was consumed exclusively by the men of the tribe. 
   The Karankawas also participated in competitive games demonstrating weapons skills or physical prowess. 
   Wrestling was so popular among Karankawas that neighboring tribes referred to them as the “Wrestlers.” 
   Warfare was a fact of life for the Karankawas, and evidence indicates that the tribe practiced a ceremonial cannibalism that involved eating the flesh of their traditional enemies. 
   That custom, widespread among Texas tribes, involved consuming bits and pieces of the flesh of dead or dying enemies as the ultimate revenge or as a magical means of capturing the enemy’s courage.
   The Karankawas’ entrance into the historical record in 1528 represents the first recorded contact between Europeans and Texas Indians. 
   Two small boats carrying survivors of the ill-fated Spanish expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez landed on a small island to the west of Galveston Island. 
   That island, named Malhado, or Isle of Misfortune, by the Spanish, was inhabited by Karankawas. 
   The written account of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of those shipwrecked survivors, provides our earliest knowledge of the coastal people. 
   Cabeza de Vaca lived among those hunting and gathering groups for several years and provided invaluable ethnological accounts of those Native Americans. 
   After Cabeza de Vaca’s encounter with them, the Karankawas were not visited again by Europeans for more than a century and a half. 

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