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.
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.