Wild Licorice Creek

The name of my great-great-grandmother is mysterious.  It would be interesting to know what it means, where to set it among the scattered pieces of her life, the fragmentary glimpses that endure.

When Cha-ka-us was a little girl, a war expedition of the Throat Cutters rode into Pawneeland and they killed her father and her grandfather, and they burned the city where she lived.  Her mother, Ctaapitawi, Hanging Goods Woman, married another man and they made a new home for Cha-ka-us and her three brothers.

Cha-ka-us was the daughter of a Little Kitkahahki family.  Her grandfather, Bull Elk, was the leader of the Little Kitkahahki when the Throat Cutters killed him, when the father of Cha-ka-us fell in battle.  By the 1860s the Little Kitkahahki had become a band of the Kitkahahki.  In those days Curly Chief became a Little Kitkahahki leader, a Pitahawirata who had a Kitkahahki wife.

About the time the Pawnees left Pakaku, a sprawling city on the Flat River, Cha-ka-us married Sakurihuru – he was about age 18 in 1859 and she was a few years older.  They joined a household in the new metropolis at Wild Licorice Creek.  And the next year Cha-ka-us had a baby girl.  Then my great-grandmother was born and she became known as Good Dishes of Food.

A second wife shared this marriage.  I don’t know her name.  But a couple years after Cha-ka-us gave birth to Good Dishes of Food, this second wife bore a son to Sakurihuru: Noo-kats-sah-who-see-lah / John Fox.  And about 1872 Cha-ka-us also had a son, Bromet Taylor.

The name Sakurihuru is literally translated as Big Sun.  But the terms “sakuru / sun” and “rarihuru / big” both carry interesting nuances that deepen the meaning of this name.  “Rarihuru” refers to various forms of magnification, as in “big” and “great” and “vast.”  And the term for “sun” is especially significant.

In 1904 James R. Murie translated “sakuru” as “light bringer.”  A cosmological story told by Roaming Chief evokes this meaning, with Tirawahat saying, “I give you the sun to give you light.”  In those days a Chaui priest named Tahirasawica’ told Alice Fletcher that the term “sakuru” is not normally “used in ordinary speech” because “it refers to the supernatural power, the Sun” who “comes direct from the mighty power above…”

With these connotations in mind, when the term sakuru appears in Pawnee names, it is appropriate to visualize a mythological celestial aura.  “Big Sun” is a good translation of Sakurihuru.  But a less literal translation more usefully evokes the relevant esoteric cosmological context.  Great Bringer of Light.  This translation may come across as a bit haughty-sounding, but the meaning is intended to reflect a meditative prayer for life-blessings.  As Tahirasawica’ told Fletcher, Sun “is very potent; it gives man health, vitality, and strength.”  This name frames a traditional wish for wellbeing in the world.

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Roger Echo-Hawk, Sakurihuru

At Wild Licorice Creek Cha-ka-us and other relatives passed along their family traditions to Good Dishes of Food and her older sister.  Good Dishes of Food would one day become known as an admired storyteller – some of her stories were published in 1906 under the name Good Food in Kettle.

We should assume that Cha-ka-us knew the tales told later by her daughter.  One such story concerned the great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us.  The story is significant because it says that this family ancestor dwelt at a town on the Noisy River (Nemaha River), suggesting a Pitahawirata affiliation.  A connection to the Pitahawirata aligns well with the fact that the Little Kitkahahki arose from Pitahawirata roots and included a strong component from that community.

The great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us told of a time when a group of women went out to collect wood.  A young girl wandered off and saw a “child” in a hollow log.  This child was odd, with “a very small face and scarcely any hair, and its arms were very thin and its finger nails were long.”  This child reached out its arms and motioned to her.  The tiny thing “had yellow paint all over its face, and black paint close to the hair.”  The young girl ran back to the women and told them what she had seen.

When they all arrived at the hollow log, the young girl gave off a strange scream, like a fox – and suddenly a fox ran off through the trees.  Then the girl “became very wild.”  They took her to a doctor in their town – her uncle.  He said his niece had seen one of the little people.  “It is human,” he said, “it has wonderful powers; it is not a fox.”  And he cured her, “undoing the bad medicine from animals.”

This tale was handed down from days long vanished in Pawneeland.  But during the late 18th century there was a Pawnee city on a fork of the Noisy River – an obscure archaeological report in 1996 reported rumor of the site.  This was probably the city where the great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us dwelt, and where the girl had her strange encounter.

