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.


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.


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.


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.


The Ghosts of History Past


Arthur Redcloud as Hikuc, a Pawnee on his way to the Kitkahahki

Watching The Revenant do so well at the Oscars tonight, I feel a sense of complicated pleasure.  It is a film that visits a newly imagined version of Pawneeland.  The award-winning cinematography summons up a mountainish world that feels like a real place.  But it isn’t; not really.  What matters most to me at this moment is that the film features a number of Pawnee characters, a range of roles – this is rare for films that have touched on Pawneeland in recent decades.  And those Pawnee characters have been finely crafted, nicely acted.  Believable and human.

In all of its extravagantly crafted details The Revenant aims at a specific visual texture that the director has termed “authenticity.”  The purpose is for this film to suspend us in the midst of a story that feels propelled by history.  We are not to worry much about trying to sort out history from pseudo-history.  Entering the theater, we already know it represents a rewritten past.

 The Revenant was carefully designed to resonate with present-day racial storytelling, not with history.  But we are encouraged by the rich detailing to equate this kind of story with history – a past that has racial Indians oppressed by racial whites.  Hugh Glass serves as the moral compass.  We, the audience, peer through his eyes.  We hope for guidance toward our most uplifting contemporary multicultural values.  What we demand from pseudo-history is something more real than history.

Many Pawnees today are descended from French-American fur traders from St. Louis.  The residents of St. Louis were very diverse, dominated by French ancestry from Canada and New Orleans.  The ties of the St. Louis families to Pawneeland were deep by the 1820s.  In fact, Pawnees could be found there as residents not long after the founding of the city.  If you have St. Louis ancestors going back to circa 1770, it is likely that you have Pawnee ancestors.  There was no endemic warfare between the Pawnees and the St. Louis French-Americans.  Nor were there ever any assaults on Pawneeland by French or American military forces.

But in early June 1823 the Arikaras did attack an American trade expedition on the Missouri River – this was an American group that included a good number of French-American traders.  And an American military expedition did subsequently lay siege to an Arikara earthlodge city; they shelled the city by cannon-fire.  They were accompanied and assisted by a large Sioux military force – along the Missouri River the Sioux were the first military allies of the Americans.  A complex set of evolving relationships between the Arikara, Sioux, and Americans drove these events.  It is impossible to frame this history as a racial rivalry of “Indians” versus “whites.”  To accomplish this impossibility, The Revenant twists all of these details into an entirely new configuration of the past.

During the 1820s race was still a new idea in Pawneeland.  The Pawnees had a long way to go before they would become full-fledged “Indians,” before they would completely absorb the tenets of racial identity systems.  But the obscure and elaborate and simple historical mechanisms of race… this topic is not the primary theme of The Revenant.  It really has to do with surviving an implacable narrative of social violence, a tale fraught with the mechanisms of war, vengeance, and slaughter.

In this movie, in this re-imagined Pawneeland, one must kill or be killed.  And so, even though the Pawnees come across as humanized in the film, and even though this happens in a way that we haven’t seen in other films, all the Pawnee characters get murdered and massacred.  That is, with the exception of one ghostly starving woman who survives, maybe.

Tonight I’m glad this film won a few awards.  I’m glad for Pawneeland.  I’m pleased to find a film contemplating a version of that world.  It does matter when historical narratives get rewritten to suit film-narratives, but it is true enough that the complexities of history are sometimes not as real as the appeal of pseudo-history.  Tonight, I suppose, feeling pleased that a film with Pawneeland at its heart has won Oscars for cinematography, best director, and best actor, perhaps it could be argued that not everything that is important in our storytelling is necessarily real.  Not really.

When Elmer Echo Hawk Ran Away

Elmer Echo Hawk in the spring of 1918

Elmer Echo Hawk in the spring of 1918

Between 1880 and 1920 the first generation of Echo Hawk family members attended various race-based boarding schools in the United States.  Today we retain only random glimpses of what this experience meant in their lives.  But the social narratives that interpret the history of Indian boarding schools signify much in the contemporary practices of racial Indianhood.  Recounting tragic tales of Indian boarding schools, racial Indians want accountability for the wrongs of an assimilationist history, but they are really building public spaces for racial bonding.

This narrative is mythic; it is an origin story of pro-race pedagogy in the academic world.  Progressive white Americans of the late 19th century and early 20th century deployed race to encircle racial Indians as a group.  They then used the preferential ranking systems of racism to justify the imposition of their own value-driven notions of social engineering in Indian Country.  As a racially designated educational system, Indian boarding schools affirmed the defining status of race in Indian Country.

