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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Under the Sun and Moon, In Silver and Gold

After Pipe Chief came of age, inspired by his friend Spotted Horse, he endured the ordeal of initiation into his chosen fraternal society.   “I was of those who looked at the Sun and the Moon,” he said, telling the story to George Bird Grinnell one night long ago in Pawneeland.  He soon joined a raiding expedition led by Spotted Horse.  They traveled up the Flat River and down the south fork to the foothills of the Distant Rocks in a Line.  There they found the Sáhi, and they captured 300 horses.

Pipe Chief was born about 1836, so this memorable event in his youth probably happened during the 1850s.  He eventually became a priest and leader among the Skidi.  A man who went by that name appeared in several photos taken around 1870.  I don’t know if he was this particular Pipe Chief since versions of that name were held by different men.  But I have lately become aware of a photo that can be identified with more certainty as Pipe Chief.  It was taken just a couple years after he told the story of his youth to Grinnell.

It is not certain what year William Prettyman and his apprentice George Cornish took the photo.  Most descriptions of the photo say 1889.  But this is too early.  Internal evidence tells us that it was more likely taken in late 1890 or early 1891.  The scene shows an open tipi with seven people inside.  Four women sit on the ground; two men have seats of some kind; a young child stands in front of one of the men.

Pipe Chief Family 1891

In 1891 Prettyman apparently sent a print of this tipi portrait with several others to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions at Marquette University.  It bore a caption: “Tepee Indian Summer House.”  If this accession information is accurate, it frames the latest possible date for the image as 1891.

The print entered the collections in company with another photo taken during the same period.  This second photo showed four women and two children in a camp.  There is a tipi and a tent and a caption: “Pawnee Indians, Located 70 Miles South of Arkansas City.”   Three of the women and one of the children can also be seen in the other photo, the tipi portrait.  In 1895 the camp scene was published in a book by George Bird Grinnell, The Story of the Indian, captioned as “Pawnee woman dressing a hide.”

Skidi Camp 1891

The tipi portrait can be found on the website for the Oklahoma Historical Society where it is identified as a photo taken in 1889 by Prettyman and Cornish, showing Pawnees in a tipi with Baptiste Bayhylle.  Studying a magnified version of the image, an old man can indeed be made out, partially obscured by a tipi pole – he does look like Baptiste Bayhylle.  A child stands in front of his knees.  One of the women is peering over at them.

Then I found the same two photos on the website of an auction house.  Cowan’s Auctions offered for sale an albumen print of the tipi portrait photo, and this print featured a handwritten caption, “Pipe Chief & family” with the date “1889” written in another hand.  Another note appeared in pencil, perhaps in the same hand as the 1889 date: “Ben Gover and mother at left of Pipe Chief.”

The writing is faint.  We have no indication of who wrote this information or when it was set down.  Prettyman and Cornish made prints from their plates.  In this case they used the albumen process to create the images that ended up in the hands of the Cowan auctioneers – the process used silver nitrate; gold was used for toning.  These Cowan versions both come with interesting caption information.

The image showing a camp scene with four women and two children has a pencil inscription on the verso: “Mrs. Lizzie Leading Fox; & mother Mrs. Sky Seeing [with a Cowan note stating she is using “an implement of elk antler with a steel blade to chip the dried cow hide to an even thickness…”]; Mrs. Clora Gover Yellow Horse and Ben Gover; and Harry Coon’s aunt.”  There are also two pencil inscriptions on the recto margin: “Harry Coons” and “Mose Yellow Horse” with an arrow pointing toward “Clora” and “Harry Coon’s aunt.”

This information is interesting and puzzling.  Clara has been identified by some as the mother of Mose Yellow Horse, though she might have been his stepmother.  But since he was born about 1897, he was not the infant child in the photo.  Someone wrote his name on the print after that date, well after the photo was taken.  The unnamed woman, “Harry Coon’s aunt,” appeared in both photos.

Harry Coons Jr was born about 1895, the son of Harry Coons and Belle Coons, and Belle had a sister named Stah-kah Coons.  Stah-kah was the first wife of Harry Coons and she could be the unnamed aunt – she was in fact the aunt of Harry Coons Jr.  But the only information I have about her is a vague report that she died about 1887.  If we discount this vague information and theorize that she was still alive in 1890-1891, then Stah-kah Coons could be the aunt in question.

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The Leading Fox earthlodge, with Lizzie and daughter Mattie

So the camp scene includes Lizzie Leading Fox, Kate Sky Seeing, Clara Ricketts and Ben Gover, and maybe Stah-kah Coons with an infant – perhaps Lizzie’s daughter Mattie.  And the tipi portrait includes Baptiste Bayhylle, seated with Ben Gover at his knees; Kate Sky Seeing, seated behind Bayhylle; Susie Lockley Pipe Chief Garcia, sitting beside Kate; Susie’s husband Pipe Chief, wearing his medallion; Clara Gover Ricketts Yellow Horse, sitting on the ground to his left (she is the mother of Ben Gover); and the final person might be the aunt of Harry Coons Jr, Stah-kah Coons.

