Pawnee Creek

Pawnee Creek weaves a slender thread of water across a hot summerland.  In this corner of the arid Colorado High Plains, the world paused one day, and history uttered a tale of curious intersections and collisions.  A tale of human diversity.  A tale of segregated humankind.  And in Pawnee tradition… once upon a time Spider Woman helped the Skidi here; then she spread her legs on a hillside and she made Pawnee Creek.

In mid-September 2018 my wife and I traced on maps the route of Pawnee Creek across northeastern Colorado, and we set forth to visit the stream.  The final stretch of this waterway long ago gave way to modernity.  Where it adjourns into the Flat River, it becomes a modest irrigation ditch.  Just beyond a No Trespassing sign we found a herd of cattle browsing on a field of almost bare dirt.

Noticing a sidelong track, we soon discovered a hidden parking area – and Dune Ridge State Wildlife Area.  Hiking across a field to the shore of the Flat River, we stood among butterflies.  Migrant Monarchs daydreaming in the shade.  Peering down the stream I could see a scatter of trees where Pawnee Creek irrigates the shallows of the Flat River.

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The Flat River at the mouth of Pawnee Creek

One summer day almost two hundred years ago some American travelers paused in Pawneeland on the Many Wild Potatoes River.  At Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’, the Skidi metropolis, it was June 1820.  There the Long expedition enlisted several French-American guides – one was Joseph Bijeau, an American trader with French-Canadian ancestry, hired to serve as “guide and interpreter.”  He was fluent in French and English and Pawnee, and he “was partially acquainted with several Indian languages; in particular, that of the Crow nation, which is extensively understood by the western tribes…”

It is apparent that Bijeau had a son with a Skidi woman.  One Long expedition chronicler described the wives of the French-American traders in that city as wearing “moccasins, legings of red serge” and “Shoud [stroud] of blue cloth, a kind of short petticoat ornamented around the bottom with red or yellow binding – and a shirt of callico fringed round the neck & bosome of the same material.”  In those days calico became popular among the women in Pawneeland.  My great-grandfather’s grandmother was born in a Kitkahahki city sometime around 1800 and she became known as Cihiitu, Calico Woman.

On June 14 the Americans departed from Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’.  Over the next few days they stopped at various Pawnee campgrounds, then they arrived at a locale where they noticed two human skulls on the ground.  Edwin James said that the French-American guides didn’t know what had happened there.  But Captain John Bell heard that “Chayennes” had accosted a “Pawnee party” here and they had killed everyone except one survivor.  Thomas Say selected a skull and packed it up and the Americans carried it back to the United States.

On June 28 the Long expedition journeyed along the south side of the Flat River in the west of Pawneeland and they saw herds of wild horses, several rattlesnakes, a fox, a buffalo, a curious antelope – and that day they passed a stream “called by the Indians Bat-so-ah, or Cherry creek…”  The term is not Pawnee or French.  It is probably a Crow term, báachuua, meaning chokecherry.  We can guess that the name was supplied by Joseph Bijeau who was “partially acquainted” with Crow.  This moment arose at the edge of Pawneeland from a complicated cultural quilt.  An American expedition.  A French-American with French-Canadian ancestry.  A Skidi family.  Rumor of the wandering Crows.

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A view of Long’s Peak from Longmont, Colorado

Several days later this party saw far mountains “upon the luminous margin of the sky” and the Americans decided they were seeing “the point designated by Pike as the Highest Peak.”  Pike’s Peak.  But no.  This was a mountain farther north.  In time that mountain became known as Long’s Peak, named after Stephen Long, the leader of the American party.  The Americans continued on to Pike’s Peak.  And they journeyed onward through the Great Plains.

After they returned to the United States, the Pawnee skull picked up by Thomas Say made its way into the hands of Samuel Morton.  Morton studied the skull, and he wrote about it in his 1839 book, Crania Americana.  Generalizing about “The American Race” Morton came to the scientific conclusion that his collection of kidnapped skulls revealed an aversion “to cultivation” and a people “slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.”