Race made life real in America.  Racial identity was not optional; it was inevitable.  For this reason, racial Indians responded to progressive white social engineering by embracing even tighter the clasp of race.  And race had a proven record of generating social power.  Perhaps this power could be useful to racial Indians in pro-race America.

Indians were expected to defer to the storytelling bestowed upon them by progressive white intellectuals.  But through the 20th century racial Indian storytelling about boarding schools took shape and gathered momentum.  These accounts questioned the social engineering devised by progressive whites – the thinking that built Indian boarding schools as a social project.  Pro-race Indian intellectuals took the empowering ingredients of racial bonding and crafted among themselves their own pro-race texts that justified an Indian racial bonding experience and validated the concurrent social polarization of race versus race in America.  Enjoined to embrace the American race project, racial Indian boarding school students set their feet upon many diverse paths in life.  But all these paths took them deep into the production of a pro-race narrative in the American social contract.

With the rise of racial Indian boarding schools, a ceaseless flowing of racial bonding reshaped public life and personal identity in racial Indian communities.  Racial bonding is useful as a practical source of social power when it establishes and exploits socially polarized racial oppositions.  But racial bonding always involves the escalation of rigidly polarized certainties about the nature of life and humanity, as well as a consequent diminishing of useful ambiguities about the nature of humankind.  In the history of race as an idea, the gathering of power through race always means that someone is about to get dehumanized.

Race was freely embraced throughout Indian Country.  It is also arguable that the promotion of race as a cultural system came at the expense of traditional lifeways, and that it is not coincidence that so many community cultural traditions withered among Indian tribes during this period.  Formal acts of white suppression of racial Indian lifeways were common in that time.  But Indians also made their own choices to selectively shape their lives and their cultural worlds.  Resenting the way race operated in their worlds, racial Indians nevertheless often made the choice to further the making of race.

The founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial Institute was Richard Henry Pratt.  Growing up in pro-race America during the mid-19th century, Pratt absorbed and completely accepted a dominant conception of race in his day.  This was the idea that the human universe of social circumstances could be sorted and ranked in comparative cultural terms.  Racial white people bestowed upon themselves a special status as inventers of superior “civilized” lifeways.  But they ranked the cultural productions of racial Indians as inferior, as “savage” lifeways.  Drawing from this view of culture, Pratt’s social project at Carlisle helped to perpetuate a stereotype of racial Indian cultures as primitive, trapped in an unsophisticated timeless stone-age past.  This portrayal lingers still in American society.

Pratt felt less amenable to a closely related major theme of raceology of the late 19th century.  This was the idea that inherent racial biological characteristics accounted for the human cultural spectrum, and that racial whites enjoyed biological advantages that racial Indians lacked.  In this model, racial Indians were a naturally doomed folk.  They were locked into inferior social circumstances, unable to ever escape their primitive savagery.  In the history of Anglo-American racialism, some practitioners of race-belief took this conception to mean that racial Indians could be categorized as subhuman or near subhuman, comparable to the Irish, ranked just above racial blacks.  Before Pratt’s birth in 1840, this interpretation of race helped to justify US Indian removal policies.

Pratt questioned this bioracial theory of human character.  His progressive view was that racial Indians had the intellectual and moral capacity to escape their impoverished cultural chains.  He set out to prove that racial Indians could usefully partake in the uplifting benefits of white civilization.  Founding Carlisle, Pratt successfully implemented a national education project to demonstrate that racial Indians were not intellectually limited by any biological imperative of racial inferiority.

Pratt’s agenda called for erasing racial Indian culture to facilitate assimilation into white America.  This pro-race project attracted wide support in American society because the Gilded Age idea of Americanization similarly promoted social conformity by calling for rigorous adherence to American mainstream culture for all immigrant groups.  This required acceptance of race as a belief system.  All would believe.  All would embrace the tenets of the American race project.

Pawnees of the early 19th century embraced race.  But this was necessarily a situational option of variable meaning – Pawnee identities remained centered on other non-racial social signifiers in the Pawnee world.  By the end of that century, however, belief in race was pervasive in Pawneeland.  Imported from Europe and the United States, race slowly became indigenous as pro-race Pawnee Indians became fully entangled in the American race project.

Race was not forced on the first generations of Pawnee boarding school students – their parents and grandparents handed down to them the basic tenets of racial Indianhood.  All the Pawnees of the late 19th century absorbed race from their new racial Indian neighbors in Oklahoma, from the rise of pan-Indian religious movements like the peyote religion, and from American boarding schools.  Racial Indianhood re-mythologized race and gave it a past, as if it had been invented in ancient times by Indian philosophers.  With this inheritance in hand, the first educated Pawnee Indians aimed at becoming literate in American culture, learning the narratives of racial identity that defined the American social contract.

