Under the Sun and Moon, In Silver and Gold

After Pipe Chief came of age, inspired by his friend Spotted Horse, he endured the ordeal of initiation into his chosen fraternal society.   “I was of those who looked at the Sun and the Moon,” he said, telling the story to George Bird Grinnell one night long ago in Pawneeland.  He soon joined a raiding expedition led by Spotted Horse.  They traveled up the Flat River and down the south fork to the foothills of the Distant Rocks in a Line.  There they found the Sáhi, and they captured 300 horses.

Pipe Chief was born about 1836, so this memorable event in his youth probably happened during the 1850s.  He eventually became a priest and leader among the Skidi.  A man who went by that name appeared in several photos taken around 1870.  I don’t know if he was this particular Pipe Chief since versions of that name were held by different men.  But I have lately become aware of a photo that can be identified with more certainty as Pipe Chief.  It was taken just a couple years after he told the story of his youth to Grinnell.

It is not certain what year William Prettyman and his apprentice George Cornish took the photo.  Most descriptions of the photo say 1889.  But this is too early.  Internal evidence tells us that it was more likely taken in late 1890 or early 1891.  The scene shows an open tipi with seven people inside.  Four women sit on the ground; two men have seats of some kind; a young child stands in front of one of the men.

Pipe Chief Family 1891

In 1891 Prettyman apparently sent a print of this tipi portrait with several others to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions at Marquette University.  It bore a caption: “Tepee Indian Summer House.”  If this accession information is accurate, it frames the latest possible date for the image as 1891.

The print entered the collections in company with another photo taken during the same period.  This second photo showed four women and two children in a camp.  There is a tipi and a tent and a caption: “Pawnee Indians, Located 70 Miles South of Arkansas City.”   Three of the women and one of the children can also be seen in the other photo, the tipi portrait.  In 1895 the camp scene was published in a book by George Bird Grinnell, The Story of the Indian, captioned as “Pawnee woman dressing a hide.”

Skidi Camp 1891

The tipi portrait can be found on the website for the Oklahoma Historical Society where it is identified as a photo taken in 1889 by Prettyman and Cornish, showing Pawnees in a tipi with Baptiste Bayhylle.  Studying a magnified version of the image, an old man can indeed be made out, partially obscured by a tipi pole – he does look like Baptiste Bayhylle.  A child stands in front of his knees.  One of the women is peering over at them.

Then I found the same two photos on the website of an auction house.  Cowan’s Auctions offered for sale an albumen print of the tipi portrait photo, and this print featured a handwritten caption, “Pipe Chief & family” with the date “1889” written in another hand.  Another note appeared in pencil, perhaps in the same hand as the 1889 date: “Ben Gover and mother at left of Pipe Chief.”

The writing is faint.  We have no indication of who wrote this information or when it was set down.  Prettyman and Cornish made prints from their plates.  In this case they used the albumen process to create the images that ended up in the hands of the Cowan auctioneers – the process used silver nitrate; gold was used for toning.  These Cowan versions both come with interesting caption information.

The image showing a camp scene with four women and two children has a pencil inscription on the verso: “Mrs. Lizzie Leading Fox; & mother Mrs. Sky Seeing [with a Cowan note stating she is using “an implement of elk antler with a steel blade to chip the dried cow hide to an even thickness…”]; Mrs. Clora Gover Yellow Horse and Ben Gover; and Harry Coon’s aunt.”  There are also two pencil inscriptions on the recto margin: “Harry Coons” and “Mose Yellow Horse” with an arrow pointing toward “Clora” and “Harry Coon’s aunt.”

This information is interesting and puzzling.  Clara has been identified by some as the mother of Mose Yellow Horse, though she might have been his stepmother.  But since he was born about 1897, he was not the infant child in the photo.  Someone wrote his name on the print after that date, well after the photo was taken.  The unnamed woman, “Harry Coon’s aunt,” appeared in both photos.

Harry Coons Jr was born about 1895, the son of Harry Coons and Belle Coons, and Belle had a sister named Stah-kah Coons.  Stah-kah was the first wife of Harry Coons and she could be the unnamed aunt – she was in fact the aunt of Harry Coons Jr.  But the only information I have about her is a vague report that she died about 1887.  If we discount this vague information and theorize that she was still alive in 1890-1891, then Stah-kah Coons could be the aunt in question.

