White Fox the Indianer

When three Skidi Pawnees traveled to Sweden in the summer of 1874, they entered an interesting moment in Pawnee history.  They found that people saw them not as Pawnees – and certainly not as Skidi Pawnees – but rather as Indians.  They saw themselves that way, too.  As Indians.  But in Sweden, in those days, they encountered a whole new level of enthusiasm for race.  After two of these Skidis returned to Pawneeland, they helped to lead the Pawnee people into the heart of the American racial agenda.

White Fox probably thought of himself as an Indian when he traveled to Sweden with his relatives White Eagle and John Box.  But we can only vaguely glimpse the options of identity that shaped his social world.  We know that White Fox was born about 1846.  He grew up as a member of an extended Skidi family, probably Pumpkin Vine Skidi, and he was a citizen of the Pawnee Confederacy.  As an adult he took up doctoring and he served in the Pawnee Scouts.  And in the final days of his life he became one of the Pawnee discoverers of Sweden.

We construct identity from ephemeral slippery surfaces.  And negotiating the fickle meanings of identity, selfhood is completely dependent upon a sense of history.  When our sense of history is complex and nuanced, we have complex and nuanced options for being and becoming.

But peering back at people in the past, when we can only glimpse a few details of their lives, we necessarily must guess at what circles of identity they surrounded themselves with in life.  Yet we can consult history to fill in that picture.  In so doing, we tend to look for the threads that most clearly connect the past to our sense of the present.

Today racial identity systems provide a primary thread that links the Pawnees to their past.  Believing that today one cannot be Pawnee without also being Indian – meaning an adherent to the identity system of racial Indianhood – it is easy to suppose that this has always been true.  But in the days of White Fox, this racial system was not at all what it is today, here in the second decade of the 21st century.

This is due in large part to a war that the Pawnees fought during White Fox’s lifetime.  Since racial identity consists of the production of bonding processes, to be Indian one must engage in bonding activities with other Indians.  But in the case of White Fox and his contemporaries, they fought and killed Sioux enemies and they rejected the idea of bonding with the Sioux through race.  Resisting the invasion of the Sioux empire, the Pawnees instead formed political and military bonds with the American empire.  This necessarily inserted ambiguity in the meanings of racial Indianhood.

White Fox bookIt would have been consistent with Pawnee war practices of his day for White Fox to have killed and scalped enemies on the battlefields of the Pawnee homeland.  It seems likely that White Fox scalped one or more enemies, given the fact that he wore a war shirt to Sweden – a shirt with pieces of human scalp attached.  This means that he would have slain or wounded an enemy.  With a knife he made a deep incision around the hairline down to the skull.  Grasping the hair, White Fox pulled vigorously to tear the hair and flesh away from the underlying bone.

Pawnee members of the hereditary ruling class engaged in war, but they were generally expected to bend their thoughts and intentions to less gruesome interests.  Gene Weltfish discusses this in The Lost Universe (p. 354-355).  A leader named Eagle Chief tells a story about striking an enemy with a pipestem taken from a Pipe Dance bundle.  But the next storyteller was “a rough character” named War Cry who “was a brave and his whole outlook was toward aggression and violence compared with a chief who was a man of peace and conciliation.”

The spectrum of cultural options among the Pawnees during the mid-19th century was real, just as it is real today.  And in terms of racial identity, there was not just one way of being “Indian” among the Pawnees then, just as there is not merely one way of being “Indian” today.  I presume that as late as the 1870s, some Pawnees did not identify as Indian, or did so very rarely in their daily lives.  Today, however, to be Pawnee one must also be an Indian.

When White Fox, White Eagle, and John Box traveled to Sweden in 1874, they journeyed deep into the world of race.  There in that alien realm they were not Skidi; nor were they Pawnee.  In Sweden they were “Indianer” – the Swedish term for Indian.  Race in Europe in those days had become a powerful shaper of society, a weighty matter of much discussion in the academies and streets of Europe.