At Wild Licorice Creek the Pawnees built their last metropolitan center, a collection of suburbs and winding paths between the houses.  The Skidi dwelt in more bounded neighborhoods, reflecting their preference for an aloof engagement with the Pawnee Confederation.  And we might guess that they pushed to settle in this locality.  The founding of the ancient Skidi federation had occurred long ago on Beaver Creek, a waterway that wound through the city.

This creek was known by two different names – Beaver Creek became the name that stuck.  This might well be the ancient name for the stream.  Perhaps the second name was a newer addition, reflecting the undergrowth that had come to dominate the banks of the stream.  Nowadays Beaver Creek is a tree-lined green waterway that curves in and out of Genoa, Nebraska.

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Beaver Creek / Wild Licorice Creek, October 8, 2015

The names that eventually came down in time for this last Pawnee city were “Genoa” and “Reservation Town.”  But the Skidi elder White Eagle said in 1914 that the Pawnees called the city Wild Licorice Creek – Melvin Gilmore wrote down Kitspilahatus, meaning, as he described: Kits / stream or creek; and pilahatus, the name for wild licorice.  Gilmore later set down a different version of the name for the wild licorice plant: pithahatusakitstsuhast.  What is clear is that White Eagle told Gilmore the Pawnee term for the city and the creek, and the name for the plant.

One American referred to this plant in her memoirs.  Elvira Platt said Beaver Creek “was known also as Burr Creek from the innumerable burrs growing along its banks, the Pawnees applying either name as they chose…”  Platt thought “Burr Creek” was the name, but the Pawnee term just referred to the plant – even so, Platt’s version memorializes the fact that each fall the wild licorice plant produces many burrs.

We can suppose that in the last days of the Pawnee dominion on Beaver Creek, at Wild Licorice Creek, Cha-ka-us passed along her stories to her daughters.  Night fell across the city.  People visited in their earthlodges.  And there came an evening when they told their final stories, when they gathered up their belongings, when they passed away into the far-off south.

Many nights rolled onward.  Many years followed.  And several times I journeyed to visit Wild Licorice Creek.  And one evening I paused to ponder the life of my great-great-grandmother.  It is a mystery.  Those elusive glimpses.  But perhaps someday I will learn the meaning of her name.

The opening featured artwork is by Walter R. Echo-Hawk Jr, untitled oil painting of Wild Licorice Creek, circa 1981

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The Young Boy of Old Town

In late August 1914 two Skidi Pawnee men appeared in Lincoln, Nebraska.  They had been invited to tour Pawneeland with Melvin Gilmore, a scholar at the Nebraska State Historical Society, and Leonard Herron (editor of a weekly newspaper) and his wife.  One of the Skidis was an elderly Leader named White Eagle; the other was Charles Knife Chief, a younger man who, unlike White Eagle, had a good grasp of English.

This was the deep end of summer, full of hot sunny days.  The five travelers set forth into the bright countryside, riding in Herron’s new “five-passenger” Model T, trekking down roads that have since become paved and convenient.  White Eagle and Knife Chief murmured in Pawnee, and Knife Chief passed along various comments to Gilmore, who later prepared a memoir of the journey.

The party stopped at a farm near Fullerton, Nebraska.  Walking out into a field of wheat, White Eagle spoke of a Skidi town that had long ago stood there.  He called it “Kitkehak Pako (Ancient Village).”  But now it was 1914 and a man named CP Cunningham owned the property, and every spring he plowed the ground and planted crops there.

Gilmore’s account of the visit is touching.  White Eagle walked over the field and stood on the shore of the Many Wild Potatoes River (now called the Loup River), gazing over flowing waters, and he pointed out into the current.  Knife Chief translated his comment: “My father’s house, where I was born, was there.”  White Eagle then gestured toward “the higher hills” behind the house and he spoke of a Skidi ritual that had occurred there – the Morning Star Ceremony and the killing of a young captive girl.

By 1914 the field had doubtless been plowed many times, erasing traces of slowly disintegrating earthlodge rings and other features.  Gilmore wrote that it was “easy to see all over the site and to see all the contour.”  But if any fading earthlodge circles were still visible in the wheat or at the riverside, Gilmore made no mention of that in his manuscript.