In those days a ferment of racial ideas had already given rise to the primary formal tenets of racial Indianhood – ideas invented in the academic ponderings of American and European philosophers and widely adopted and embraced among adherents to the new identity system.  The American imagination had by then drawn on experiences with a Skidi named Pitarisaru (Man Chief) to formulate the stereotype of the noble Plains Indian warrior.  Race would define the Pawnee-American relationship.  Racial Indianhood would flow from those days into the future.

An artist named John Collins made a lithograph of the Pawnee skull for Morton, and according to historian James Poskett, Morton sent a copy of the lithograph to a colleague in England.  This lithograph caused a stir at the next annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  One phrenologist peered at it and decided the forehead of the Pawnee was “villainously low.”

"Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America"

John Collins lithograph, “Pawnee”

And BAAS sponsored a special committee that drew up a new protocol for ethnology.  A protocol that added momentum to the idea “that many races now existing are likely, at no distant period, to be annihilated.”  This committee devised guidelines for British travelers, encouraging the production of ethnographic notes on 89 topics.  The racial stereotype of the vanishing Red Indian became firmly rooted in European intellectual culture; this ethnohistory became a matter of weaker races inevitably giving way to stronger racial types.

I don’t know when Cherry Creek became Pawnee Creek.  It appears as Pawnee Creek on one 1866 map of Colorado and again on an 1880 map.  The waterway winds down from Pawnee Buttes.  One 1902 account gave an interesting history, saying it became known as Pawnee Creek “because a party of 200 Pawnee Indians were here surrounded by a greatly outnumbering force of Sioux, who, when they found they could not capture the Pawnees, proceeded to starve them out; but the Pawnees refused to surrender to escape even this death, and the last man of them perished by starvation.”

This must refer to a narrative that became embedded in Pawnee storytelling as a useful interpretive lens: the story of Pawnee Rock – a tale that overflowed onto the summits of Courthouse Rock and Pawnee Buttes.  We can guess that a variety of incidents may have fed into the making of this tale, but it could also have arisen from a single incident.  In the Pawnee Buttes story, after the battle, Spider Woman made a spring that flowed from the hillside – Pawnee Creek.

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Historian David Bernstein published a 2018 book that touched briefly on this matter.  A Skidi woman named Mary Faw Faw testified during the 1950s that some Pawnees got trapped on Pawnee Rock by “several tribes” and there was a battle and four Pawnees survived.  One survivor was her grandfather.  Mary Ricketts Faw Faw was the daughter of Charlie Walker (born circa 1837-1841), and he was the son of Te-ha-ka-ha-lus-pe – this could have been the grandfather who took part in the events at Pawnee Rock.  And we can surmise that those events happened sometime before 1831.  Te-ha-ka-ha-lus-pe dwelt at Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’ when the Long expedition appeared there in 1820; he knew Joseph Bijeau; he may have even known the Pawnee whose skull ended up a topic of interest in Britain.

Ancestors of the Pawnees once resided along the western edge of Pawneeland.  People today associate this region with later immigrants who briefly touched down here, like the Arapaho and Cheyenne.  But the ancient forgotten residents of this realm long ago helped give rise to the Kawarakis Pawnees and the Skidi.

During the early 19th century this region served as a crossroads.  People met here, they traded, they hunted together, they raided each other, they intermarried, they killed one another, and they picked up skulls and they wondered what it means to be human.  In this story we glimpse Americans, Canadians, the French, the Pawnees, the Crows, the Cheyennes, the Sioux, and the British.  Wandering at the feet of Those Distant Rocks, they manufactured the manifold details of the various stories they would pass down into the future.  The truths of human diversity give this story a particular kind of depth.  But in those days “diversity” had to be properly managed; everyone tumbled into the rigid channels of racial thinking and the pathologizing of diversity.

And one day in mid-September 2018 I stood on the shore of the Flat River among butterflies.  Pausing beside Pawnee Creek for a moment, I watched the water flow on, as if to find its hidden destiny, mingling with the Flat River, mingling with the Mysterious River, mingling with the Dark River… whispering onward to the edge of the world.

