When we Pawnees ponder the origin stories that shape life today, what do we ponder? To understand the contemporary Pawnee world, I think we should look at the cultural narratives that actually empower and explain the daily circumstances that the Pawnee people value – the unifying narratives of our time.
It is my contention that the pre-American ideological structures that long ago shaped Pawnee life have gotten displaced by the origin stories of racial Indianhood, Americanization, Christianity, and secular science. The narratives that advance these cultural systems are the origin stories that matter today in Pawneeland.
The Pawnees today are Americans – many are very patriotic Americans. A likely majority of Pawnees today are Christian. A likely majority accept the fundamental tenets of science. And as far as I know, every Pawnee except one identifies as a racial Indian. Americanization and race most broadly define Pawnee identity today because these entwined ideas are so pervasive as a condition of both social and personal identity in Pawneeland.
For the Pawnee people, these are new ideas about selfhood and the world. The roots are long for some of these changes, but they eventually became established in Pawneeland and together formulated the basic notions that Pawnees today accept about the cosmos. More traditional Pawnee ideas didn’t entirely vanish; some aspects of traditional ideology fused with the new. And some traditional ideas continue to shape selfhood for many Pawnees.
But the basic foundations of traditional Pawnee identity systems have slowly eroded and have been toppling for generations into a future that no Pawnee living in 1750 could ever imagine. In just a few short generations from that date, a massive remaking of Pawnee culture occurred.
The door for these changes opened with the coming of race into Pawneeland. This was the first ideological import from Europe that the Pawnees embraced. The idea of being “Indian” was not forced on the Pawnees; the Pawnees enthusiastically embraced race. The origin stories of race became so powerfully integrated into Pawnee lifeways that Pawnees today treat racial Indianhood as an artifact of selfhood born in time immemorial.
The integration of Pawnee political structures into the American system occurred through the treaty-making period of the 1800s. Trade and military alliance concerns brought Pawnee leaders to accept entry into the American empire. Having already embraced the tenets of race, the Pawnee Confederacy found it perfectly acceptable to become a federally recognized Indian tribe in the pro-race American system of governance.
The third sweeping cultural change came with Christianity during the late 1800s. It is arguable that some younger Pawnees of that time had little choice about accepting Christianity, but all Pawnee Christians today are Christian by choice.
The origin stories of science arose in Pawneeland as Pawnees attended schools and colleges during the 20th century. But Pawnees today – like all Americans – have a choice about how and when to embrace the tenets of modern science.
These four ideological super-structures powerfully shape the Pawnee world today. None are unique to Pawnee culture. I would argue that those ideas which are truly “unique” to Pawnee culture today are emblems of identity that Pawnees greatly treasure, but are ideas that have been assimilated into one or more of these other vast conceptual frameworks. (To illustrate: Pawnees used to get names; now we get “Indian names.”)
Pawnee identity today is highly contingent upon cultural systems that are not by any stretch of the imagination “Pawnee” in nature. But to what degree has this observation always been true of “Pawnee” culture?
Pawneeland is a frame of mind. It is an inherently multidimensional frame of mind that has taken shape through the visible and invisible processes of history, and there’s nothing simple about it. It is arguable that other cultural systems have just as much importance to Pawnee life as the ones I have discussed here. But these four systems of culture nevertheless sit at the center of the Pawnee world today.
I do not regard the analysis above as truly debatable in any useful substantive way. In my view, these four circumstances do shape the Pawnee world. But the act of imagining Pawnee selfhood ought to also permit the coexistence of both complexity and ambiguity. The complexity is self-evident, but discerning relevant ambiguities – and what they mean – can be a very personal enterprise.
With both complexity and ambiguity helping to shape the story of Pawneeland, we have access to diverse ways of being ourselves. In the end, if we wish to know ourselves, we must look for the actual paths of selfhood that unfold beneath our feet. This will help each of us to see better where we might wish to go.