These two gatherings of Skidis occurred sometime in 1890-1891.  Bayhylle was then about age 60 – we can guess that he was on hand to help interpret for Prettyman and Cornish.   Kate Sky Seeing was about age 48 in 1892, married to a Skidi named Osage Sky Seeing.  In 1891 Clara Ricketts had just been married to one of the Govers and had a son named Ben.  “Ricketts” might have been her maiden name – at least, she went by that name at the time the photo was taken.  She next took up with Thomas Yellow Horse.  They raised a son named Mose who went on to become a famous baseball player.  The mysterious aunt of Harry Coons… if the woman is Stah-kah Coons, we know that she died very soon after the two photos were taken.  Susie Lockley was born about 1861 and she became the fifth wife of Pipe Chief.  They had a daughter named Nellie who married Frank Murie and then John Jake.  Pipe Chief died in 1898, and by 1914 Susie had become Susie Garcia.  All this happened in Pawneeland.

Pipe Chief was a ceremonialist.  James R. Murie wrote down an account of the Skidi New Fire Ceremony, mentioning Pipe Chief and his friend Spotted Horse.  It is a detailed memoir of a ceremony that might have been held last during the early 1870s.  In the course of the preliminary sequence of activities, Pipe Chief conducted a smudge of some sacred objects, an offering of “sweet-smelling smoke to Tirawahat.”  He finished that rite and then he “passed his hands through the smoke and down his body and returned to his place.”  He sat down as the offerings continued, the preparations for the New Fire Ceremony in Pawneeland.

And during the fall the Skidis left their earthlodge city and set up their tipis and they hunted.  And in the spring in their earthlodge city, after the distribution of seeds, after the doctor dances, then would follow the New Fire Ceremony.  The Skidis would offer gifts to the stars; gifts to the sun and moon.  They would enact the creation of life in the world.  And if they wished, they would take new names.  All of these things happened long ago in Pawneeland.

The Ghosts of History Past

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Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a Pawnee on his way to the Kitkahahki

Watching The Revenant do so well at the Oscars tonight, I feel a sense of complicated pleasure.  It is a film that visits a newly imagined version of Pawneeland.  The award-winning cinematography summons up a mountainish world that feels like a real place.  But it isn’t; not really.  What matters most to me at this moment is that the film features a number of Pawnee characters, a range of roles – this is rare for films that have touched on Pawneeland in recent decades.  And those Pawnee characters have been finely crafted, nicely acted.  Believable and human.

In all of its extravagantly crafted details The Revenant aims at a specific visual texture that the director has termed “authenticity.”  The purpose is for this film to suspend us in the midst of a story that feels propelled by history.  We are not to worry much about trying to sort out history from pseudo-history.  Entering the theater, we already know it represents a rewritten past.

 The Revenant was carefully designed to resonate with present-day racial storytelling, not with history.  But we are encouraged by the rich detailing to equate this kind of story with history – a past that has racial Indians oppressed by racial whites.  Hugh Glass serves as the moral compass.  We, the audience, peer through his eyes.  We hope for guidance toward our most uplifting contemporary multicultural values.  What we demand from pseudo-history is something more real than history.

Many Pawnees today are descended from French-American fur traders from St. Louis.  The residents of St. Louis were very diverse, dominated by French ancestry from Canada and New Orleans.  The ties of the St. Louis families to Pawneeland were deep by the 1820s.  In fact, Pawnees could be found there as residents not long after the founding of the city.  If you have St. Louis ancestors going back to circa 1770, it is likely that you have Pawnee ancestors.  There was no endemic warfare between the Pawnees and the St. Louis French-Americans.  Nor were there ever any assaults on Pawneeland by French or American military forces.

But in early June 1823 the Arikaras did attack an American trade expedition on the Missouri River – this was an American group that included a good number of French-American traders.  And an American military expedition did subsequently lay siege to an Arikara earthlodge city; they shelled the city by cannon-fire.  They were accompanied and assisted by a large Sioux military force – along the Missouri River the Sioux were the first military allies of the Americans.  A complex set of evolving relationships between the Arikara, Sioux, and Americans drove these events.  It is impossible to frame this history as a racial rivalry of “Indians” versus “whites.”  To accomplish this impossibility, The Revenant twists all of these details into an entirely new configuration of the past.

During the 1820s race was still a new idea in Pawneeland.  The Pawnees had a long way to go before they would become full-fledged “Indians,” before they would completely absorb the tenets of racial identity systems.  But the obscure and elaborate and simple historical mechanisms of race… this topic is not the primary theme of The Revenant.  It really has to do with surviving an implacable narrative of social violence, a tale fraught with the mechanisms of war, vengeance, and slaughter.