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Wild Licorice Creek

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.

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Roger Echo-Hawk, Sakurihuru

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.

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Beaver Creek / Wild Licorice Creek, October 8, 2015

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

The Moon Magic

Envisioning how I am connected to the past, I sort through the forever unfolding historical geography that has shaped my immediate world.  I focus on various inner pathways that give me a sense of depth as a person – a shifting map of identities and moments and life-narratives.  But many trajectories of history have shaped me, including things that I don’t often ponder.  One such arc of definition has to do with the invasion of Pawneeland.  To sort out what I think this means, it seems useful to examine a somewhat mysterious incident that happened long ago.

During the early 1840s an American trader set down a memoir of his travels.  Josiah Gregg had “crossed and recrossed the Great Plains four times” from 1831 to 1840, and on his first journey he heard a story about the Pawnees.  Arriving at a small eminence called Pawnee Rock, he learned it was so named after a battle that had been fought there “between the Pawnees and some other tribe.”  Gregg didn’t set down any detail, but it was a story that had some currency in those days.

In August 1835 the diary of an American dragoon named Lemuel Ford made brief mention of “a noted Rock Sandy called Pawney rock[.]”  And in September 1843 another dragoon named Philip Cooke found himself at Pawnee Rock – he knew something about its history, reporting a rumored battle there in which the Pawnees had fought “Camanche hordes.”  He told a dramatic tale of how “a small party of Pawnees” took refuge on the “rocky mound” and suffered there from thirst and finally charged to a “heroic death…”  This tale, he said, explained how the “rocky mound” got its name.

Lewis Garrard visited Pawnee Rock in the fall of 1846.  He said nothing about the Pawnees, but he did find “a point of friable sandstone jutting out from the rising ground… thirty-five or forty feet in height…”  The landmark today is a humble remnant of the original hill that these American travelers saw – during the 1870s the Americans began to mine the jutting rocky hill for construction materials.

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Pawnee Rock circa 1870s, JR Riddle

The Pawnee story accounting for the name of the hill faded from American memory.  But the tale did not die away in Pawneeland.  Sometime during the 1860s / 1870s two American brothers heard very similar narratives about Pawnee Buttes in Colorado and Courthouse Rock in Nebraska.  These brothers spoke Pawnee, and we can assume that they heard their accounts from unidentified Pawnee storytellers.

A memoir of the life of Frank North told of a “running fight” between a Pawnee war expedition and the Sioux during the 1850s.  The Pawnees ultimately took refuge on a butte in Colorado that was “almost perpendicular on all sides except one,” and there they suffered from thirst and hunger.  But one night they tied their lariats together and slipped away in the dark.  Ever after, the area became known as Pawnee Buttes.

Frank’s brother Luther was also aware of the Pawnee Buttes story, and he visited Courthouse Rock in January 1877 with some Pawnee Scouts.  He mentioned hearing an account about Courthouse Rock similar to the Pawnee Buttes narrative: “…a story of a war party of Pawnees that was driven up there by the Sioux, and after having been kept there for several days escaped down the cliff by tying their ropes together and sliding down.”  He felt doubtful about both accounts, picturing light-weight Pawnee “hair ropes.”  He also wondered why the Pawnees could not name anyone involved in the incident or incidents.

Ten years later George Bird Grinnell visited Pawneeland in Oklahoma and he heard the Courthouse Rock version.  He wrote that “a war party of Skidi” had camped near Courthouse Rock and they were driven to the hill by the Sioux.  There was only one way up to the top, and the Sioux stood guard and the Skidi men “suffered terribly from hunger… and thirst.”  The leader prayed and “something” told him to seek a place to climb down.  He carved a notch in a “soft clay rock” and the men tied their lariats together and escaped.

Grinnell was also aware of the Pawnee Buttes version – he later edited Frank North’s biography and he became aware of Luther North’s skepticism about the stories.  Pawnee men carried two kinds of ropes, said Grinnell, and the rawhide type could have sufficed to bear the weight of escaping men.  And considering the attributed locales of Courthouse Rock and Pawnee Buttes, he thought that similar incidents could “have happened more than once.”