In the streets and intellectual forums of Pawneeland, race had less authority.  Racial Indianhood was merely an optional identity – something that happened in specific situations, rather than a matter of daily life.

Among the ideas that gave shape to race in European and American lifeways, by the time the Pawnees discovered Sweden, a thriving debate had to do with the extent to which races and nations could be conflated, and whether language groupings could be described in terms of race.  It became popular, for example, to compare and contrast the idea of a “Nordic” race versus the idea of a “Celtic” race.

Academicians encouraged one another to inquire into these matters through scientific means.  So when White Fox took sick and died in Sweden in January 1875, Swedish authorities responded by turning over his remains to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, their leading scientific institution for anatomical study.

According to an article written by researcher Dan Jibréus (translation provided by Ivona Elenton), a physician / ethnographer named Gustaf von Dubën removed the skin of White Fox’s upper torso and head and set this flesh on a plaster cast.  Several months later von Duben used this gruesome bust to illustrate a lecture on “the general characteristics of the North American Indians.”

In the decades that followed the death of White Fox the Indianer, the Pawnees gave up the grisly custom of scalping enemies.  But after race suggested to the Swedes that they ought to skin White Fox and remake him in the image of race – a particularly grisly image – race decided that it didn’t want to stop there.

White Eagle and John Box returned to Pawneeland in 1875 without White Fox.  They joined the last group of Pawnees to leave Nebraska for Oklahoma.  And in that realm, in a new homeland between the Long River and the Salt River, the Pawnees slowly wandered into a strange moment in Pawnee history.  They found themselves listening to what race said to them, and they liked what they heard.

In Oklahoma they heard again and again the sayings of race.  Race slowly remade all the Pawnee people.  And long before I was born, the Pawnees began to say that they had always been on this journey.  Now they believed they had always said the racial things that everyone said to each other in Oklahoma.  This meant something very interesting.  It meant they were not just Pawnees anymore.  The Pawnees had all become Pawnee Indians.

Newspaper report of a 1994 exhibit involving White Fox in Sweden (courtesy of Katarina Moro)

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10 thoughts on “White Fox the Indianer

  1. I first learned the story of White Fox on Friday, May 20, 1994 when I received a phone call from Marielle Sander-Lindstrom, Cultural Affairs Assistant at the US embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. She informed me that White Fox had died in Sweden in1875 and his remains had been donated to the Karolinska Intitute in Sweden, where authorities had “stuffed him.” This institute still had some of White Fox’s skin. I wrote a research paper on White Fox and helped to prepare correspondence from the Pawnee Nation to repatriate his remains. Those remains were returned to Pawneeland in January 1996 and buried in the North Cemetery. In December 2011 I began corresponding with Dan Jibréus, a Swedish researcher who had gotten interested in the story of White Fox. In June 2012 he sent me this link to his finished article:

    In July 2012 my friend Ivona Elenton provided me with an English translation. Jibréus relied on Swedish newspaper accounts of the travels of White Fox, White Eagle, and John Box to various cities in Sweden. They gave exhibitions that involved dancing and archery. The Pawnee Nation is currently involved in efforts to repatriate the clothing of White Fox from the Karolinska Institute. President Marshall Gover wrote in his “Message From the President” in the October/November 2012 issue of the Pawnee Nation newspaper, Chaticks si Chaticks (p. 2): “One day we hope to receive the regalia of White Fox and we are working diligently on that.”

    • Kathy says:

      How can one obtain the English translation of the finished article?

      • Kathy: Sorry to take so long to respond! The translation was provided by a colleague from Sweden who hasn’t made it available to the public. I will mention your question to her and will post again here in the future if it does become available. Also, Dan Jibréus showed me a partial translation of an expanded version of his paper, and he might someday produce a complete translation of it.

        • Dan Jibréus says:

          I’d just like you to know that a book in Swedish (which is an expanded version of the mentioned article) is being published right now and may be ordered from me directly. Yet another version, called “The Long Journey of White Fox”, which is an abridgement of the Swedish book will be published in the Summer 2014 issue of Nebraska History.

