The name of my great-great-grandmother is mysterious. It would be interesting to know what it means, where to set it among the scattered pieces of her life, the fragmentary glimpses that endure.
When Cha-ka-us was a little girl, a war expedition of the Throat Cutters rode into Pawneeland and they killed her father and her grandfather, and they burned the city where she lived. Her mother, Ctaapitawi, Hanging Goods Woman, married another man and they made a new home for Cha-ka-us and her three brothers.
Cha-ka-us was the daughter of a Little Kitkahahki family. Her grandfather, Bull Elk, was the leader of the Little Kitkahahki when the Throat Cutters killed him, when the father of Cha-ka-us fell in battle. By the 1860s the Little Kitkahahki had become a band of the Kitkahahki. In those days Curly Chief became a Little Kitkahahki leader, a Pitahawirata who had a Kitkahahki wife.
About the time the Pawnees left Pakaku, a sprawling city on the Flat River, Cha-ka-us married Sakurihuru – he was about age 18 in 1859 and she was a few years older. They joined a household in the new metropolis at Wild Licorice Creek. And the next year Cha-ka-us had a baby girl. Then my great-grandmother was born and she became known as Good Dishes of Food.
A second wife shared this marriage. I don’t know her name. But a couple years after Cha-ka-us gave birth to Good Dishes of Food, this second wife bore a son to Sakurihuru: Noo-kats-sah-who-see-lah / John Fox. And about 1872 Cha-ka-us also had a son, Bromet Taylor.
The name Sakurihuru is literally translated as Big Sun. But the terms “sakuru / sun” and “rarihuru / big” both carry interesting nuances that deepen the meaning of this name. “Rarihuru” refers to various forms of magnification, as in “big” and “great” and “vast.” And the term for “sun” is especially significant.
In 1904 James R. Murie translated “sakuru” as “light bringer.” A cosmological story told by Roaming Chief evokes this meaning, with Tirawahat saying, “I give you the sun to give you light.” In those days a Chaui priest named Tahirasawica’ told Alice Fletcher that the term “sakuru” is not normally “used in ordinary speech” because “it refers to the supernatural power, the Sun” who “comes direct from the mighty power above…”
With these connotations in mind, when the term sakuru appears in Pawnee names, it is appropriate to visualize a mythological celestial aura. “Big Sun” is a good translation of Sakurihuru. But a less literal translation more usefully evokes the relevant esoteric cosmological context. Great Bringer of Light. This translation may come across as a bit haughty-sounding, but the meaning is intended to reflect a meditative prayer for life-blessings. As Tahirasawica’ told Fletcher, Sun “is very potent; it gives man health, vitality, and strength.” This name frames a traditional wish for wellbeing in the world.
At Wild Licorice Creek Cha-ka-us and other relatives passed along their family traditions to Good Dishes of Food and her older sister. Good Dishes of Food would one day become known as an admired storyteller – some of her stories were published in 1906 under the name Good Food in Kettle.
We should assume that Cha-ka-us knew the tales told later by her daughter. One such story concerned the great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us. The story is significant because it says that this family ancestor dwelt at a town on the Noisy River (Nemaha River), suggesting a Pitahawirata affiliation. A connection to the Pitahawirata aligns well with the fact that the Little Kitkahahki arose from Pitahawirata roots and included a strong component from that community.
The great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us told of a time when a group of women went out to collect wood. A young girl wandered off and saw a “child” in a hollow log. This child was odd, with “a very small face and scarcely any hair, and its arms were very thin and its finger nails were long.” This child reached out its arms and motioned to her. The tiny thing “had yellow paint all over its face, and black paint close to the hair.” The young girl ran back to the women and told them what she had seen.
When they all arrived at the hollow log, the young girl gave off a strange scream, like a fox – and suddenly a fox ran off through the trees. Then the girl “became very wild.” They took her to a doctor in their town – her uncle. He said his niece had seen one of the little people. “It is human,” he said, “it has wonderful powers; it is not a fox.” And he cured her, “undoing the bad medicine from animals.”
This tale was handed down from days long vanished in Pawneeland. But during the late 18th century there was a Pawnee city on a fork of the Noisy River – an obscure archaeological report in 1996 reported rumor of the site. This was probably the city where the great-grandmother of Cha-ka-us dwelt, and where the girl had her strange encounter.
At Wild Licorice Creek the Pawnees built their last metropolitan center, a collection of suburbs and winding paths between the houses. The Skidi dwelt in more bounded neighborhoods, reflecting their preference for an aloof engagement with the Pawnee Confederation. And we might guess that they pushed to settle in this locality. The founding of the ancient Skidi federation had occurred long ago on Beaver Creek, a waterway that wound through the city.
This creek was known by two different names – Beaver Creek became the name that stuck. This might well be the ancient name for the stream. Perhaps the second name was a newer addition, reflecting the undergrowth that had come to dominate the banks of the stream. Nowadays Beaver Creek is a tree-lined green waterway that curves in and out of Genoa, Nebraska.
The names that eventually came down in time for this last Pawnee city were “Genoa” and “Reservation Town.” But the Skidi elder White Eagle said in 1914 that the Pawnees called the city Wild Licorice Creek – Melvin Gilmore wrote down Kitspilahatus, meaning, as he described: Kits / stream or creek; and pilahatus, the name for wild licorice. Gilmore later set down a different version of the name for the wild licorice plant: pithahatusakitstsuhast. What is clear is that White Eagle told Gilmore the Pawnee term for the city and the creek, and the name for the plant.
One American referred to this plant in her memoirs. Elvira Platt said Beaver Creek “was known also as Burr Creek from the innumerable burrs growing along its banks, the Pawnees applying either name as they chose…” Platt thought “Burr Creek” was the name, but the Pawnee term just referred to the plant – even so, Platt’s version memorializes the fact that each fall the wild licorice plant produces many burrs.
We can suppose that in the last days of the Pawnee dominion on Beaver Creek, at Wild Licorice Creek, Cha-ka-us passed along her stories to her daughters. Night fell across the city. People visited in their earthlodges. And there came an evening when they told their final stories, when they gathered up their belongings, when they passed away into the far-off south.
Many nights rolled onward. Many years followed. And several times I journeyed to visit Wild Licorice Creek. And one evening I paused to ponder the life of my great-great-grandmother. It is a mystery. Those elusive glimpses. But perhaps someday I will learn the meaning of her name.
The opening featured artwork is by Walter R. Echo-Hawk Jr, untitled oil painting of Wild Licorice Creek, circa 1981