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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A Visit to Riverbend City

RiverbendFieldSchool(02)Last Thursday, July 24, I found myself traveling in Pawneeland. Near Scandia, Kansas I stopped at a bridge overlooking the Dirty Water River (Republican River). A lively flock of swallows kept up a swarming chatter as I took a few photos.

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I continued on my way among gently rolling ridges, vast cornfields, and tree-lined waterways, and I soon stood before the door of the Pawnee Indian Museum. The museum sits at the edge of a plain, perched above a winding sylvan curve of the Dirty Water River. To the east and north a distant horizon fades into green.

RiverbendFieldSchool(09) Stepping into the museum I met curator Richard Gould. He showed me some newly installed Catlin prints and other exhibits. The museum encircles an earthlodge floor excavated by Tom Witty during the 1960s; Tom got the State of Kansas to build the museum around the house floor.

RiverbendFieldSchool(08) Richard showed me this artist’s rendition of the Pawnee community that once stood here – he pointed out that the earthlodges are not depicted very accurately. This late 18th century city is known today as the Kansas Monument site (14RP1). I don’t know what the Pawnees called the city that once stood here, but one oral tradition speaks of a community at the bend of the Dirty Water River. I think this is that city; so I call it Riverbend City.

RiverbendFieldSchool(06b) The Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas has sponsored several archaeology field schools for students in recent years. This year they invited me to visit, and I found them excavating an earthlodge floor under these tents.

RiverbendFieldSchool(20b) The KU field school this year is led by Donna Roper, Jack Hofman, and Mary Adair. Here Jack and Mary discuss the excavation project. It was a windy afternoon in Pawneeland, sunny and warm.

RiverbendFieldSchool(16) The students carefully remove thin layers of dirt in defined blocks to reveal items in the soil and show patterns of discoloration – postholes and other features.

RiverbendFieldSchool(28) One student, Brendon Asher, showed me a piece of metal found here. It is either copper or bronze. It long ago came to this Pawnee city in the hands of a trader, probably from St. Louis. It started out as a metal pot, but the Pawnees refashioned this piece into a serrated knife.

RiverbendFieldSchool(24) In the afternoon I talked to the KU archaeology field school about the history of this site. I believe it was a Little Kitkahahki city. A number of Pawnees today can trace their ancestry back to a man named Sharp and a woman named Ska-wah-hah. They were probably born at Riverbend City during the final years of Pawnee residency here. Their children include ancestors of the Morgan family, Rice family, Curly Chief family, Horse Chief family, Kitkahahki George family, and other Pawnees. It was interesting to walk in this vanished city, to feel the wind and sunlight, and to peer into the earth at the world as it once was, long ago in Pawneeland.

 

The Wind Inside the World

Arikara-Pawnee earthlodge

Wyoming felt as if it had always been waterless, profoundly arid.  A parched specter of a seafloor slept unconscious at the bottom of an ocean of sunlight.  Nothing moved from horizon to horizon.  Not even the wind moved.  It stood there in Wyoming looking back at very faint footprints stretching back to the greenways of Nebraska.  Why had it come here, anyway?

Driving through this land last Friday afternoon, I wondered what manner of folk had ever walked here.  Who had sat upon a horse and ridden across this arid thirsty world.  Why would anyone think to get into a wagon and say, “I think I’ll drive this thing across Wyoming in the middle of another scorching summer!”

A lonely antelope stood motionless beside the road, standing next to the motionless wind.  It was thinking, someone decided to put a road right here, hoping that people would someday find it and plan their day around driving down it.  Look!  There goes one of them now!  I turned up the air conditioning until I could feel it wafting across my arms.

Great Platte River Road Archway

I stopped in Kearney, Nebraska.  The next morning I found my nephew sweeping out the Arikara-Pawnee earthlodge;  Bob Frazier and his girlfriend Jazmin Lorentz helped to build this earthlodge in 2010.  The Great Platte River Road Archway sponsored the project under the leadership of Ronnie O’Brien, Director of Cultural Education.  The presence of this earthlodge – built by Arikara and Pawnee volunteers – reflects the recent return of the Pawnee Nation to our ancient Central Plains homeland.

Bob Frazier and Jazmin Lorentz

The day was warm already, but the interior of the earthlodge felt cool.  A traditional solar lighting panel (a hide stretched on a frame) lit the interior.  Bob moved it every so often to keep it positioned under the sunrays that fell upon it from the smoke hole.  I spent several hours talking with him and Jazmin about Pawnee history and earthlodges.

It was a very large earthlodge.  In a Pawnee earthlodge city of circa 1850, a structure this size would have been built by one of the leading families to double as a ceremonial sanctuary.  In The Lost Universe Gene Weltfish describes the kind of ceremony that would have happened in an earthlodge like this.

The garden beyond the earthlodge

The Skidi Awari Groundbreaking Ritual occurred in the spring after the first willow leaves appeared.  Women played a central role in this ceremony because it signaled the germination of life in seeds and provided a religious context for the spring planting of corn and other crops.  Weltfish offers an interesting note on the name of the ceremony:

The term awari is a compound stem, the first part a- signifying “being” or “living” and the second part, -wari, to go actively about, such as traveling.  The Pawnee used this stem as we do “up and about” meaning to be in good health.  The combination awari indicates the principles of life and motion… the vigor of life.

The idea is that independent motion signifies the essence of life, the life force that exists in the universe.  The Awari Ceremony offered an organized way to express respect for this life-force.  Life moves in seeds and they germinate and a living plant pushes up into the sunlight.  The mystical connection of life and motion beautifully articulates the spiritual mystery that links us all with living things.  We move; we live.

The traditional Pawnee concept of the origin of life is that it flowed into things from a form of celestial spiritual energy, out of Tirawahut – a divine life-force that was not anthropomorphized into a human-like god but was instead envisioned as a kind of vastness in the heavens.  Life exists as a consequence of this invisible mysterious life-force.  It slowly surges throughout the universe, powering the celestial motion of all the stars and planets and all the living things of the earth.

Speak Friend and Enter

Later that day, driving back to the far western edge of the ancient Pawnee homeland, I kept thinking about things moving.  In Nebraska the highway ran alongside the Flat River across old Pawnee hunting regions full of flying birds and wandering animals – a slender living greenbelt made its way across the middle of the Plains.  Getting out of my car in Wyoming, now the wind blew across this bleak corner of the world.  It wasn’t lifeless.  Just arid; a living expanse filled with its own kinds of mysterious motion.

Sunset in Nebraska