When NSHS archaeologists visited the site in 1940, they found no evident earthlodge rings or other surface features.  They surmised that the entire city had eroded into the river.  On nearby hilltops they excavated two earthlodge floors attributed to “an Upper Republican Aspect site” dating back some centuries – ancestral to the Pawnees and related communities.  And they located what seemed more recent features: two post molds, a burned area, and a few fragments of Pawnee pottery.  Thinking of White Eagle’s report of a ritual sacrifice here, they wondered whether they had found evidence of a Morning Star Ceremony.

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Cedars stand at the location identified in 1940 as a possible Skidi Morning Star Ceremony site; photo taken October 2015

White Eagle died in 1923.  He is today revered by many Pawnees as a respected ancestor, a hereditary Skidi Leader.  It is also apparent that he spoke to his kin about his 1914 visit to Pawneeland, recalling his pleasure at visiting the vanished Skidi town where he had been born.

Garland Blaine was a grandson of White Eagle’s brother, John Box, and he visited the Cunningham site in 1976.  There Blaine was given a note that came from the hand of a daughter of CP Cunningham.  She recalled how White Eagle had said “that the village on the high bank was his fondest memory.”  White Eagle felt moved to find himself gazing back to his earliest memories of Pawneeland, the city where he had been born.

Available records pertaining to the birth of White Eagle are extensive and unclear.  The earliest record is his Pawnee Scout 1864-1865 enlistment, indicating his birth about 1837.  White Eagle traveled to Europe in 1874, and as reported by researcher Dan Jibréus, two advertisements list his age as 23 and 28.  But these must be spurious.  It does not seem at all likely that White Eagle was born in 1851 or 1846.  Pawnee Agency allotment records give his age in 1892 as 56, born about 1836.  In an 1895 affidavit White Eagle said he was “60 years of age…” born circa 1835.  A 1903 census of Pawnees recorded his birth at “about 1836.”  These records from 1864 to 1903 establish his birth at circa 1836.

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Red Fox, White Fox, and White Eagle in Sweden 1874

But just a few years later White Eagle settled on an older date of birth.  In a 1913 transcript of Pawnee Council Minutes, he said, “I am 82 years old” – circa 1831.  The next year at two heirship hearings in June and early August 1914, he testified that he was age 83.  Later that same August, Gilmore wrote that White Eagle “is now far advanced in age, being about eighty-five years old.”  That would place his birth around 1829.  I have seen an undated family tradition (an unsigned typescript dating to the 1970s) asserting that White Eagle was “born in Nebraska about the year 1825.”  And drawing on Garland Blaine’s family traditions, Martha Blaine wrote that White Eagle was born in 1831.

These records are a little confusing.  We can say with certainty that White Eagle was born sometime between 1829 and 1837.  It is evident that during the last decade of his life, White Eagle came to believe that he was born about 1831, but records stretching over four decades agree that he was born circa 1836.  This can be taken as the most trustworthy date.

With this likely date in hand, as well as his account of being born at the Cunningham site, we should look for evidence of a Skidi earthlodge community at that location around 1836.  Skimming various records, I can find no hint of such a town.  Instead, I get the impression that up to 1842 all the Skidi bands dwelt together in one city known today as the Palmer site.  This site can be identified with some confidence as the “Old Town” of Skidi tradition.

In April 1835 missionary John Dunbar visited the Skidi city on the Many Wild Potatoes River and he noted, “The Loup village is quite ancient.”  This was no doubt a reference to the Skidi name for the city: Kitkahahpakutu, Old Town.  In September 1839 Dunbar conducted a survey of Pawnee communities and he prepared a hand-drawn map that showed a single “Loup village” of “64 lodges” on the Many Wild Potatoes River.  This was the westernmost Pawnee community, no doubt the Palmer site city.

If there was a Skidi Pawnee earthlodge town at the site of the Cunningham farm during the 1830s, we would expect to find some mention of it.  As far as I know, the 1914 Gilmore account is the only record of it.  Given this circumstance, we must ponder whether some kind of error accounts for White Eagle’s information.

I have no idea how the Cunningham farm was selected as a place to visit in 1914.  One possibility is that White Eagle gave detailed instructions from memory and the travelers found themselves knocking on CP Cunningham’s door.  A news report from a Columbus, Nebraska newspaper seems to indicate that White Eagle was indeed thinking about Old Town when the tour began.   But it seems unlikely that White Eagle would have guided Herron and Gilmore to the Cunningham farm.