The Pawnee scholar, James R. Murie, set down what can be taken as the most authoritative account of the hilltop siege.  He heard an account told by an old Pawnee priest named Roaming Scout, and George Dorsey published it in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee (1904) as “The Moon Medicine.”  In choosing this title for the story, Murie and Dorsey translated the Pawnee term waruksti as “medicine.”  But this Pawnee term refers to a range of more esoteric ideas like holy, full of wonder, mysterious.  In the present circumstance, a more supernatural context is arguable, as with the term “magic.”

In Roaming Scout’s narrative, a Skidi man called Taihipirus had been blessed by Spider Woman as a youth, and he had grown up with “womanish ways.”  Becoming respected as a war leader, he took an expedition into the south of Pawneeland and there they were driven onto Pawnee Rock by a vast coalition of “ten or eleven tribes” who encamped around the hill.

It is convenient to refer to this tradition as a war story, but only one Pawnee died in the incident.  A “little fellow” who was an errand man “rose up and ran down the hill” and was captured and executed.  In the course of the siege two Skidis slipped down the pathway and met some Cheyennes who had a ceremonial kinship with the Pawnees, and they arranged for the two men to shake hands with the leaders of the other tribes.  But this friendly gesture did not resolve the situation.

The Skidis endured great thirst, and one night Taihipirus received a vision from Spider Woman.  He watched her come down her rope from the moon, and she told him about a “great rock” that could be moved to one of the sheer edges of the hill.  Following Spider Woman’s instructions, Taihipirus and his companions escaped by tying together their ropes and attaching them to the stone.

From the various extant accounts, it is evident that by the 1830s a Pawnee story about a war expedition and Pawnee Rock was widely known among Americans in the central Plains.  The reports by Josiah Gregg and Philip Cooke do not contain much detail, but they refer to an incident that happened sometime before circa 1831.  The stories must have originated from Pawnee storytellers, spreading to fur traders and American officials who had dealings in Pawneeland.

By the 1870s a similar story about Pawnee Buttes and Courthouse Rock had appeared, reported by the North brothers.  George Bird Grinnell in 1889 and James Murie in 1904 both published more detailed stories.  Grinnell did not specify his source and did not name any Pawnee participant, but he said the Pawnee party was Skidi.  The Murie / Dorsey narrative came from Roaming Scout, a Skidi man who was born about 1839.  He identified the war expedition as a Skidi group and its leader as Taihipirus, and he associated the incident with Pawnee Rock.

The similarities among these various narratives tend to suggest some form of diffusion of an original story into divergent variations.  Both Luther North and Grinnell knew of more than one version, and they disagreed about how to interpret the tales.  But given the chronology of known accounts, we can surmise that the Pawnee Rock story described the original event, and it happened sometime before circa 1831.

Beyond the obvious similarities, another slight clue in the Frank North story hints at diffusion of the story.  The Murie story about Taihipirus tells of the influence of Spider Woman.  None of the other accounts mention that element, but the Frank North story says that after the Pawnees escaped from Pawnee Buttes, a spring-fed stream emerged from the butte, “and the Pawnees claim that there was no stream there at the time they were besieged…”  As Murie explained in a note in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee (p. 335), Spider Women “inhabited the sides of mountains, where they stayed with their legs far apart, and were the source of springs which furnished sweet water.”  The mention of a new spring at Pawnee Buttes could be taken as a veiled reference to Spider Woman.

Why would a Pawnee war story become more a matter of myth than history?  It isn’t certain that this is the case – we can’t entirely rule out the possibility of multiple similar events occurring at three different locations over time.  But the basic structure of the tale could easily have lent itself to mythologizing processes, and that seems to be what happened.  Between about 1830 and 1870, the invading Sioux and their allies engulfed the Pawnee homeland, wresting away control of large swathes of territory at the periphery of the realm – the lands that contained Pawnee Rock, Pawnee Buttes, and Courthouse Rock.

