The Ghosts of History Past

RevenantRedCloud

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”).

ElmerEchohawk_1912_Letter

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.
Actually
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
listening.
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)

War and Love and the Cosmology of Race

At the September 6 meeting of a Tolkien discussion society in Colorado there was much talk about the nature of love.  One member started it off with a reading of a passage on the reunion of Samwise Gamgee and Bill the pony.  This sparked a lively conversation on how love takes shape in life.  The details of our lives matter, the way those details fit into our shared stories.  Listening that evening, I suddenly felt sad.  Will this matter to the future?  Will there come a time when what happened here no longer matters in this part of Middle-earth?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that love is a complicated thing in the world.  In the previous week I had been thinking about race and intermarriage – intermarriage between enemy communities.  Now, listening to the talk in our meeting, I wondered: can the bonding processes of race help some of us to transcend our most brutal battlefields?  If race can help with the outcomes of love and marriage, can it be a beautiful shining thing in the world?

I guess I don’t see the social artifacts of race as ever really benign.  Race isn’t the kind of cultural factory that makes beautiful shining things in the world.  It more readily warps both selfhood and society.  And race doesn’t mind rewriting history – it has a past that it simply made up to justify its hopes for a racial future.  And since race ceaselessly creates the foundation for the hatreds of racism, I want to do something other than race in my life.

But it seems useful to test my sense of certainty on this point.  Can love and warm communion happen via race?  Despite the fact that racism is inherent to race, and despite the fact that racial identity is a form of bonding designed to identify and exclude people who fall into all those “other” categories, can we say that we are summoning forth the highest aspirations of race when it helps people to fall in love?  Can people put the dreadful machinery of race to work doing something other than producing the polarized resentments of race?

To map the interior terrain of this inner world, it seems useful to explore two very different accounts of love and marriage in Pawnee history.  One is a war story; the other has to do with transcending the legacy of war.

There is a Skidi Pawnee tradition I have often pondered, called “Black and White (A Love Story).”  The Skidi Pawnee scholar James R. Murie narrated this story and it was written down sometime around 1903 and published the next year, but it was a story told to him by “a young Skidi” named Cheyenne Chief.  I suspect that it was a family story, and that it memorializes an incident involving the Cheyenne people long ago.  This is my guess, based on the Pawnee name of the storyteller and the circumstances of the story.

The identity of Cheyenne Chief is unclear.  Murie said in 1904 that Cheyenne Chief’s father was Pipe Chief, “one of the leading Skidi priests and chiefs.”  A problem with this genealogy is that Pipe Chief had no son who was living at circa 1904.  The closest possible relative that might fit this description was a Skidi named William Samuel Allen, whose father had married Pipe Chief’s daughter, May, during the 1890s.  Sam Allen would have been in his twenties in 1904, which would fit the description of Cheyenne Chief as “a young Skidi.”  If Sam Allen was Cheyenne Chief, it is likely that the story came down to him from his father, David Allen, who was born about 1851 – a good age to have been a son of Black, the main protagonist of the story.

Cheyenne Chief’s story seems to describe events that occurred during the late 1830s, when tradition says that the Skidi resided for a time on the Flat River.  Two youths named White and Black became close.  Black was the son of a “soldier” named Mad Bull who acted as the “policeman” for the leader of one Skidi band.  White was the son of the leader.  One day in Pawneeland these youths and their girlfriends joined with a war expedition led by older relatives.

Things didn’t go very well when they encountered the enemy.  Black vanished.  The other Pawnees thought he’d been killed.  When his girlfriend went to find his body she found that he had been captured.  She followed the enemy to their “permanent village in the mountains.”  Lingering there, she discovered that one enemy family was led by a woman who had been captured in her youth – a Pawnee captive!  It turned out that this captive woman’s father had been the older brother of Black’s father, Mad Bull.  The captive Pawnee woman helped Black to escape with his girlfriend.

There are many kinds of love at work in this story.  For Black and his girlfriend, and for the unnamed older Pawnee captive, the forms of human connection that we call “love” unfolded in a time of war.  The Skidi raided enemies and these enemies raided them back.  If my surmise is correct – that this tale happened during the late 1830s between the Cheyennes and the Skidi – then the captive Pawnee woman surely had complicated feelings.  She said to Black’s girlfriend, “My father was killed when I was captured.”  She loved her children and her husband’s relatives, but she never forgot her Pawnee relatives and her father, slain by her husband’s people.

Pawnee war expeditions most often looked to the southwest of Pawneeland, with the capture of horses as a priority.  Women did not usually accompany these military parties, which makes the story of Black unusual.  Pawnee listeners would have understood what happened with the Pawnee captive and her slain father – they were the victims of an enemy raid on a Skidi city or hunting camp.