We can guess that Gilmore and Herron selected the site.  In 1914 the archaeological study of Pawneeland was in a rudimentary state, but a good number of Pawnee sites were known, and we can suppose that Gilmore and Herron used that information to organize an itinerary for the road trip.  Herron was editor of The Nebraska Farmer, and would have been well-known in the countryside, a welcome visitor – and he might have heard of various farms in Nebraska where one could find scattered artifacts.  But we don’t know how the Cunningham farm was chosen.

We can speculate that when the party stopped at the Cunningham farm, Gilmore told White Eagle and Charles Knife Chief that they were standing at the location of a Skidi town.  There is no record that the visitors observed any traces of an old vanishing Pawnee city in the wheat field or at the river’s edge.  If nothing could be seen, it would have been reasonable for White Eagle to conclude that the river had washed everything away.  Gilmore wrote that the old man “pointed to a place about two hundred feet or more in the stream” as the location of the earthlodge where he was born.

In brief, White Eagle thought he was standing at the site of Kitkahahpakutu, Old Town.  Studying Gilmore’s record of that day, it does not appear that the group made any visit to the actual location of Old Town at the Palmer site.  This was because Gilmore and Herron did not know about the Palmer site.

Waldo Wedel in 1936 noted that the Palmer site “was discovered by Mr. A.T. Hill… in 1922, and has been identified by him as the probable site of the Skidi village reported by Major Sibley in 1811…”  Hill and his wife drew a map of what they found at Old Town in April 1922.  It showed about twenty remnant ruins of earthlodges, with the rest of the city plowed away under wheat.

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Old Town at the Palmer site, vanished in a corn field, October 2015

Pawnee oral tradition records the location of Kitkahahpakutu.  In a narrative recorded in 1906 by James R. Murie, a Skidi priest named Roaming Scout told a story about the origin of a fraternal society, saying, “This story originated from our people when they had their village at the old village site in Nebraska about fifteen or twenty miles west of Fullerton.  Kitkahapahuk, old village; that is where I was born.”  The various records of his age indicate that he was born between 1839 and 1846, but the earliest records (and the majority) settle on 1839.  This date is consistent with the known Skidi occupation of Old Town at the Palmer site.

We know that the Skidi bands left a city at the Palmer site in 1842, and this was called Old Town, and White Eagle was born about 1836 at Old Town.   When his family left that city in 1842, he was about age 6 or 7.  If all these references really pertain to the Palmer site rather than the Cunningham farm, this means that when White Eagle pictured the city of his birth, he had to summon memories from his boyhood.

The evidence is slim for a Skidi town at the Cunningham site.  White Eagle did his best to fit his memories into CP Cunningham’s wheat field that day in 1914, but we should feel doubt about what happened.  We can guess that had he been taken to the Palmer site, he would have said there what he said at the Cunningham farm, telling of his birth, estimating the location of his father’s house, and reporting on how a Morning Star Ceremony had been held on the ridge overlooking the city.

White Eagle was born about 1836 at Old Town on the Many Wild Potatoes River.  His father was Kuh-coo-tu and his mother Chay-tah-he-kee-wah-la-wah-hiss.  His younger sister (she later in life took the name Julia Troth) was also born at Old Town, just a year or so before the Skidi moved away to build a new city farther down the Many Wild Potatoes River.  Two more siblings followed: Red Fox (John Box) and Cho-pee-de-cah.

At Old Town White Eagle’s mother had six siblings and his father had two brothers, so they had a lot of close relatives and extended family living in the city.  And they were Skidi royalty, priests and leaders and keepers of religious bundles and ceremonies – aristocrats of the Skidi confederacy in Pawneeland.  That shaped the social world of White Eagle’s childhood.

When the people gathered in their city and in their camps, they told stories.  White Eagle used to talk about something his mother had seen – the time at Old Town when the stars fell.  That happened in the fall of 1833.  And late in his life White Eagle shared with James Murie and George Dorsey some of the stories he had heard in the course of his life.  These appeared in collections of Pawnee narratives published in 1904 and 1906.

I find one story particularly interesting because it concerns “a little boy” who visited a town where a witch dwelt.  That little boy “came to the village” and the witch “sent a challenge to the boy” – a challenge to dive into some nearby waters.  The boy agreed and when he dove he “turned into a beaver, and went to the beavers’ den.”  At last he emerged, and he shouted with the people and they killed the witch.

