What the Silver Bells Say

A few days ago on Facebook Roger Welsch posted a link to a New York Times article that had some interesting stuff on things Pawnee.  Roger is a much-loved ethnic Pawnee who long ago put his reputation on the line by supporting the Pawnees when it wasn’t a very popular thing to do.  And he is respected among his fellow Pawnees for other reasons – as those who read the NYT article will discover.

The article is a travelogue written by a New Yorker named Tony Perrottet.  At one point Tony discusses an incident in 1872 when an American named George Bird Grinnell found himself in Pawneeland.  Perrottet shares Grinnell’s observations of a Pawnee buffalo hunt:  “It began as a brilliant parade, led by eight warriors, ‘their saddles glittering with silver ornaments,’ Grinnell wrote, ‘and their bridles tinkling with little bells.'”

I pictured this scene for a few days and decided that it meant something interesting.  Here were eight Pawnees in 1872 on horseback holding reins “tinkling with little bells.”  They considered themselves to be Pawnees.  No one had any doubts about that.  In fact, when most people picture Pawnees today, the image of these eight Pawnees might well be looming somewhere in the background.

They rode horses that came from Europe; they decorated their horses with bells that dimly echoed distant American and European factories.  They might have been wearing beads from Czechoslovakia and cotton woven in Britain, and they could have mounted up soon after finishing their coffee from the Middle East, sweetened with sugar from some Caribbean island.  They thought of themselves as “Indians” – an idea born in the intellectual factories of Europe and America and imported into Pawneeland.

These were eight quintessential Pawnees.  In the year 1872 in the Pawnee homeland, when these men mounted their horses, the reins made pretty sounds in their hands.  Grinnell sat on his horse nearby.  He was a sharp observer of his times, but he didn’t seem to know what he had just seen.  Because looking at these Pawnees, his gaze had just fallen upon the whole world.

I think many mysterious qualities help to make us who we are.  We can offer useful specific comments about things that seem unique in our language, religion, ideology, and lifeways – it is appropriate to distinguish ourselves culturally from the other people around us.  But we are connected, too.  To everyone around us.  We make such connections when we exchange ideas about selfhood and identity.  We might say we are Pawnees, but this can mean many things.

Each of those eight Pawnees in 1872 saw themselves as individuals caught up in a communal story – the story of being Pawnee in a complex world.  They made choices about what they liked, what they enjoyed.  They carefully crafted their personal and social identities.  Being Pawnee meant something to them that seemed very specific, I’m sure, but there were also less definable qualities that shaped this story.

So when we visit Pawneeland, it is a place in the mind.  We encounter a complicated and somewhat mysterious story that constantly unfolds its secrets to all who care.  This is what the silver bells say to us.

Silver bells

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