War and Love and the Cosmology of Race

At the September 6 meeting of a Tolkien discussion society in Colorado there was much talk about the nature of love.  One member started it off with a reading of a passage on the reunion of Samwise Gamgee and Bill the pony.  This sparked a lively conversation on how love takes shape in life.  The details of our lives matter, the way those details fit into our shared stories.  Listening that evening, I suddenly felt sad.  Will this matter to the future?  Will there come a time when what happened here no longer matters in this part of Middle-earth?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that love is a complicated thing in the world.  In the previous week I had been thinking about race and intermarriage – intermarriage between enemy communities.  Now, listening to the talk in our meeting, I wondered: can the bonding processes of race help some of us to transcend our most brutal battlefields?  If race can help with the outcomes of love and marriage, can it be a beautiful shining thing in the world?

I guess I don’t see the social artifacts of race as ever really benign.  Race isn’t the kind of cultural factory that makes beautiful shining things in the world.  It more readily warps both selfhood and society.  And race doesn’t mind rewriting history – it has a past that it simply made up to justify its hopes for a racial future.  And since race ceaselessly creates the foundation for the hatreds of racism, I want to do something other than race in my life.

But it seems useful to test my sense of certainty on this point.  Can love and warm communion happen via race?  Despite the fact that racism is inherent to race, and despite the fact that racial identity is a form of bonding designed to identify and exclude people who fall into all those “other” categories, can we say that we are summoning forth the highest aspirations of race when it helps people to fall in love?  Can people put the dreadful machinery of race to work doing something other than producing the polarized resentments of race?

To map the interior terrain of this inner world, it seems useful to explore two very different accounts of love and marriage in Pawnee history.  One is a war story; the other has to do with transcending the legacy of war.

There is a Skidi Pawnee tradition I have often pondered, called “Black and White (A Love Story).”  The Skidi Pawnee scholar James R. Murie narrated this story and it was written down sometime around 1903 and published the next year, but it was a story told to him by “a young Skidi” named Cheyenne Chief.  I suspect that it was a family story, and that it memorializes an incident involving the Cheyenne people long ago.  This is my guess, based on the Pawnee name of the storyteller and the circumstances of the story.

The identity of Cheyenne Chief is unclear.  Murie said in 1904 that Cheyenne Chief’s father was Pipe Chief, “one of the leading Skidi priests and chiefs.”  A problem with this genealogy is that Pipe Chief had no son who was living at circa 1904.  The closest possible relative that might fit this description was a Skidi named William Samuel Allen, whose father had married Pipe Chief’s daughter, May, during the 1890s.  Sam Allen would have been in his twenties in 1904, which would fit the description of Cheyenne Chief as “a young Skidi.”  If Sam Allen was Cheyenne Chief, it is likely that the story came down to him from his father, David Allen, who was born about 1851 – a good age to have been a son of Black, the main protagonist of the story.

Cheyenne Chief’s story seems to describe events that occurred during the late 1830s, when tradition says that the Skidi resided for a time on the Flat River.  Two youths named White and Black became close.  Black was the son of a “soldier” named Mad Bull who acted as the “policeman” for the leader of one Skidi band.  White was the son of the leader.  One day in Pawneeland these youths and their girlfriends joined with a war expedition led by older relatives.

Things didn’t go very well when they encountered the enemy.  Black vanished.  The other Pawnees thought he’d been killed.  When his girlfriend went to find his body she found that he had been captured.  She followed the enemy to their “permanent village in the mountains.”  Lingering there, she discovered that one enemy family was led by a woman who had been captured in her youth – a Pawnee captive!  It turned out that this captive woman’s father had been the older brother of Black’s father, Mad Bull.  The captive Pawnee woman helped Black to escape with his girlfriend.

There are many kinds of love at work in this story.  For Black and his girlfriend, and for the unnamed older Pawnee captive, the forms of human connection that we call “love” unfolded in a time of war.  The Skidi raided enemies and these enemies raided them back.  If my surmise is correct – that this tale happened during the late 1830s between the Cheyennes and the Skidi – then the captive Pawnee woman surely had complicated feelings.  She said to Black’s girlfriend, “My father was killed when I was captured.”  She loved her children and her husband’s relatives, but she never forgot her Pawnee relatives and her father, slain by her husband’s people.

Pawnee war expeditions most often looked to the southwest of Pawneeland, with the capture of horses as a priority.  Women did not usually accompany these military parties, which makes the story of Black unusual.  Pawnee listeners would have understood what happened with the Pawnee captive and her slain father – they were the victims of an enemy raid on a Skidi city or hunting camp.

The Cheyenne were close allies of the Sioux.  During the 18th century they moved into the western periphery of Pawneeland and took control of the High Plains.  The Rocky Mountains – a Pawnee name – was an ancient homeland of groups that became ancestral to the Pawnee and Arikara.  So the Rockies served as the westernmost boundary of Pawneeland until the coming of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux.  Perhaps for this reason, raiding and open war usually set the terms of relationships between this alliance and the Pawnees by the opening of the 19th century.  But not always; there were visits, some trade occurred.  Marriages could happen, though such marriages most commonly involved captives rather than lovers.