This was just one account of what happened.  Maybe it wasn’t true; other people told a different version.  They told of how the witch challenged the boy “to slide with her on the ice.”  When he threw himself onto the frozen waters “there stood a big otter.”  The magic otter glided on the ice “like an arrow” and the people charged and they killed the witch.  Perhaps this is what really happened.

I wonder as I read this brief wisp of a story.  When White Eagle narrated it long ago, did it hold personal resonations for him?  He had long ago lived in a Skidi city in Pawneeland, a fabled metropolis on the shore of the Many Wild Potatoes River, an earthlodge city that slowly faded.  There he became a little boy.  And he heard the people tell their stories, and when he grew up he treasured those memories.

The events of White Eagle’s life… the cities where he dwelt… the stories he heard… our lives always fade, become misty and mostly forgotten.  Time plows over the details.  But it is almost a century since White Eagle died, and traces of his world still linger in Pawneeland.  He has descendants; there are descendants of his brother and one of his sisters.

Pausing to think of people who lived long ago, and the stories they told to one another, and the cities they built and abandoned, maybe it isn’t always very easy to sort out what happened.  But when we dive into those ancient waters, perhaps the past doesn’t really vanish.  Maybe the past helps us to imagine the mysterious ways we keep becoming ourselves until the end of our lives, becoming many unexpected things – even sometimes becoming magical creatures of the unknowable future.

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Charles Knife Chief, Melvin Gilmore, White Eagle, 1914, courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

 

The Moon Magic

Envisioning how I am connected to the past, I sort through the forever unfolding historical geography that has shaped my immediate world.  I focus on various inner pathways that give me a sense of depth as a person – a shifting map of identities and moments and life-narratives.  But many trajectories of history have shaped me, including things that I don’t often ponder.  One such arc of definition has to do with the invasion of Pawneeland.  To sort out what I think this means, it seems useful to examine a somewhat mysterious incident that happened long ago.

During the early 1840s an American trader set down a memoir of his travels.  Josiah Gregg had “crossed and recrossed the Great Plains four times” from 1831 to 1840, and on his first journey he heard a story about the Pawnees.  Arriving at a small eminence called Pawnee Rock, he learned it was so named after a battle that had been fought there “between the Pawnees and some other tribe.”  Gregg didn’t set down any detail, but it was a story that had some currency in those days.

In August 1835 the diary of an American dragoon named Lemuel Ford made brief mention of “a noted Rock Sandy called Pawney rock[.]”  And in September 1843 another dragoon named Philip Cooke found himself at Pawnee Rock – he knew something about its history, reporting a rumored battle there in which the Pawnees had fought “Camanche hordes.”  He told a dramatic tale of how “a small party of Pawnees” took refuge on the “rocky mound” and suffered there from thirst and finally charged to a “heroic death…”  This tale, he said, explained how the “rocky mound” got its name.

Lewis Garrard visited Pawnee Rock in the fall of 1846.  He said nothing about the Pawnees, but he did find “a point of friable sandstone jutting out from the rising ground… thirty-five or forty feet in height…”  The landmark today is a humble remnant of the original hill that these American travelers saw – during the 1870s the Americans began to mine the jutting rocky hill for construction materials.

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Pawnee Rock circa 1870s, JR Riddle

The Pawnee story accounting for the name of the hill faded from American memory.  But the tale did not die away in Pawneeland.  Sometime during the 1860s / 1870s two American brothers heard very similar narratives about Pawnee Buttes in Colorado and Courthouse Rock in Nebraska.  These brothers spoke Pawnee, and we can assume that they heard their accounts from unidentified Pawnee storytellers.

A memoir of the life of Frank North told of a “running fight” between a Pawnee war expedition and the Sioux during the 1850s.  The Pawnees ultimately took refuge on a butte in Colorado that was “almost perpendicular on all sides except one,” and there they suffered from thirst and hunger.  But one night they tied their lariats together and slipped away in the dark.  Ever after, the area became known as Pawnee Buttes.

Frank’s brother Luther was also aware of the Pawnee Buttes story, and he visited Courthouse Rock in January 1877 with some Pawnee Scouts.  He mentioned hearing an account about Courthouse Rock similar to the Pawnee Buttes narrative: “…a story of a war party of Pawnees that was driven up there by the Sioux, and after having been kept there for several days escaped down the cliff by tying their ropes together and sliding down.”  He felt doubtful about both accounts, picturing light-weight Pawnee “hair ropes.”  He also wondered why the Pawnees could not name anyone involved in the incident or incidents.