The originating incident at Pawnee Rock must have occurred in the years before the Sioux colonization of Pawneeland.  During the decades that followed, the encroaching Sioux empire and their many allies surrounded the Pawnee realm, and this invasion was not merely a slow demographic shift.  It was not merely a gradual interplay of complex interactions marked by occasional rivalry.  It took the form of a brutal war driven by genocidal colonialism.  Pawnee families were slaughtered in their cities, in their hunting camps.

The Pawnees resisted the invasion.  The Pawnee bands unified; they took refuge in consolidated cities and they finally forged a military alliance with the United States.  And at last during the 1870s they escaped to Oklahoma Indian Territory.  There the Pawnee people continued to slide down an implacable demographic decline, devastated by epidemics and economic collapse.  But in the end, Pawneeland endured.  Remnants of the Pawnee Confederacy survived.

Through those years the Pawnee Rock story underwent a transformation, diffusing from Pawnee Rock to Pawnee Buttes and Courthouse Rock.  In this story, a retreating embattled group sought refuge in the midst of a sea of enemies, and they escaped safely.  This eventually gave rise to a crescent of narratives across the old Pawnee homeland, tales of resistance dimly lit by the wonder of the Moon, visions of Spider Woman.  By the end of the century, the extant versions of the story roughly approximated the map of Pawneeland that had been overwhelmed by Sioux colonialism.

The tradition of Taihipurus and Pawnee Rock ultimately memorialized the enduring Pawnee struggle for survival.  The making of a mythologized geography served to refine the telling of this history into storytelling.  Relating versions of this story, the Pawnee people could feel optimism about the challenge to preserve what it meant to be Pawnee in an embattled world.  That world ultimately gave rise to the world in which I was born.

But the tale does not end there.  It has recently become evident that sometime around 1960 the legend of Pawnee Rock took an unexpected turn.  With the release in 2007 of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, I realized that he drew on this particular war story of Pawneeland to colorize a fantasy battleground of Middle-earth – the story of Mîm the Dwarf and his hilltop refuge.  With this development, the Pawnee memoir of Taihipirus and the Moon Magic has found new momentum in the world.  When we observe the journey of this tale of wonder and vision and mystery, we glimpse a slow transformation of a moment of history into myth.

My related Tolkienland essay: “Mîm and the Moon Medicine

My related essay at The Wandering Company: “The Spider’s Springs

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In the Realm of Stone Houses

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The lands that lay beyond the Mountain That Touches the Sky seemed made of a dry kind of green, a distant realm surrounded by receding mountains.  I had never visited this part of Colorado.  For many years I had peered down along the High Plains, south to where the Mountain stood, wondering.

Years ago, studying certain matters of the ancient past, I had decided that my ancestors had once dwelt there in the south, and I wondered what kind of world it might be.  I had the thought that someday I would visit.  Now I was floating across an arid green world; remote mountains hovered here and there.

Along the way I thought of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road.  He drove here in 1950 and made brief mention of his friend, archaeologist Hal Chase, who was “somewhere off the road in front of a campfire with perhaps a handful of anthropologists[.]”  Chase conducted excavations during that time at the Snake Blakeslee site, an Apishapa phase community.  About 800 years ago the realm of the Apishapa phase unfolded south of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, stretching down into northern New Mexico.

It was probably sometime in the 15th century that the Apishapa phase population moved into the plains, flowing into the folk whose descendants became the Pawnees and other related peoples.  I believe we can glimpse memories of this history in certain Pawnee oral traditions.  And later generations of Pawnee travelers knew those traditions, and they had come back to this land, journeying in search of trade and treasure and training, stealing horses, stalking enemies, looking for adventure.

Turning east onto Highway 64 in New Mexico I skirted the edges of an ancient volcanic field.  I was soon driving through millions of years of slowly disintegrating lava flows and fading volcanic cones.  Herds of pronghorns and deer stood on the crumbling basalt.  Over the next two days I saw various animals galloping over this terrain, and I wondered how they did it, their hooves clattering on stony soils made of sharp corners.  I had to walk carefully on the stuff.  But all through the years as wind and ice did their magic, the stones slowly melted into rich soils and healthy vegetation.