Elmer Echo Hawk was a teenager when his father sent him to Carlisle Indian Industrial Institute.  There Elmer was a student from September 1907 to September 1910.  The sparse records of his performance in school indicate that he did well enough, with ratings of “good,” “very good,” and “excellent” in such categories as “Conduct” and “Scholarship.”  A story by Elmer, titled “The Horse and the Buffalo,” appeared in a 1908 school publication:

Pawnee Indian say that at night when the star are shining bright you can see two white lines cross the sky.  They say that is where the horse and buffalo had a race.  Indians say you can see lines which look like dust.  One line which buffalo made is shorter than the other one.  The shorter line was one made by buffalo and long one by the horse.  The horse beat the buffalo and that is why there are more horses than buffaloes.

The story is a variant of a Pawnee cosmogonical portrayal of the Milky Way and the mystery of human mortality.  Elmer’s mention of “two white lines” seems to reference the Pawnee name for the Milky Way.  It is notable that in this short text the word “Pawnee” appears once and the word “Indian” appears twice; by this time Elmer was a committed practitioner of race.  The story sounds like an ancient Pawnee tradition, but in moving from a meditation on life and death to a race between a horse and a buffalo, the story has been adapted to appeal to a racial Indian audience.

These sparse surviving records of Elmer’s life at Carlisle seem to point to a positive and constructive experience for Elmer at boarding school.  But school records also list Elmer as a “deserter” who “ran” in July 1909.  The details of this incident are not known.  It occurred during his annual summer “outing” when he stayed with a local household – in this case, a man named John Philips of Titusville, New Jersey.  So Elmer did not escape from Carlisle Institute; instead, he “deserted” from his assigned summer job.

After leaving Carlisle in September 1910, Elmer briefly worked as a tailor in Oklahoma City.  There he married Alice Jake on September 21, 1910.  Their first child was a daughter named Minnie, born July 29, 1911.  According to family tradition, the next year Elmer paid a man to build a house south of the town of Pawnee on several hundred acres of land, where he raised poultry and owned horses and farmed.

Elmer Echo Hawk household

In the summer of 1912 Elmer obtained a photograph of his new home and family and he sent it to Carlisle.  The photo shows Elmer, Alice, and Minnie, and another young man standing nearby – this was probably Elmer’s brother, George Echo Hawk, who was age 12 in the summer of 1912.  The accompanying letter is signed “Elmer Echohawk” (in 1924 and 1929 he signed his name as “Elmer Echo Hawk”).


The fact that Elmer took the time to send his school this photograph seems to indicate that he did not feel particularly resentful or bitter about his experiences at Carlisle.  Elmer passed down into family tradition just a few glimpses of his experiences at Carlisle.  Elmer’s wife, Alice Jake, also attended Carlisle – her oldest son told me in 1982, “She said that she enjoyed the East and its culture.”  There were surely some unpleasant experiences for both Elmer and Alice, but family tradition preserves very little, either good or bad, of those days.  The full narrative of their lives, as it was handed down to me, appears below.

Elmer Echo Hawk and Alice Jake Echo Hawk

Told by Owen Echo-Hawk Sr to Roger Echo-Hawk, January 2, 1982

My dad was born in 1892
and he went to Indian school here
in Pawnee
and he went to Carlisle
where he was a schoolmate
and friend of Jim Thorpe, the famous athlete.
Elmer himself
was one of the best ice-skaters at Carlisle.
He used to talk about an incident
where he and several of his friends
swam across the Susquehanna River
just having fun
and the white people marveled at the sight
because nobody had ever done that.

Elmer joined the US Army during World War One
a division or regiment
called the “Cactus” division, possibly the 101st
Texas division.  They would form up
in the shape of a cactus
and stick their bayonets out to look like thorns.
They were getting ready to go to Europe
when the war ended
and Elmer fell sick
as they were preparing to go
so he did get a pension.
During the lean years of the Depression
we lived on that pension.

Elmer also farmed his place
and he was a good farmer.
he was a good hustler
all the way through the Depression.
He was a gambler
and he would be gone and he would come back
with money.
He got thrown in jail for bootlegging.
He was a real hustler!

Elmer Echo Hawk

He was also mean
and he didn’t care much for white people.
He’d fight them at the drop of a hat.
One time in Pawnee
he whipped the city marshal.
Elmer said to him: “I can whip you
if you take off that star.”
The guy said, well okay
and he took off his star
and dad whipped that marshal
causing him to lose his job or something.
Elmer used to get in fights quite often
with the city police force.
Whenever he started acting up
none of them would take him on alone
they would call for help.