Ten years later George Bird Grinnell visited Pawneeland in Oklahoma and he heard the Courthouse Rock version.  He wrote that “a war party of Skidi” had camped near Courthouse Rock and they were driven to the hill by the Sioux.  There was only one way up to the top, and the Sioux stood guard and the Skidi men “suffered terribly from hunger… and thirst.”  The leader prayed and “something” told him to seek a place to climb down.  He carved a notch in a “soft clay rock” and the men tied their lariats together and escaped.

Grinnell was also aware of the Pawnee Buttes version – he later edited Frank North’s biography and he became aware of Luther North’s skepticism about the stories.  Pawnee men carried two kinds of ropes, said Grinnell, and the rawhide type could have sufficed to bear the weight of escaping men.  And considering the attributed locales of Courthouse Rock and Pawnee Buttes, he thought that similar incidents could “have happened more than once.”

The Pawnee scholar, James R. Murie, set down what can be taken as the most authoritative account of the hilltop siege.  He heard an account told by an old Pawnee priest named Roaming Scout, and George Dorsey published it in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee (1904) as “The Moon Medicine.”  In choosing this title for the story, Murie and Dorsey translated the Pawnee term waruksti as “medicine.”  But this Pawnee term refers to a range of more esoteric ideas like holy, full of wonder, mysterious.  In the present circumstance, a more supernatural context is arguable, as with the term “magic.”

In Roaming Scout’s narrative, a Skidi man called Taihipirus had been blessed by Spider Woman as a youth, and he had grown up with “womanish ways.”  Becoming respected as a war leader, he took an expedition into the south of Pawneeland and there they were driven onto Pawnee Rock by a vast coalition of “ten or eleven tribes” who encamped around the hill.

It is convenient to refer to this tradition as a war story, but only one Pawnee died in the incident.  A “little fellow” who was an errand man “rose up and ran down the hill” and was captured and executed.  In the course of the siege two Skidis slipped down the pathway and met some Cheyennes who had a ceremonial kinship with the Pawnees, and they arranged for the two men to shake hands with the leaders of the other tribes.  But this friendly gesture did not resolve the situation.

The Skidis endured great thirst, and one night Taihipirus received a vision from Spider Woman.  He watched her come down her rope from the moon, and she told him about a “great rock” that could be moved to one of the sheer edges of the hill.  Following Spider Woman’s instructions, Taihipirus and his companions escaped by tying together their ropes and attaching them to the stone.

From the various extant accounts, it is evident that by the 1830s a Pawnee story about a war expedition and Pawnee Rock was widely known among Americans in the central Plains.  The reports by Josiah Gregg and Philip Cooke do not contain much detail, but they refer to an incident that happened sometime before circa 1831.  The stories must have originated from Pawnee storytellers, spreading to fur traders and American officials who had dealings in Pawneeland.

By the 1870s a similar story about Pawnee Buttes and Courthouse Rock had appeared, reported by the North brothers.  George Bird Grinnell in 1889 and James Murie in 1904 both published more detailed stories.  Grinnell did not specify his source and did not name any Pawnee participant, but he said the Pawnee party was Skidi.  The Murie / Dorsey narrative came from Roaming Scout, a Skidi man who was born about 1839.  He identified the war expedition as a Skidi group and its leader as Taihipirus, and he associated the incident with Pawnee Rock.

The similarities among these various narratives tend to suggest some form of diffusion of an original story into divergent variations.  Both Luther North and Grinnell knew of more than one version, and they disagreed about how to interpret the tales.  But given the chronology of known accounts, we can surmise that the Pawnee Rock story described the original event, and it happened sometime before circa 1831.

Beyond the obvious similarities, another slight clue in the Frank North story hints at diffusion of the story.  The Murie story about Taihipirus tells of the influence of Spider Woman.  None of the other accounts mention that element, but the Frank North story says that after the Pawnees escaped from Pawnee Buttes, a spring-fed stream emerged from the butte, “and the Pawnees claim that there was no stream there at the time they were besieged…”  As Murie explained in a note in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee (p. 335), Spider Women “inhabited the sides of mountains, where they stayed with their legs far apart, and were the source of springs which furnished sweet water.”  The mention of a new spring at Pawnee Buttes could be taken as a veiled reference to Spider Woman.