I soon came upon Capulin Volcano National Monument.  I stopped my car and got out to look.  A lonely mountain capped with a vegetated caldera stood alone north of the road.  I took a photo and drove on to the Mandala Center.  There I found John Micheal Knife Chief and Walter Echo-Hawk.

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The National Park Service had invited the Pawnee Nation to send a delegation to consult with them about Pawnee connections to the region – John Micheal serves as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and he had asked Walter and me to join him.  The next morning dawned (May 24, 2016), and we met with NPS staff and two consultants from Parametrix.  We spent the morning talking about Pawnee history in the region.

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May 25, 2016: Lynn Cartmell (NPS CAVO Lead Park Ranger), Shawn Kelley (Parametrix Senior Cultural Anthropologist), Sean O’Meara (Parametrix Ethnographer / Ethnobotanist), Walter Echo-Hawk, Roger Echo-Hawk, John Micheal Knife Chief (Pawnee Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer); photo taken by Zach Cartmell (NPS CAVO Park Natural Resource Manager)

Capulin Volcano crouches at the southern edge of the region occupied by the Apishapa phase people.  At the northern edge of this realm stands Toos Peh, the Mountain That Touches the Sky.   I learned the Pawnee name and its translation from very obscure records provided by a friend, and then I found various traditions that made mention of a place where the earth and sky meet, a place where this world connects to another unseen world.  Since some of the stories make reference to the origin of corn agriculture, the stories tend to point to the era of the Apishapa phase.

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In the course of our visit, the NPS rangers showed us a handful of small mysterious masonry structures.  No date could be attached to them, but they do vaguely evoke Apishapa architecture.  And at another nearby site someone found a beautifully made side-notched lithic projectile point of a type common in Apishapa sites.  A handful of miles to the north of Capulin Volcano can be found a few other sites in New Mexico identified as Apishapa phase occupations.

Various versions of a Pawnee migration tradition were set down between 1866 and circa 1970.  The stories are brief and vague, but they mention the southwest, the Rio Grande River, New Mexico, and houses made of stone or stone and mud.  The people had sacred bundles in that far land, and they had flint knives and flint arrow points.  And when they left that land, the journey took them through mountains into the grasslands – the stories mention how their lodge poles left grooves in the stone.  This all happened long ago.

A match for these glimpses of ancient times can be found in the archaeology of the Apishapa phase.  The geography of Pawnee tradition points to the Apishapa occupation area, and Apishapa houses and the houses of Pawnee tradition both utilized stone.  These are significant conjunctions.  But to see a connection between the oral traditions and the archaeological record, we must be willing to accept that it is possible for historical information to endure over a six hundred year period.

It seems logical that this unusual mountain would draw Apishapa visitors.  Vague connections between Capulin Volcano and Apishapa are suggested by the stone enclosures and by the side-notched point – it is a type that one report describes as “ubiquitous” in Apishapa sites.  Another minor speculative point could also be made.  Pawnee tradition recalls how travelers used dog travois transport and there were so many people on the migration that they left grooves in the stone.  In the volcanic soils of northern New Mexico travois poles probably did leave visible trackways across well-traveled stony surfaces, and this could have become set in tradition as grooves in stone.

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High above that vanished world, a paved path encircles the caldera of Capulin Volcano.  Our walk was very windy, but the panoramic view from the rim of the volcano was impressive.  The evidence for an Apishapa presence here is slight, and yet… there must have been visitors in that time and later.  And how can they not have felt a sense of wonder as they stood here on this mountain, absorbing the magic of the southern circles of their world?

At the northern edge of the Apishapa homeland we find the majestic ramparts of the Mountain That Touches the Sky – an almost forgotten holy place.  That mountain lingers in stories as an old religious site, a place of spiritual symbolism.  We do not know of other similar holy places in the ancient southwestern ancestral Pawnee homeland, but the unique visual silhouette of Capulin Volcano stands out.  Here at the southern edge of the Apishapa realm, surely this enchanted place meant something to my ancestors long ago.

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