Kimmie Padocohny-Zotigh, a Kiowa indiginous person, stands before Wichita's Keeper of the Plains.
Kimmie Pahdocony-Zotigh is Kiowa and Comanche, the same as Blackbear Bosin, the sculptor of Wichita’s “Keeper of the Plains” statue. She says people should never refer to a Native American’s tribal regalia – which she is wearing here – as a costume, “because costume is what you wear to pretend to be something. We are not pretending anything. We are being who we are.” (Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Beacon)

This story contains references to sexual abuse and self-harm. 

Stories are the lifeblood of any culture, and for the Kiowa, each person’s name holds a story within. When names are passed down, so are the stories, providing each generation a connection to the past.

Kimmie Pahdocony-Zotigh cannot pronounce her Kiowa name because like most of her tribe, she does not know the language. Fewer than two dozen fluent speakers of Kiowa remain. But she knows what her name means: “Kills from Within.” 

She explains: The name refers to a true story passed down orally about a time Kiowa men had left their women and children to attack the Pawnee. The Pawnee men had already left their camp to invade the Kiowa. 

And so it was that a female ancestor of Pahdocony-Zotigh killed two Pawnee men who invaded her tipi and threatened her family, earning the name “Kills from Within.” Or more simply Mama Bear,” says Kimmie, eyes twinkling.

The Kiowa name was passed down from her great-grandmother, and now she – and she alone – will bear the name and the story it contains until her life ends.

“Once I die that name becomes available to the next person – you know, if there’s more people to actually pass it down to.” 

She has reason to wonder about this. 

When there’s no one to inherit your story

The numbers of indigenous people shrank once the first Europeans arrived on the North American continent and began claiming it as their own more than 500 years ago. Members of all 574 federally recognized tribes account for roughly 1% of the U.S. population – making Native Americans the nation’s smallest minority, apart from Native Hawaiians.

But not all threats to a tribe – and a family name – come from outside. Families and tribal communities can seed their own destruction, eroding bonds for reasons both petty and deadly serious. 

Kimmie Pahdocony-Zotigh lives estranged from members of her immediate family and Wichita’s larger indigenous community. Regulars visiting the Wichita methadone clinic where she works as a receptionist may provide her best sense of belonging now, she admits.

“I enjoy the people a lot,” she says. “I guess they like me because I don’t judge them. I could have just as easily slipped into what they are going through and what they did.”

But because she yearns for the love she felt growing up in Wichita, surrounded by a thriving, connected Native community, Pahdocony-Zotigh works with cousin Nicole Jay Nesahkluah to rekindle the flame. 

Together they run a Facebook group called The Indigenous Peoples Initiative (TIPI). Its purpose is to connect people from all tribes and spread knowledge of indigenous people and their traditions. 

The group has grown to 1,800 members nationally and regularly hosts local events that support members of Wichita’s indigenous community. They teach drumming, dance, beading and other traditions. This past weekend TIPI helped promote an Indian taco sale to raise money for someone grieving the loss of a family member. Last year, the group hosted a special event where indigenous high school graduates could wear tribal regalia.    

To understand the full meaning TIPI has in Pahdocony-Zotigh’s life, one must first absorb the context.  

That begins with the systematic destruction of culture that shaped her family for generations, which determined where she was born, how she was raised, and later the lifetime of racism she would endure. But the context also includes the cultural pride she feels at being Native and the resilience she displays. 

“A lot of times when I talk about things that I have been through, it’s surreal, like I am not talking about myself, it’s somebody else’s life,” Pahdocony-Zotigh says.

How the Kiowa story became her own 

Kimmie Pahdocony-Zotigh’s story begins in Oklahoma, where the Kiowa tribe was forced to settle by the U.S. military under the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867. The Kiowa, like so many tribes, was forcibly relocated far from its homelands to make room for European immigrants and their descendants, while governments and churches tried to erase their culture and their faith. 