In this movie, in this re-imagined Pawneeland, one must kill or be killed.  And so, even though the Pawnees come across as humanized in the film, and even though this happens in a way that we haven’t seen in other films, all the Pawnee characters get murdered and massacred.  That is, with the exception of one ghostly starving woman who survives, maybe.

Tonight I’m glad this film won a few awards.  I’m glad for Pawneeland.  I’m pleased to find a film contemplating a version of that world.  It does matter when historical narratives get rewritten to suit film-narratives, but it is true enough that the complexities of history are sometimes not as real as the appeal of pseudo-history.  Tonight, I suppose, feeling pleased that a film with Pawneeland at its heart has won Oscars for cinematography, best director, and best actor, perhaps it could be argued that not everything that is important in our storytelling is necessarily real.  Not really.

The Ghost in the Glass

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I saw The Revenant yesterday.  My overall impression… I guess it was as if I had visited the ancestral world that would eventually give rise to the world of Mad Max.  Fur-clad protagonists who wallow in the churning machinery of savagery will surely give birth to futuristic protagonists wallowing in the slow-motion disintegrating machinery of slaughter.  The Revenant and Mad Max imagine very similar worlds.  A brute grotesque vision of humankind.  Dark dystopian fantasies.  Parched outbacks and snowbound mountains provide the mythic vistas that generate one epic downfall after another.  The savage people.  The savage animals.  The savage guns and gears.  We find ourselves cast into sand storms, furiously gritty, and into rivers, furiously frigid.  But we who enter such realms… we must endure scene after scene until the end comes for us all at last.  When you leave this kind of theater, don’t bother looking back to ponder the bloody footprints at your heels.

But The Revenant was nice, in a way.  It was wonderful to see cinematic Pawnees who were not murderous, who were not bent on terrorizing the innocent.  Hugh Glass is given a sweet Pawnee wife – an anonymous dreamlike Mrs. Glass who floats in & out of the movie.  Hugh misses her.  It is terribly sad, the way she was murdered by unhistorical soldiers who senselessly savage a Pawnee city in an unhistorical massacre – it never happened in actual history, but it is a moment that fits seamlessly into our preferred pro-race mythmaking.  And they have a son.  “Hawk” is quite a well-chosen name – very common for Pawnee boys of that time.  Hawk loves his father.  He is loyal and caring and a little sad.  He is so easily murdered in this dark fairytale.

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Grace Dove as Mrs. Glass

Such humanized Pawnees are strangely absent from cinema.  Not long ago I noticed a few Pawnees in The Homesman, a 2014 film by Tommy Lee Jones.  When those Pawnees ride into the movie, the homesman grabs all his weaponry.  He wisely hands a gun to the woman he’s traveling with, and he counsels her to blow her own brains out if he doesn’t survive the coming desperate negotiations.  To fall into Pawnee hands… too horrible!  And I haven’t even mentioned the nightmarish Pawnees of Dances with Wolves.

I long ago read a book by John Myers Myers about Hugh Glass and I always felt suspicious of his colorful tale – the part about Hugh Glass living among the Skidi Pawnees.  That particular twist was based on notes made from interviews with a fur trade employee named George Yount.  Seventy-some years later those interview notes were gathered, edited, and published, and I have no idea how those filters affected the story told by Yount.  But the way the account framed Pawneeland has always felt to me like artifice warped for dramatic effect, not like history.

Perhaps Glass knew the Pawnees.  The fur trade was very active in Pawneeland for decades before 1825.  American fur trade corporations centered in St. Louis typically sent expeditions to Pawneeland to set up shop in the different cities.  The association of Glass with the Skidi Pawnees was just a speculative interpretation of the Yount tale – a hyperventilated twist introduced by Myers.  I don’t see how it is trustworthy in any way.  The Yount / Myers tale has Glass as a prisoner who wins his way into the hearts of the Pawnees.  But by the time Glass happened onto the scene, it wasn’t like he could have been held in a secret Pawnee prison for months or years.  Pawneeland wasn’t really a realm that teetered at the mysterious edge of everything else.  It was instead a close-knit alliance of four Pawnee sovereignties that had long before become interlocked in the global patterns of commerce and politics and intermarriage.

It is a shame that The Revenant makes us believe in its exquisitely detailed version of the past, its compelling Mad Maximum narrative truths, the frenzied whiplash thrills of maybe having to chop off a few fingers for good wholesome reasons, the next vastly defining moment of blood lost forever in endless snow.  Despite all this gruesome drama, we are somehow wafted into a haunting world.  And this is the first movie that has ever happened in my lifetime that shows Pawnees as people… And yet, well, it seems a shame.  I find myself wondering… will I ever want to visit that version of the world again?

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Forrest Goodluck as Hawk