  2. reodwyn says:

    I was hoping to one day see you write about this complicated and painful matter. You were able to put into coherent words, what I just touched on in a muddled way in my thoughts while reading about White Fox and how the Pawnees were seen back then. How race was a construction that can be highly manipulated and therefore also highly dubious. Thanks you for this interesting piece. I truly hope that Karolinska will do what is right in regards to the regalia.

  3. Baum says:

    A thoughtful post, like many others in this blog…
    I’m currently working on an extensive study of the photographic depiction of the Pawnee Nation in the third quarter of the 19th century.The tragic story of these three high-ranking Skiri in faraway Sweden is one of the countless biographical details that always raises new questions for each problem solved…
    Just some brief comments on the studio portrait of the three men published in Jibréus’ essay, which is now in the archives of the Världskultur Museerna:
    After analyzing the portrait and the corresponding file card, I think there was some confusion about the age and identity of these men. The file card explicitly states the identity and respective age of these men in the usual order from left to right as follows: Red Fox, age 37, White Fox, age 28 and White Eagle, age 31. Actually White Eagle was the elder of the two Skiri brothers from a hereditary chiefly line from Pumpkin-Vine Village, born abt. 1836, while his younger brother Red Fox aka John Box was eight years his junior, born abt. 1844.
    Comparing this portrait with some existing images of the aging brothers two or three decades later, I think the order was reverse and that the man on the left with the Catlinite pipe is White Eagle, an already established Skiri leader at the time when this picture was taken; and that the taller man with the straight hair on the right, whose facial features are barely recognizable, is actually John Box. There is a carte-de-visite in the British Museum’s William Blackmore Collection of an individual named Ke-Wa-Ke-Ka-La, Little Box, which could be the same man, kiwakuupahat, Red Fox.
    White Fox age is given with 28, but there was an enlisted private with the same name in Company A, Pawnee Scouts, whose age at the time of his recruitment in 1864 was 24 yrs, so White Fox could have been in his mid thirties when he died.

    But these are perhaps insignificant and disputable details. Crystal clear is the historical fact of the post mortem treatment of White Fox’ body, which sheds a light on this early stage of anthropological and ethnological science, which at that time seems to have been a pitiless, sterile scientific spearhead (or better: probing needle) of imperialism, “White Race Supremacy” or Manifest Destiny, however it was called.

    • Thank you for your comments, Baum. These are significant biographical details that you have shared with us. It sounds like you are doing some interesting and thorough research on Pawnee photos, and that you have put a lot of careful thinking into your work. I hope you continue with your project!

      • Baum says:

        Thx for your kind and encouraging words. Actually I’m working intermittently for more than two years on this study, and it was – and still is – tedious work. From an art-historical and ethnological point of view, every image offers a wealth of information (style and technique of the photography, posture, hairstyle, clothing, adornment etc.), but from a historical perspective, many images are an enigmatic puzzle, because the informations on most Pawnee individuals are sparse, scattered and, more often than not, contradictory and incomplete. In this aspect some of your essays on your Floating Worlds website were already very helpful, especially your essays on two rather controversial figures of Pawnee history, Baptiste Bayhylle and Big Spotted Horse, works which offered me entirely new perspectives on these ambivalent personalities (which, in the case of the latter, I wholeheartedly share, but not in the case of the mixed-ethnic interpreter, here my historical assessment differs somehow). But, alas, there are many other individuals whose biographical details are as fleeting as the moments their portraits were taken, and that applies not only for less well-known individuals like e. g. the Pawnee Scout Blue Hawk, involved in the infamous McMurty murder trial, but also for prominent chiefs of that period like Piita Reesaaru’, Man Chief or the Skiri leader Eagle Chief, whose name is mentioned in historical sources and image inscriptions in an exasperating number of versions and variants.
        To put it in the words of a famous German photographer “In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” I’m trying very hard to illuminate those shadows.

  4. mellonne says:

    I am curious. Why did White Eagle and John Box allow this to happen to White Fox? I would think that the Swedes would have respected their burial customs.

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