From the 1870s through the 1950s, the U.S. government removed children from their families to assimilate them, placing them in boarding schools, some so barbaric that hundreds of children died.

This impacted Pahdocony-Zotigh’s family directly. “My grandfather and his two brothers were children when they were taken away from our family,” she says. Her grandfather was sent to the Riverside Indian School near Anadarko, Oklahoma. 

Riverside was one of 408 federal Indian boarding schools operating between 1819 and 1969 to force cultural assimilation, according to an investigative report released last year by the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Children were taken from families and forced to cut their hair, renounce their faith practices and stop using their native languages. Former residents of Riverside, speaking at a public forum last year, described experiences of brutality and sexual abuse at the school. The practice continued until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. 

Pahdocony-Zotigh was born a year earlier, in 1977, to her Kiowa mother and her Comanche father. Her best memories are of the earliest childhood years surrounded by her mother’s Kiowa family.

She was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, then lived in Hobart, Oklahoma, and Anadarko. The seat of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma is in nearby Carnegie, Oklahoma. 

“I grew up in Hobart being surrounded by other Native children,” she says. “The boys grew their hair out so you really couldn’t tell the boys from the girls because we were all kids. And so there are lots of pictures of me with just shorts on and that’s it, I’m not wearing shoes, I am not wearing a top, and nobody cared because I was just a little kid playing with everybody else.”

Pahdocony-Zotigh says her family moved a lot during her childhood, moves driven by the men in her mother’s life. Her four siblings have four fathers; one of them moved everybody to Mexico City for a time. 

A brother’s father brought the family to Wichita in 1987. “By this time, us kids were tired of moving around and so we were like, ‘We want to stay in one place…’ I lived here ‘til I was 20.”

She was a fourth grader at Gardiner Elementary when she first remembered encountering racism. “This little girl that I met, she wanted me to come over and play. And so my mom is like, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ So I went over to her house and her dad came out and he grabbed me and he jerked me out to the front yard and he told me I was evil (because I was Native) and I was never to talk to his daughter ever again and to get out.”

There would be many more such encounters, but mostly what she recalls is the rich community life provided by the Mid-American All-Indian Center, which, like the adjacent  44-foot tall steel sculpture, “Keeper of the Plains,” sits at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers. 

The center opened in 1976, serving as a central location for social services, a venue for cultural events like powwows, and a museum displaying work by Francis “Blackbear” Bosin, the Kiowa-Comanche sculptor and artist who designed the “Keeper.” 

Pahdocony-Zotigh recalls a time where children could regularly interact with elders, feel their love and learn traditions that became a source of pride. She even worked at the center as a teen during the period it housed social services for indigenous people. The strong sense of community “was something I absolutely loved.”

Leaving Wichita and finding heartache

Pahdocony-Zotigh doesn’t share details about why she left Wichita in 1999, other than to say she ran with a bad crowd and had recently given birth to a daughter who she wanted to grow up around something better. 

“So I wanted to get away from that life, and my mom had already moved to Chicago. And us kids had stayed behind, so I decided to follow my mom to Chicago,” she says. 

She stayed in Chicago for 16 years; it was a period of heartache. 

Most of that had to do with men. She hasn’t had much luck with men, and you might say they didn’t have luck either.  The good ones in her life seem to end up dead — by disease or violence. The bad ones end up dead or in prison. 

Despite her Kiowa name, Pahdocony-Zotigh has never personally killed anyone though she was tempted when she discovered one of those men had sexually abused a young child family member. Instead the discovery brought her close to killing herself.

“I felt like an absolute complete failure,” she says, the pain still showing on her face.

She ensured the man was brought to justice. He was convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault and sentenced to 19 years, according to Illinois Department of Corrections records.  But she continued to want to punish herself as well. 

A friend who was a tattoo artist — he was one of the good guys — tattooed her children’s names on each of her wrists so she would always remember why she needed to stay alive. 