But something new entered this world.  The bonding processes of racial Indianhood arose in the battlegrounds of the Central Plains.  In Pawneeland during the mid-19th century, racial identity systems grew in power as interaction with Americans accelerated.  For the Pawnees and neighboring resident nations of the region, racial Indianhood received increasing affirmation as a mode of selfhood and social identity.  There was war among these racial Indians, but race planted the idea of a shared group identity.

Thinking back to see the nature of racial Indianhood in the mid-1800s, I presume that the memory of race as we know it today is less historical and more cosmogonical in nature.  A mythologized memoir of the past emerged as a byproduct of the power of racial bonding processes.  Race rewrote the past.  The stories that people told over time got rewritten as the mythic origin story of race gained momentum.  This racial version of history favored the idea that the Pawnees and their enemies of the mid-19th century saw themselves as racial Indians and all Indians suffered and endured white racism in exactly the same way.

But I have the idea that the realities of warfare among neighboring adherents to racial Indianhood gave this process very significant nuances that have been forgotten.  During that period the Pawnees accepted race, but they also resisted invasion and conquest by enemies who were also in the midst of absorbing the idea of being Indian – the Sioux and their allies.  The captive Pawnee woman in the story of Black and White felt complicated allegiances, but it doesn’t seem very likely that racial identity wielded the power that it did for later generations.

At its most immediate and intimate level, both race and war shaped the experience of individuals and their families in Pawneeland.  And Pawnees born in this period grew up with race, but the idea of bonding with other Indians was problematic at its very core.  The war with the Sioux and their allies made ambiguity a central reality of racial identity; warfare ensured that Pawnees saw the group identity system of race as a very complicated truth.  Subsequent racial storytelling vanquished this central reality into a peripheral sliver of truth.

So when the Pawnees left their ancient homeland for the Southern Plains during the 1870s, they took this legacy with them into the south.  There they met the Cheyennes again.  In the years that followed Pawnee removal, the complications of the story of race gave way slowly before the bonding impulses of racial identity.

And among the Pawnees in those days there was a Skidi man who fought against the enemies of the Pawnee people.  Seeing Eagle was born during the late 1830s, perhaps in 1837, just about the time of the tale of Black and White.  He served in a military unit known as the Pawnee Scouts.  And he saw service against the Sioux and Cheyenne.

In 2011 I heard from a woman named Grace Slaughter.  She was doing research on her family history.  She told me that Seeing Eagle had a younger brother, and this man had a daughter named Nannie Aspenall – Grace’s great-grandmother.  Nannie married a Cheyenne man named Richard Davis, and their first two children became enrolled among the Cheyenne, but their other four children became Pawnee citizens.

Nannie was not a captive among the Cheyennes.  She was born between 1864 and 1868, and sometime during the 1880s she married Richard Davis of her own free will.  I can guess that this was not an easy thing to do.  The Pawnees and Cheyennes had much resentment in those days.  But these two fell in love and they had a family and maybe they cared what other people thought.  And maybe not.

Surely for them love was complicated.  It made their world complicated.  But perhaps the power of racial bonding helped them in some way.  Nannie and Richard came from communities that had a long history of conflict, but when they looked at each other they saw Indians.  They shared the idea of being racial Indians in racial America.

This is the tradition Richard and Nannie Davis passed on to their children, Cheyenne and Pawnee: their children would grow up to become Indians.  They would go out into the world and they would meet many kinds of people and they would do race – everyone would do race together.  And maybe race would help them to love certain people.  And maybe race would make them feel suspicious of certain people.  Whatever happened, it was complicated, I’m sure.


Nannie Aspenall Davis

And many years after Richard and Nannie Davis died and all their Cheyenne and Pawnee children died, I came across some information that seemed to pertain to their lives.  Looking one day at The Guthrie Daily Leader of Guthrie, Oklahoma, I found three articles published in 1902, 1905, and 1906.  These mention Cheyenne visits to Pawneeland.  Thinking that the Davis family must have played a role in facilitating these visits, I read the articles with great interest.  Here is an excerpt from the 1905 article:

Pawnee, Okla., Aug. 21.  The Dog Soldier band of the Cheyenne Indian tribe, from Western Oklahoma, has been visiting the Skeedee band of the Pawnees.  The Cheyennes, to the number of 300, came to recover two sacred arrows captured from them by the Pawnees many years ago, and this visit was the first time the two bands had met in friendly council since the time when both were on the warpath.  The Pawnees entertained the Cheyennes at a war dance, and gave them many presents, including ponies, blankets, calico and provisions, but would not relinquish the sacred arrows.  The Cheyennes performed what they called the lightning dance.