An old lady used to live around here.
She saw Elmer fighting
in the courtyard with three policemen.
She told my mother, Alice,
and I was there
She saw him fighting
there in the courtyard.
They kept hitting him in the head with clubs
but they couldn’t knock him down
and he was knocking them down.  One of them
would come up behind
and hit Elmer on the head and he would turn
and go after him.  She said
Elmer about went crazy!
Foam even came out of his mouth.
They finally got him down
and hauled him off to jail.
The old lady told my mother,
“One thing about that family
the Echo Hawks
they are blessed by what we might call a ‘crazy wolf.’
Things like that you just can’t kill or subdue
very easily.  These people have that power.”

One time a man was visiting George Echo Hawk
here Out West,
and he said to George
“The thing about your brother, Elmer
was that he was fearless.”
The man told this story, he said

All of us Indian guys
were sitting on the chutes.
Some white guy came out there
about half-drunk, he said
“I got to whip me an Indian today.
I have to whip me an Indian.
It don’t make any difference
which one!”
So he went down the line of those guys
sitting there on the rails.
Elmer was last and he jumped down
and was waiting when the white man got there.
The man said,
“I’m going to whip me an Indian!”
Just as he said that
Elmer flew into him.
They rolled around & everything
and by the time it ended
your brother was up
& the white guy was crawling off
with Elmer kicking him
in the butt & ribs
and the guy was hurrying to crawl
into the chutes where they kept the horses.
All the other white guys
were yelling at the man: “Go ahead
get yourself an Indian!  Whip him!  There he is!”

Elmer was a pretty rugged character
until the last ten years
of his life.
He went to Arkansas City and the doctors
told him he had Bright’s Disease
or something like that
a terminal illness.
They told him to go home and die.

There used to be an old man around here
Old Man White Owl.
White Owl told me
he watched Elmer go around
trying to get well.
White Owl finally went up to Elmer and said
“Now you’ve tried everything.
I want you to follow me
and see what we can do for you.”
So Elmer became a peyote man.
He quit drinking and didn’t
run around anymore and raise hell.
He became a good beadworker
after he settled down.

When Elmer died in 1942
he had the name “Big Crow,” the name
I now have: “Kaka Rarihuru” or “The Big Crow.”
He took that name
after my grandpa Echo Hawk died.
He took it
because he was the oldest son.
The old people say
it is a respected name in the tribe.
Before that Elmer had another name
right after he got married
his name was “Siriritawi”
which means “They All Know Him.”
And when Elmer was younger
his name was “Tawihisi”
or Head of the Group.
I remember my mother had some relatives, old ladies
and they used to call him by that name.
I wondered about it.
So I asked them and they said
“Well, that was Elmer’s name
when he was younger
about 18.”

My mother was Alice Jake.
She was from Pitahawirata, East Band.
She had a lot of relatives out there
but only one close relative, a sister.
When this sister died
she was married
to Henry Shooter.
None of her descendants are living today.
My mother was the younger sister
and she took it pretty hard
when her sister died.  According to the old ways
women showed they were in mourning
by cutting a patch of hair short
where a man’s scalplock would be.
If you saw a woman
with a circular patch like that in her hair
you knew not to joke with them or talk to them.
Alice did that when her sister died.

Alice’s mother had died when she was just a little girl
and she was raised by older relatives.
She also attended Carlisle
and finished 8th grade
which was equivalent
to our high school.
She stayed with a Dutch family
for a couple summers
in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
When I was growing up
my mother used to write letters to one of her teachers.
Alice was well-versed in New England poetry:
Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, Whitman.
She said that she enjoyed the East and its culture.

My mother also respected the Pawnee way of living.
During the winters
she used to tell stories
about the women’s side
of tribal life.
I remember she told about Old Lady High Eagle
and her Pawnee pottery.
Immediately after High Eagle died
someone went down into their cellar
and stole their pottery.
This pottery had been made in Nebraska
long before
and her family had brought it down from there.
When it was stolen
the old lady suspected some white people.

Alice was a pious woman.
She could quote the Bible
at length.  In the spring
when she planted her garden
she would offer a prayer
for every seed.  When the first fruits appeared
she would take us out
and go around and pray and bless
each one of us – especially when the corn came up.

She had a lot of patience.
I don’t understand how she managed
to get along with my father
but she always said
he was a good provider.
Sometime around 1930
she died of pneumonia
still young.

I was born June 26, 1914
Crip, July 17, 1917;
Delray, May 1, 1920
Brummett was the youngest,
March 1, 1923.
My mother said she had a child
before me
a girl who died in infancy.

Elmer Echo Hawk household, summer 1912

Elmer Echo Hawk household, summer 1912

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)