He died soon after doing her tattoos, but she heard his voice again once, saying a single word, “Look.” That happened when she came close to swallowing a bottle of morphine pills in a fit of despair. She knew he meant to look at those names on her wrists. She did and put the pills away and poured out the glass of water she intended to swallow them with.

The children are grown now, living their lives, one in Illinois, the other in California. 

Pahdocony-Zotigh took a job and lived with her children in California in the late 2010s. It, too, was a period of heartache — in a place where she was frequently mistaken for Mexican. 

“I was asked by several white people … why am I not in the fields? (They said) I need to go back where I came from.”

As recently as 2020, she was detained for two hours by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), just after crossing the New Mexico border driving into Texas. She was driving with her son, then 18. 

“They took me and held me in jail for two hours. I was crying and begging them to let me go. I’m saying I am not an undocumented person. I gave them my driver’s license, I gave them my registration to my car, everything I had on me.

“And they were like, ‘Where is your birth certificate?’ And I am like, ‘Who travels with their birth certificate? I don’t have it.’” She was freed once her son presented her tribal ID, which he’d found in a backpack she had left behind. 

She would later be stopped by ICE a second time, but that time they released her quickly, she says.

Life wasn’t always bad. There was a period while living in California when she married a man who had a daughter “and we were living our happy little lives.” But then her stepdaughter died in a car accident at age 20.

“I couldn’t handle life after that,” she says. “I didn’t want to be there anymore because every little last thing reminded me of her. So I came back here (to Wichita) because this is home.”

But her home wasn’t as she remembered.

The Indigenous Peoples Initiative (TIPI) hosts free community nights at Old Cowtown Museum. At this recent event, Kimmie Pahdocony-Zotigh demonstrated how to make a ribbon skirt of the type worn on special occasions as a symbol of resilience, survival and identity. “I enjoy teaching people…. I was showing her different fabrics and giving her different ideas and it was kind of neat, watching her getting excited about it.” (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon) 

A home in need of a community

“When I lived here before there was a very strong Native community, and when I came back it was gone,” Pahdocony-Zotigh says. “The Indian Center is not somewhere I feel welcome at all, and the community is nonexistent.”

The center went into decline in the early 2000s. The Wichita Eagle’s Beccy Tanner reported that the city of Wichita took over the center in 2005 following a period of financial mismanagement in which items in the museum collection went missing. (According to The Eagle, all items were eventually located and returned.) Under city ownership, the center trimmed its staff from 10 to three and began charging for events, tours and use of the facilities. Today its events calendar is sparse. Classes in beadwork cost $25 to $35 for a two-hour session.

In contrast, TIPI does not charge community members for participating in events, which it holds at Old Cowtown Museum, which allows TIPI to host powwows there for free.  Beads are free for those who want to learn the craft of beadwork, Pahdocony-Zotigh says. “We try to provide as much as we can. But things like ribbon skirts, I ask those that want to learn to bring their own materials.”  

That a kind of rivalry has emerged between the Mid-American All-Indian Center and Old Cowtown is an irony not lost on anyone. 

“Growing up, we had a very strong Native community here,” where events like powwows and other gatherings at the Mid-America All-Indian Center were frequent, Pahdocony-Zotigh says. 

But with the center no longer serving as a true community center, indigenous families have become divided by petty arguments, she believes. “They allow their own egos to get in the way of what’s really needed for the community to work.”

“But I’m guilty of the same thing,” she admits, citing a slight by a friend that led her to disassociate from that friend’s family. “So I guess I am hypocritical because I am doing exactly what I am trying to fight against.”

But Pahdocony-Zotigh tries to hold to purpose. 

“This was something I grew up loving,” she says of the larger indigenous community. “And so when I got here I ran into my cousin Nicole who said, ‘I have this idea, do you want to join me?’” Her answer was a quick yes. 

“It’s been our goal to bring the families back together… to bring the community back to what it was.”

And why not? The survival of her own story depends on it.

Editor’s note: Pahdocony-Zotigh is a member of The Wichita Beacon’s Community Engagement Bureau.

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