The Cheyenne were close allies of the Sioux.  During the 18th century they moved into the western periphery of Pawneeland and took control of the High Plains.  The Rocky Mountains – a Pawnee name – was an ancient homeland of groups that became ancestral to the Pawnee and Arikara.  So the Rockies served as the westernmost boundary of Pawneeland until the coming of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux.  Perhaps for this reason, raiding and open war usually set the terms of relationships between this alliance and the Pawnees by the opening of the 19th century.  But not always; there were visits, some trade occurred.  Marriages could happen, though such marriages most commonly involved captives rather than lovers.

But something new entered this world.  The bonding processes of racial Indianhood arose in the battlegrounds of the Central Plains.  In Pawneeland during the mid-19th century, racial identity systems grew in power as interaction with Americans accelerated.  For the Pawnees and neighboring resident nations of the region, racial Indianhood received increasing affirmation as a mode of selfhood and social identity.  There was war among these racial Indians, but race planted the idea of a shared group identity.

Thinking back to see the nature of racial Indianhood in the mid-1800s, I presume that the memory of race as we know it today is less historical and more cosmogonical in nature.  A mythologized memoir of the past emerged as a byproduct of the power of racial bonding processes.  Race rewrote the past.  The stories that people told over time got rewritten as the mythic origin story of race gained momentum.  This racial version of history favored the idea that the Pawnees and their enemies of the mid-19th century saw themselves as racial Indians and all Indians suffered and endured white racism in exactly the same way.

But I have the idea that the realities of warfare among neighboring adherents to racial Indianhood gave this process very significant nuances that have been forgotten.  During that period the Pawnees accepted race, but they also resisted invasion and conquest by enemies who were also in the midst of absorbing the idea of being Indian – the Sioux and their allies.  The captive Pawnee woman in the story of Black and White felt complicated allegiances, but it doesn’t seem very likely that racial identity wielded the power that it did for later generations.

At its most immediate and intimate level, both race and war shaped the experience of individuals and their families in Pawneeland.  And Pawnees born in this period grew up with race, but the idea of bonding with other Indians was problematic at its very core.  The war with the Sioux and their allies made ambiguity a central reality of racial identity; warfare ensured that Pawnees saw the group identity system of race as a very complicated truth.  Subsequent racial storytelling vanquished this central reality into a peripheral sliver of truth.

So when the Pawnees left their ancient homeland for the Southern Plains during the 1870s, they took this legacy with them into the south.  There they met the Cheyennes again.  In the years that followed Pawnee removal, the complications of the story of race gave way slowly before the bonding impulses of racial identity.

And among the Pawnees in those days there was a Skidi man who fought against the enemies of the Pawnee people.  Seeing Eagle was born during the late 1830s, perhaps in 1837, just about the time of the tale of Black and White.  He served in a military unit known as the Pawnee Scouts.  And he saw service against the Sioux and Cheyenne.

In 2011 I heard from a woman named Grace Slaughter.  She was doing research on her family history.  She told me that Seeing Eagle had a younger brother, and this man had a daughter named Nannie Aspenall – Grace’s great-grandmother.  Nannie married a Cheyenne man named Richard Davis, and their first two children became enrolled among the Cheyenne, but their other four children became Pawnee citizens.

Nannie was not a captive among the Cheyennes.  She was born between 1864 and 1868, and sometime during the 1880s she married Richard Davis of her own free will.  I can guess that this was not an easy thing to do.  The Pawnees and Cheyennes had much resentment in those days.  But these two fell in love and they had a family and maybe they cared what other people thought.  And maybe not.

Surely for them love was complicated.  It made their world complicated.  But perhaps the power of racial bonding helped them in some way.  Nannie and Richard came from communities that had a long history of conflict, but when they looked at each other they saw Indians.  They shared the idea of being racial Indians in racial America.

This is the tradition Richard and Nannie Davis passed on to their children, Cheyenne and Pawnee: their children would grow up to become Indians.  They would go out into the world and they would meet many kinds of people and they would do race – everyone would do race together.  And maybe race would help them to love certain people.  And maybe race would make them feel suspicious of certain people.  Whatever happened, it was complicated, I’m sure.