Leading Fox Earthlodge

The Leading Fox earthlodge, with Lizzie and daughter Mattie

So the camp scene includes Lizzie Leading Fox, Kate Sky Seeing, Clara Ricketts and Ben Gover, and maybe Stah-kah Coons with an infant – perhaps Lizzie’s daughter Mattie.  And the tipi portrait includes Baptiste Bayhylle, seated with Ben Gover at his knees; Kate Sky Seeing, seated behind Bayhylle; Susie Lockley Pipe Chief Garcia, sitting beside Kate; Susie’s husband Pipe Chief, wearing his medallion; Clara Gover Ricketts Yellow Horse, sitting on the ground to his left (she is the mother of Ben Gover); and the final person might be the aunt of Harry Coons Jr, Stah-kah Coons.

These two gatherings of Skidis occurred sometime in 1890-1891.  Bayhylle was then about age 60 – we can guess that he was on hand to help interpret for Prettyman and Cornish.   Kate Sky Seeing was about age 48 in 1892, married to a Skidi named Osage Sky Seeing.  In 1891 Clara Ricketts had just been married to one of the Govers and had a son named Ben.  “Ricketts” might have been her maiden name – at least, she went by that name at the time the photo was taken.  She next took up with Thomas Yellow Horse.  They raised a son named Mose who went on to become a famous baseball player.  The mysterious aunt of Harry Coons… if the woman is Stah-kah Coons, we know that she died very soon after the two photos were taken.  Susie Lockley was born about 1861 and she became the fifth wife of Pipe Chief.  They had a daughter named Nellie who married Frank Murie and then John Jake.  Pipe Chief died in 1898, and by 1914 Susie had become Susie Garcia.  All this happened in Pawneeland.

Pipe Chief was a ceremonialist.  James R. Murie wrote down an account of the Skidi New Fire Ceremony, mentioning Pipe Chief and his friend Spotted Horse.  It is a detailed memoir of a ceremony that might have been held last during the early 1870s.  In the course of the preliminary sequence of activities, Pipe Chief conducted a smudge of some sacred objects, an offering of “sweet-smelling smoke to Tirawahat.”  He finished that rite and then he “passed his hands through the smoke and down his body and returned to his place.”  He sat down as the offerings continued, the preparations for the New Fire Ceremony in Pawneeland.

And during the fall the Skidis left their earthlodge city and set up their tipis and they hunted.  And in the spring in their earthlodge city, after the distribution of seeds, after the doctor dances, then would follow the New Fire Ceremony.  The Skidis would offer gifts to the stars; gifts to the sun and moon.  They would enact the creation of life in the world.  And if they wished, they would take new names.  All of these things happened long ago in Pawneeland.


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.

The Ghost in the Glass


I saw The Revenant yesterday.  My overall impression… I guess it was as if I had visited the ancestral world that would eventually give rise to the world of Mad Max.  Fur-clad protagonists who wallow in the churning machinery of savagery will surely give birth to futuristic protagonists wallowing in the slow-motion disintegrating machinery of slaughter.  The Revenant and Mad Max imagine very similar worlds.  A brute grotesque vision of humankind.  Dark dystopian fantasies.  Parched outbacks and snowbound mountains provide the mythic vistas that generate one epic downfall after another.  The savage people.  The savage animals.  The savage guns and gears.  We find ourselves cast into sand storms, furiously gritty, and into rivers, furiously frigid.  But we who enter such realms… we must endure scene after scene until the end comes for us all at last.  When you leave this kind of theater, don’t bother looking back to ponder the bloody footprints at your heels.

But The Revenant was nice, in a way.  It was wonderful to see cinematic Pawnees who were not murderous, who were not bent on terrorizing the innocent.  Hugh Glass is given a sweet Pawnee wife – an anonymous dreamlike Mrs. Glass who floats in & out of the movie.  Hugh misses her.  It is terribly sad, the way she was murdered by unhistorical soldiers who senselessly savage a Pawnee city in an unhistorical massacre – it never happened in actual history, but it is a moment that fits seamlessly into our preferred pro-race mythmaking.  And they have a son.  “Hawk” is quite a well-chosen name – very common for Pawnee boys of that time.  Hawk loves his father.  He is loyal and caring and a little sad.  He is so easily murdered in this dark fairytale.


