Our Origin Stories

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.

Symbols of Pawnee Selfhood

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What the Silver Bells Say

A few days ago on Facebook Roger Welsch posted a link to a New York Times article that had some interesting stuff on things Pawnee.  Roger is a much-loved ethnic Pawnee who long ago put his reputation on the line by supporting the Pawnees when it wasn’t a very popular thing to do.  And he is respected among his fellow Pawnees for other reasons – as those who read the NYT article will discover.

The article is a travelogue written by a New Yorker named Tony Perrottet.  At one point Tony discusses an incident in 1872 when an American named George Bird Grinnell found himself in Pawneeland.  Perrottet shares Grinnell’s observations of a Pawnee buffalo hunt:  “It began as a brilliant parade, led by eight warriors, ‘their saddles glittering with silver ornaments,’ Grinnell wrote, ‘and their bridles tinkling with little bells.'”

I pictured this scene for a few days and decided that it meant something interesting.  Here were eight Pawnees in 1872 on horseback holding reins “tinkling with little bells.”  They considered themselves to be Pawnees.  No one had any doubts about that.  In fact, when most people picture Pawnees today, the image of these eight Pawnees might well be looming somewhere in the background.

They rode horses that came from Europe; they decorated their horses with bells that dimly echoed distant American and European factories.  They might have been wearing beads from Czechoslovakia and cotton woven in Britain, and they could have mounted up soon after finishing their coffee from the Middle East, sweetened with sugar from some Caribbean island.  They thought of themselves as “Indians” – an idea born in the intellectual factories of Europe and America and imported into Pawneeland.

These were eight quintessential Pawnees.  In the year 1872 in the Pawnee homeland, when these men mounted their horses, the reins made pretty sounds in their hands.  Grinnell sat on his horse nearby.  He was a sharp observer of his times, but he didn’t seem to know what he had just seen.  Because looking at these Pawnees, his gaze had just fallen upon the whole world.

I think many mysterious qualities help to make us who we are.  We can offer useful specific comments about things that seem unique in our language, religion, ideology, and lifeways – it is appropriate to distinguish ourselves culturally from the other people around us.  But we are connected, too.  To everyone around us.  We make such connections when we exchange ideas about selfhood and identity.  We might say we are Pawnees, but this can mean many things.

Each of those eight Pawnees in 1872 saw themselves as individuals caught up in a communal story – the story of being Pawnee in a complex world.  They made choices about what they liked, what they enjoyed.  They carefully crafted their personal and social identities.  Being Pawnee meant something to them that seemed very specific, I’m sure, but there were also less definable qualities that shaped this story.

So when we visit Pawneeland, it is a place in the mind.  We encounter a complicated and somewhat mysterious story that constantly unfolds its secrets to all who care.  This is what the silver bells say to us.

Silver bells

The Shapes of Water

Designing this blog on Pawnee history, it seemed appropriate to begin with an image of the Many Potatoes River.   I took the photo in April 2011 not far from Dannebrog, Nebraska.  And I decided to put it up as the banner image for the blog.

Deep in the ancient Pawnee homeland in the Central Plains of North America, the three branches of the Many Potatoes River rise from hidden sources, and they join together to find their way into the Flat River.  And from there, ultimately these waters flow downhill into the oceans that ring the world that bounds ancient Pawneeland.

I don’t know when the river got the name Itskari or Many Potatoes River.  This term refers to a plant that long ago grew upon its banks.  This plant produced edible tubers, and people learned that they could rely on “its” (pronounced “eats”) when need arose.

I don’t know how long the river has borne the name of this valued plant because I don’t know how long my Caddoan-speaking ancestors dwelt in this region of the world.  We can make some useful guesses about that, of course, but one thing seems clear.

Many Potatoes River 2011

The Many Potatoes River is a Pawnee river, but it is also a river that flows into many realms of history and identity.  People who identify themselves in many different ways have sipped its cool waters.  They have tasted these rolling waters and have called it by many names.  Today this waterway is widely termed the Loup River – a name that has nothing to do with the healthy plant that my ancestors long ago found growing on its riverbanks.

I guess my point is that water tends to take many shapes in our imaginations.  And rising from invisible underground aquifers, the Many Potatoes River, like all the rivers of the earth, moves from year to year, from language to language, from mind to mind.  This river summons us all to drink, whatever names we bestow upon its waters.