NannieAspenallDavis

Nannie Aspenall Davis

And many years after Richard and Nannie Davis died and all their Cheyenne and Pawnee children died, I came across some information that seemed to pertain to their lives.  Looking one day at The Guthrie Daily Leader of Guthrie, Oklahoma, I found three articles published in 1902, 1905, and 1906.  These mention Cheyenne visits to Pawneeland.  Thinking that the Davis family must have played a role in facilitating these visits, I read the articles with great interest.  Here is an excerpt from the 1905 article:

Pawnee, Okla., Aug. 21.  The Dog Soldier band of the Cheyenne Indian tribe, from Western Oklahoma, has been visiting the Skeedee band of the Pawnees.  The Cheyennes, to the number of 300, came to recover two sacred arrows captured from them by the Pawnees many years ago, and this visit was the first time the two bands had met in friendly council since the time when both were on the warpath.  The Pawnees entertained the Cheyennes at a war dance, and gave them many presents, including ponies, blankets, calico and provisions, but would not relinquish the sacred arrows.  The Cheyennes performed what they called the lightning dance.

The two sacred arrows… were captured from the Cheyennes in a battle on Platte river, Nebraska, about sixty years ago.  A Pawnee who had previously been crippled and who preferred death to the suffering caused by his wounds, had stationed himself far in advance of the other Pawnees, in a clump of bushes.  As he was picking off a great many Cheyennes with his arrows, they saw that it was necessary to dislodge him.

Accordingly a bunch of Cheyenne warriors on horseback made a dash for the clump of bushes, their sacred arrow keeper in the lead.  He had the arrows, four in number, fastened to a long spear, and as he struck at the Pawnee, the crippled man dodged to one side and grasped the spear, wresting it from the Cheyenne’s hand.  Almost simultaneously with the charge of the Cheyennes, a few Pawnees in the rear, seeing the danger of their crippled brave, rushed to his assistance.  The Cheyennes were thus routed before they could regain their sacred arrows.

About ten years later the Cheyennes recovered two of their sacred arrows by giving the Pawnees 200 ponies.  In their negotiations here, the Cheyennes were unable to convince the Pawnees that the two arrows still in the latter’s possession should be surrendered at this time.  The Pawnees said that if the Dog Soldier Cheyennes should prove worthy friends of the Skeedee band after the intended visit of the Pawnees to the Cheyennes next summer, the Pawnees may listen to a proposal from the Cheyennes.  At this time the Cheyennes must be satisfied with the presents they have received.

People want to find ways to connect in the world.  To create those connections, we experiment with the spectrum of cultural possibilities that define our societies.  We look for options throughout our lives, deciding what we wish to do together, what things we love.  Some options serve better than others.  It makes sense to think that the bond of race helped Nannie Aspenall and Richard Davis to find love.  I would guess, for example, that race brought them together in some far-off boarding school for Indians, and perhaps race helped them to look beyond traditional enmities.  But to rely on racial bonding to explain their union would be to ignore how warm human communion is capable of transcending even the sternest laws of human culture, bringing together people who love each other.

Bonding through race is still popular in some circles of American life.  Racialists believe that race has the power to manufacture love, even though it is their own hearts that wish for love; it is not race.  Race makes racism, suspicion, resentment.  The master narratives of race call for social justice, but such calls always demand racial forms of justice.  Race wants us to cast more race upon our fertile social soils.  Race demands that we create boundaries; it would segregate humanity.  When it claims to bring us all together, it is lying.  It is our natural impulse to bond, to seek connection which brings us together, and in so doing, we often find ourselves overcoming laws like the forbidding laws of race.

For an ever increasing number of people in the world, the option of race really is optional, a cultural choice.  But for practicing American racialists, belief in race as biology ensures that race-based preferences will continue to shape certain structures of group identity.  Although race is inherently segregationist in character, race-based bonds can sometimes serve as a means of overcoming even more dire forms of confrontational polarization.  The rift of war is one such divide.

In Pawnee and Cheyenne history, the marriage of Nannie Aspenall and Richard Davis had to transcend a bitter legacy.  The bond of race surely played a role in this story.  But I would guess that this role was secondary to the natural passions of young hearts that meet in the world.  It is our hearts that wish to stand close, to talk, to whisper, to set forth together to find all the subtle nuances and aspirations of love – and this happens no matter what else might be happening in the rest of the world.

Listening to the storytelling in the ever-changing Hall of Fire, the vanished tales of that world, I often think of the fact that our storytelling happens in a land that has forgotten the past.  This realm is today associated with an invading alliance rather than with the folk who preceded them and dwelt here for hundreds or even thousands of years – my ancestors.  Those long ago folk have been forgotten.  My own people do not know them anymore.

There is an ancient ocean that once washed up against this part of the world.  The echoes of that ancient surf vanished long before even my ancestors lived here.  And all the stories of their lives have vanished like those waters; when I am gone, no one will remember the past.  But right now, right here, I hear the stories of what it means to be human, and I know that history does matter, and I know that what happens in our lives does matter.

TaleFireArtRoger