Grace Dove as Mrs. Glass

Such humanized Pawnees are strangely absent from cinema.  Not long ago I noticed a few Pawnees in The Homesman, a 2014 film by Tommy Lee Jones.  When those Pawnees ride into the movie, the homesman grabs all his weaponry.  He wisely hands a gun to the woman he’s traveling with, and he counsels her to blow her own brains out if he doesn’t survive the coming desperate negotiations.  To fall into Pawnee hands… too horrible!  And I haven’t even mentioned the nightmarish Pawnees of Dances with Wolves.

I long ago read a book by John Myers Myers about Hugh Glass and I always felt suspicious of his colorful tale – the part about Hugh Glass living among the Skidi Pawnees.  That particular twist was based on notes made from interviews with a fur trade employee named George Yount.  Seventy-some years later those interview notes were gathered, edited, and published, and I have no idea how those filters affected the story told by Yount.  But the way the account framed Pawneeland has always felt to me like artifice warped for dramatic effect, not like history.

Perhaps Glass knew the Pawnees.  The fur trade was very active in Pawneeland for decades before 1825.  American fur trade corporations centered in St. Louis typically sent expeditions to Pawneeland to set up shop in the different cities.  The association of Glass with the Skidi Pawnees was just a speculative interpretation of the Yount tale – a hyperventilated twist introduced by Myers.  I don’t see how it is trustworthy in any way.  The Yount / Myers tale has Glass as a prisoner who wins his way into the hearts of the Pawnees.  But by the time Glass happened onto the scene, it wasn’t like he could have been held in a secret Pawnee prison for months or years.  Pawneeland wasn’t really a realm that teetered at the mysterious edge of everything else.  It was instead a close-knit alliance of four Pawnee sovereignties that had long before become interlocked in the global patterns of commerce and politics and intermarriage.

It is a shame that The Revenant makes us believe in its exquisitely detailed version of the past, its compelling Mad Maximum narrative truths, the frenzied whiplash thrills of maybe having to chop off a few fingers for good wholesome reasons, the next vastly defining moment of blood lost forever in endless snow.  Despite all this gruesome drama, we are somehow wafted into a haunting world.  And this is the first movie that has ever happened in my lifetime that shows Pawnees as people… And yet, well, it seems a shame.  I find myself wondering… will I ever want to visit that version of the world again?


Forrest Goodluck as Hawk


In the Mythcon Hall of Fire

Hotel Elegante

In my 2013 book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I shared with everyone a strange realization.  I argued that scattered details in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium originated from Skidi Pawnee mythology.  This insight soon led me down another path – I wondered about Tolkien’s attitudes and notions concerning what he termed “Red Indians.”  Eventually I began to investigate the fact that he drew on the traditions of race to colorize his orcs for The Lord of the Rings.

With such thoughts in mind, at moonrise on the last day of July 2015, I set forth for a certain city in the south.  A giant blue moon stood sprinkling silver light down on the eastern horizon.  Arriving late that night, I soon found myself wandering among Gormenghast-like corridors in a sprawling hotel complex.  Here at the edge of the ancient realm of the Pawnees, at the feet of the Mountain That Touches the Sky, the folk of the Mythopoeic Society were gathering for Mythcon 46.

MythCon Aspen RoomThe next day, Saturday afternoon, I read my paper on Tolkien’s racialized orcs.  The Mythcon organizers gave me a small meeting room that overlooked green treetops and a swimming pool full of the dim cries of splashing children.  Twenty or so people attended my session.  They had to forego the other two sessions – a panel on “Reclaiming Tolkien’s Women for the 21st Century,” and a paper by Peter Oas on the making of Galadriel.

The panel emerged from the publication this year of Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan.  This collection of essays was prepared “to remedy perceptions that Tolkien’s works are bereft of female characters, are colored by anti-feminist tendencies, and have yielded little serious academic work on women’s issues.”  I wish this volume had included some detailed consideration of a long letter Tolkien wrote in 1941 on women, sex, and marriage, but the essays shed much interesting light on the women characters in The Lord of the Rings, and I’m sure that the session was enlightening.

I have the impression that the Mythopoeic Society sees itself as a companionable participant in the social agenda of the Tolkien Society – a dedication to “promoting the life and works of JRR Tolkien.”  Pondering Mythcon, the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society, I sense a culture of amiable shared values.  One important shared value has to do with the bonding experience of defending Tolkien and Middle-earth fandom from unwarranted negative criticism.