Why would a Pawnee war story become more a matter of myth than history?  It isn’t certain that this is the case – we can’t entirely rule out the possibility of multiple similar events occurring at three different locations over time.  But the basic structure of the tale could easily have lent itself to mythologizing processes, and that seems to be what happened.  Between about 1830 and 1870, the invading Sioux and their allies engulfed the Pawnee homeland, wresting away control of large swathes of territory at the periphery of the realm – the lands that contained Pawnee Rock, Pawnee Buttes, and Courthouse Rock.

The originating incident at Pawnee Rock must have occurred in the years before the Sioux colonization of Pawneeland.  During the decades that followed, the encroaching Sioux empire and their many allies surrounded the Pawnee realm, and this invasion was not merely a slow demographic shift.  It was not merely a gradual interplay of complex interactions marked by occasional rivalry.  It took the form of a brutal war driven by genocidal colonialism.  Pawnee families were slaughtered in their cities, in their hunting camps.

The Pawnees resisted the invasion.  The Pawnee bands unified; they took refuge in consolidated cities and they finally forged a military alliance with the United States.  And at last during the 1870s they escaped to Oklahoma Indian Territory.  There the Pawnee people continued to slide down an implacable demographic decline, devastated by epidemics and economic collapse.  But in the end, Pawneeland endured.  Remnants of the Pawnee Confederacy survived.

Through those years the Pawnee Rock story underwent a transformation, diffusing from Pawnee Rock to Pawnee Buttes and Courthouse Rock.  In this story, a retreating embattled group sought refuge in the midst of a sea of enemies, and they escaped safely.  This eventually gave rise to a crescent of narratives across the old Pawnee homeland, tales of resistance dimly lit by the wonder of the Moon, visions of Spider Woman.  By the end of the century, the extant versions of the story roughly approximated the map of Pawneeland that had been overwhelmed by Sioux colonialism.

The tradition of Taihipurus and Pawnee Rock ultimately memorialized the enduring Pawnee struggle for survival.  The making of a mythologized geography served to refine the telling of this history into storytelling.  Relating versions of this story, the Pawnee people could feel optimism about the challenge to preserve what it meant to be Pawnee in an embattled world.  That world ultimately gave rise to the world in which I was born.

But the tale does not end there.  It has recently become evident that sometime around 1960 the legend of Pawnee Rock took an unexpected turn.  With the release in 2007 of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, I realized that he drew on this particular war story of Pawneeland to colorize a fantasy battleground of Middle-earth – the story of Mîm the Dwarf and his hilltop refuge.  With this development, the Pawnee memoir of Taihipirus and the Moon Magic has found new momentum in the world.  When we observe the journey of this tale of wonder and vision and mystery, we glimpse a slow transformation of a moment of history into myth.

My related Tolkienland essay: “Mîm and the Moon Medicine

My related essay at The Wandering Company: “The Spider’s Springs

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In the Realm of Stone Houses

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The lands that lay beyond the Mountain That Touches the Sky seemed made of a dry kind of green, a distant realm surrounded by receding mountains.  I had never visited this part of Colorado.  For many years I had peered down along the High Plains, south to where the Mountain stood, wondering.

Years ago, studying certain matters of the ancient past, I had decided that my ancestors had once dwelt there in the south, and I wondered what kind of world it might be.  I had the thought that someday I would visit.  Now I was floating across an arid green world; remote mountains hovered here and there.

Along the way I thought of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road.  He drove here in 1950 and made brief mention of his friend, archaeologist Hal Chase, who was “somewhere off the road in front of a campfire with perhaps a handful of anthropologists[.]”  Chase conducted excavations during that time at the Snake Blakeslee site, an Apishapa phase community.  About 800 years ago the realm of the Apishapa phase unfolded south of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, stretching down into northern New Mexico.

It was probably sometime in the 15th century that the Apishapa phase population moved into the plains, flowing into the folk whose descendants became the Pawnees and other related peoples.  I believe we can glimpse memories of this history in certain Pawnee oral traditions.  And later generations of Pawnee travelers knew those traditions, and they had come back to this land, journeying in search of trade and treasure and training, stealing horses, stalking enemies, looking for adventure.

