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

moonmagic

The Ghosts of History Past

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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.

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.

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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