Given the nature of my paper, I didn’t necessarily think it would be welcome at Mythcon.  In the vast field of Tolkien scholarship, not much deep thinking has materialized on Tolkien’s use of a racial stereotype in modeling his orcs.  This topic has been widely acknowledged.  But much of the commentary I have seen strikes me as shallow and dismissive.MythCon Sessions

The racialization of Tolkien’s Mongol-type orcs stands in apparent contrast with his well-known hatred of racism.  Most commenters seem to think it is impossible to reconcile these polarities, and so it is common for Tolkienists to embrace Tolkien the hater of racism.  My research shows that he sided with his academic peers on race, but he also accepted mainstream British attitudes on race.  The friendly folk who attended my talk seemed plenty energized by what I said, and they were delighted to share their own thoughts.

Kris Swank appeared at my session.  And the first thing she said was that she had attended a marvelous presentation on race that morning.  “If they come here, I’ll introduce you!”  Stephanie Brownell and Sara Rivera very much wanted to attend the main event next door, the panel on Tolkien and women.  But they decided to hear my paper instead.  That morning they had given a paper on race, “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Their program abstract sounds fascinating.  It considers the mythologizing of Middle-earth in the Dominican Republic – the equating of “the despotic Trujillo with Middle-earth’s dark lord…”  And they suggest that mythopoeic literature “has unique potential to create new dialogues bringing minority characters ‘out of Far Harad’ and into the center of narrative and discourse.”  I wish I had attended.  Chatting with them, they said my paper and their paper overlapped in pondering the making of race during the early 20th century.  As we talked, we touched on the groundbreaking research of Dimitra Fimi and Margaret Sinex.

The mention in the Brownell / Rivera abstract of Far Harad is a reference to the sole explicit appearance of racial black people in Tolkien’s novels – a battlefield listing of “black men like half-trolls…”  In my talk I asserted that Tolkien’s black orcs in The Lord of the Rings owe a likely debt to British Edwardian era anthropological reports on the Malay Peninsula.  But as with Mongol-type orcs, the monstrous black folk from Far Harad most often attract a defensive and dismissive tone in the Tolkien community.

I took a blurry photo of Kris Swank giving her paper, “Black in Camelot: Racial Diversity in Historical England and Arthurian Legend.”  She introduced us to various characters identified as “Moors” and “Saracens” in medieval Arthurian literature.  And she surveyed racially identified Arthurian characters in contemporary television and film.  It was a nice introduction to an interesting topic, set forth with wise insights and charming quips.  Coming on the heels of my serious hour, it was great to laugh a little.

Kris SwankI visited with Kris a bit.  She said, “Say hello to everyone at Grey Havens for me!”  And she said she plans to continue developing her research on race.  It will be interesting to know more about the chaotic pre-racial notions of human diversity that ultimately gave rise to the racial social order that so many people today prize so much.  When Kris began her paper, she took a moment to observe that something very special was happening at Mythcon.  Three papers on race.  She suggested that we need a bigger and more inclusive world in mythological studies.

As a newcomer to the doings of the Mythopoeic Society, I can’t speak with much insight about its status quo.  But in my years of encountering such things in various kinds of worlds, I know that the idea of a “status quo” is a cherished and complicated illusion.  The rush of history often washes away treasured boundaries that seem perfectly rigid.

Time may well bring more analysis on various aspects of Tolkien and race.  And Tolkien’s orcs certainly deserve critical study.  People worldwide appreciate Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and a good number self-identify as the modern heirs of old-fashioned racial Mongol-types.  This includes the Pawnees.  I don’t do race in my life, but most Pawnees treasure their racial identities and enact race frequently, and some of them are fans of Middle-earth.

Tolkien declared his rejection of race.  He saw it as a pernicious idea.  But he then went on to racialize his orcs anyway.  We should try to make sense of the fact that JRR Tolkien took various details from a pernicious racial typology to produce monstrous enemies for his heroic mythmaking.


Kris Swank took this photo as I read my paper

That Saturday afternoon, finishing my hour at Mythcon, I knew that no one would object if I stood observing the doings of the status quo in Tolkienland.  But I had done what I went there to do.  Feeling like a guest in the Mythcon house, I decided I had troubled the councils of the wise enough for one day.  I got in my car that afternoon.

Driving away under the lengthening shadows of the mountains, I much enjoyed how the sunset kept breaking free of the clouds, a gentle settling of golden rays among the foothills.  At the darkening edges of Denver, I watched a sudden rose-colored light bloom up from the distant peaks.  In the midst of all that magic, cruising in the far west of ancient Pawneeland, I decided that I did enjoy my visit to the Mountain That Touches the Sky.

August Sunset