Turning east onto Highway 64 in New Mexico I skirted the edges of an ancient volcanic field.  I was soon driving through millions of years of slowly disintegrating lava flows and fading volcanic cones.  Herds of pronghorns and deer stood on the crumbling basalt.  Over the next two days I saw various animals galloping over this terrain, and I wondered how they did it, their hooves clattering on stony soils made of sharp corners.  I had to walk carefully on the stuff.  But all through the years as wind and ice did their magic, the stones slowly melted into rich soils and healthy vegetation.

I soon came upon Capulin Volcano National Monument.  I stopped my car and got out to look.  A lonely mountain capped with a vegetated caldera stood alone north of the road.  I took a photo and drove on to the Mandala Center.  There I found John Micheal Knife Chief and Walter Echo-Hawk.

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The National Park Service had invited the Pawnee Nation to send a delegation to consult with them about Pawnee connections to the region – John Micheal serves as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and he had asked Walter and me to join him.  The next morning dawned (May 24, 2016), and we met with NPS staff and two consultants from Parametrix.  We spent the morning talking about Pawnee history in the region.

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May 25, 2016: Lynn Cartmell (NPS CAVO Lead Park Ranger), Shawn Kelley (Parametrix Senior Cultural Anthropologist), Sean O’Meara (Parametrix Ethnographer / Ethnobotanist), Walter Echo-Hawk, Roger Echo-Hawk, John Micheal Knife Chief (Pawnee Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer); photo taken by Zach Cartmell (NPS CAVO Park Natural Resource Manager)

Capulin Volcano crouches at the southern edge of the region occupied by the Apishapa phase people.  At the northern edge of this realm stands Toos Peh, the Mountain That Touches the Sky.   I learned the Pawnee name and its translation from very obscure records provided by a friend, and then I found various traditions that made mention of a place where the earth and sky meet, a place where this world connects to another unseen world.  Since some of the stories make reference to the origin of corn agriculture, the stories tend to point to the era of the Apishapa phase.

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In the course of our visit, the NPS rangers showed us a handful of small mysterious masonry structures.  No date could be attached to them, but they do vaguely evoke Apishapa architecture.  And at another nearby site someone found a beautifully made side-notched lithic projectile point of a type common in Apishapa sites.  A handful of miles to the north of Capulin Volcano can be found a few other sites in New Mexico identified as Apishapa phase occupations.

Various versions of a Pawnee migration tradition were set down between 1866 and circa 1970.  The stories are brief and vague, but they mention the southwest, the Rio Grande River, New Mexico, and houses made of stone or stone and mud.  The people had sacred bundles in that far land, and they had flint knives and flint arrow points.  And when they left that land, the journey took them through mountains into the grasslands – the stories mention how their lodge poles left grooves in the stone.  This all happened long ago.

A match for these glimpses of ancient times can be found in the archaeology of the Apishapa phase.  The geography of Pawnee tradition points to the Apishapa occupation area, and Apishapa houses and the houses of Pawnee tradition both utilized stone.  These are significant conjunctions.  But to see a connection between the oral traditions and the archaeological record, we must be willing to accept that it is possible for historical information to endure over a six hundred year period.

It seems logical that this unusual mountain would draw Apishapa visitors.  Vague connections between Capulin Volcano and Apishapa are suggested by the stone enclosures and by the side-notched point – it is a type that one report describes as “ubiquitous” in Apishapa sites.  Another minor speculative point could also be made.  Pawnee tradition recalls how travelers used dog travois transport and there were so many people on the migration that they left grooves in the stone.  In the volcanic soils of northern New Mexico travois poles probably did leave visible trackways across well-traveled stony surfaces, and this could have become set in tradition as grooves in stone.

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High above that vanished world, a paved path encircles the caldera of Capulin Volcano.  Our walk was very windy, but the panoramic view from the rim of the volcano was impressive.  The evidence for an Apishapa presence here is slight, and yet… there must have been visitors in that time and later.  And how can they not have felt a sense of wonder as they stood here on this mountain, absorbing the magic of the southern circles of their world?

At the northern edge of the Apishapa homeland we find the majestic ramparts of the Mountain That Touches the Sky – an almost forgotten holy place.  That mountain lingers in stories as an old religious site, a place of spiritual symbolism.  We do not know of other similar holy places in the ancient southwestern ancestral Pawnee homeland, but the unique visual silhouette of Capulin Volcano stands out.  Here at the southern edge of the Apishapa realm, surely this enchanted place meant something to my ancestors long ago.

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