The two sacred arrows… were captured from the Cheyennes in a battle on Platte river, Nebraska, about sixty years ago.  A Pawnee who had previously been crippled and who preferred death to the suffering caused by his wounds, had stationed himself far in advance of the other Pawnees, in a clump of bushes.  As he was picking off a great many Cheyennes with his arrows, they saw that it was necessary to dislodge him.

Accordingly a bunch of Cheyenne warriors on horseback made a dash for the clump of bushes, their sacred arrow keeper in the lead.  He had the arrows, four in number, fastened to a long spear, and as he struck at the Pawnee, the crippled man dodged to one side and grasped the spear, wresting it from the Cheyenne’s hand.  Almost simultaneously with the charge of the Cheyennes, a few Pawnees in the rear, seeing the danger of their crippled brave, rushed to his assistance.  The Cheyennes were thus routed before they could regain their sacred arrows.

About ten years later the Cheyennes recovered two of their sacred arrows by giving the Pawnees 200 ponies.  In their negotiations here, the Cheyennes were unable to convince the Pawnees that the two arrows still in the latter’s possession should be surrendered at this time.  The Pawnees said that if the Dog Soldier Cheyennes should prove worthy friends of the Skeedee band after the intended visit of the Pawnees to the Cheyennes next summer, the Pawnees may listen to a proposal from the Cheyennes.  At this time the Cheyennes must be satisfied with the presents they have received.

People want to find ways to connect in the world.  To create those connections, we experiment with the spectrum of cultural possibilities that define our societies.  We look for options throughout our lives, deciding what we wish to do together, what things we love.  Some options serve better than others.  It makes sense to think that the bond of race helped Nannie Aspenall and Richard Davis to find love.  I would guess, for example, that race brought them together in some far-off boarding school for Indians, and perhaps race helped them to look beyond traditional enmities.  But to rely on racial bonding to explain their union would be to ignore how warm human communion is capable of transcending even the sternest laws of human culture, bringing together people who love each other.

Bonding through race is still popular in some circles of American life.  Racialists believe that race has the power to manufacture love, even though it is their own hearts that wish for love; it is not race.  Race makes racism, suspicion, resentment.  The master narratives of race call for social justice, but such calls always demand racial forms of justice.  Race wants us to cast more race upon our fertile social soils.  Race demands that we create boundaries; it would segregate humanity.  When it claims to bring us all together, it is lying.  It is our natural impulse to bond, to seek connection which brings us together, and in so doing, we often find ourselves overcoming laws like the forbidding laws of race.

For an ever increasing number of people in the world, the option of race really is optional, a cultural choice.  But for practicing American racialists, belief in race as biology ensures that race-based preferences will continue to shape certain structures of group identity.  Although race is inherently segregationist in character, race-based bonds can sometimes serve as a means of overcoming even more dire forms of confrontational polarization.  The rift of war is one such divide.

In Pawnee and Cheyenne history, the marriage of Nannie Aspenall and Richard Davis had to transcend a bitter legacy.  The bond of race surely played a role in this story.  But I would guess that this role was secondary to the natural passions of young hearts that meet in the world.  It is our hearts that wish to stand close, to talk, to whisper, to set forth together to find all the subtle nuances and aspirations of love – and this happens no matter what else might be happening in the rest of the world.

Listening to the storytelling in the ever-changing Hall of Fire, the vanished tales of that world, I often think of the fact that our storytelling happens in a land that has forgotten the past.  This realm is today associated with an invading alliance rather than with the folk who preceded them and dwelt here for hundreds or even thousands of years – my ancestors.  Those long ago folk have been forgotten.  My own people do not know them anymore.

There is an ancient ocean that once washed up against this part of the world.  The echoes of that ancient surf vanished long before even my ancestors lived here.  And all the stories of their lives have vanished like those waters; when I am gone, no one will remember the past.  But right now, right here, I hear the stories of what it means to be human, and I know that history does matter, and I know that what happens in our lives does matter.



4 thoughts on “War and Love and the Cosmology of Race

  1. gmslaughter says:

    Our family has spread far around the country. There are cousins in Oklahoma and from Anchorage to Tampa. We are all over – in Cheyenne and Arapaho country, in Pima country, in Navajo country, as well as Pawnee country. Some of us are urban; some, traditional. Love took us to our own particular spot – love of family and love of tradition. Thanks so much for including us in your thoughts and words.

  2. Tomas Sharif says:


    Here is a link that shows a photo of a young Pawnee identified as Cheyenne Chief.

    All The Very Best


    • Thanks for the link, Tomas! This photograph is one I haven’t seen before. The auction information attributes it to Max Meyer, dated about 1868. The identifying information on the back says “Pawnee” and on the front, “Cheyenne Chief.” If this young man was named Cheyenne Chief in 1868, this would make him too old to be the young Pawnee man who was named Cheyenne Chief in 1899-1903. But it is possible that the two men were related. In any case, this is a great photo!

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