Pawnee Creek

Pawnee Creek weaves a slender thread of water across a hot summerland.  In this corner of the arid Colorado High Plains, the world paused one day, and history uttered a tale of curious intersections and collisions.  A tale of human diversity.  A tale of segregated humankind.  And in Pawnee tradition… once upon a time Spider Woman helped the Skidi here; then she spread her legs on a hillside and she made Pawnee Creek.

In mid-September 2018 my wife and I traced on maps the route of Pawnee Creek across northeastern Colorado, and we set forth to visit the stream.  The final stretch of this waterway long ago gave way to modernity.  Where it adjourns into the Flat River, it becomes a modest irrigation ditch.  Just beyond a No Trespassing sign we found a herd of cattle browsing on a field of almost bare dirt.

Noticing a sidelong track, we soon discovered a hidden parking area – and Dune Ridge State Wildlife Area.  Hiking across a field to the shore of the Flat River, we stood among butterflies.  Migrant Monarchs daydreaming in the shade.  Peering down the stream I could see a scatter of trees where Pawnee Creek irrigates the shallows of the Flat River.

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The Flat River at the mouth of Pawnee Creek

One summer day almost two hundred years ago some American travelers paused in Pawneeland on the Many Wild Potatoes River.  At Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’, the Skidi metropolis, it was June 1820.  There the Long expedition enlisted several French-American guides – one was Joseph Bijeau, an American trader with French-Canadian ancestry, hired to serve as “guide and interpreter.”  He was fluent in French and English and Pawnee, and he “was partially acquainted with several Indian languages; in particular, that of the Crow nation, which is extensively understood by the western tribes…”

It is apparent that Bijeau had a son with a Skidi woman.  One Long expedition chronicler described the wives of the French-American traders in that city as wearing “moccasins, legings of red serge” and “Shoud [stroud] of blue cloth, a kind of short petticoat ornamented around the bottom with red or yellow binding – and a shirt of callico fringed round the neck & bosome of the same material.”  In those days calico became popular among the women in Pawneeland.  My great-grandfather’s grandmother was born in a Kitkahahki city sometime around 1800 and she became known as Cihiitu, Calico Woman.

On June 14 the Americans departed from Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’.  Over the next few days they stopped at various Pawnee campgrounds, then they arrived at a locale where they noticed two human skulls on the ground.  Edwin James said that the French-American guides didn’t know what had happened there.  But Captain John Bell heard that “Chayennes” had accosted a “Pawnee party” here and they had killed everyone except one survivor.  Thomas Say selected a skull and packed it up and the Americans carried it back to the United States.

On June 28 the Long expedition journeyed along the south side of the Flat River in the west of Pawneeland and they saw herds of wild horses, several rattlesnakes, a fox, a buffalo, a curious antelope – and that day they passed a stream “called by the Indians Bat-so-ah, or Cherry creek…”  The term is not Pawnee or French.  It is probably a Crow term, báachuua, meaning chokecherry.  We can guess that the name was supplied by Joseph Bijeau who was “partially acquainted” with Crow.  This moment arose at the edge of Pawneeland from a complicated cultural quilt.  An American expedition.  A French-American with French-Canadian ancestry.  A Skidi family.  Rumor of the wandering Crows.

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A view of Long’s Peak from Longmont, Colorado

Several days later this party saw far mountains “upon the luminous margin of the sky” and the Americans decided they were seeing “the point designated by Pike as the Highest Peak.”  Pike’s Peak.  But no.  This was a mountain farther north.  In time that mountain became known as Long’s Peak, named after Stephen Long, the leader of the American party.  The Americans continued on to Pike’s Peak.  And they journeyed onward through the Great Plains.

After they returned to the United States, the Pawnee skull picked up by Thomas Say made its way into the hands of Samuel Morton.  Morton studied the skull, and he wrote about it in his 1839 book, Crania Americana.  Generalizing about “The American Race” Morton came to the scientific conclusion that his collection of kidnapped skulls revealed an aversion “to cultivation” and a people “slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.”

In those days a ferment of racial ideas had already given rise to the primary formal tenets of racial Indianhood – ideas invented in the academic ponderings of American and European philosophers and widely adopted and embraced among adherents to the new identity system.  The American imagination had by then drawn on experiences with a Skidi named Pitarisaru (Man Chief) to formulate the stereotype of the noble Plains Indian warrior.  Race would define the Pawnee-American relationship.  Racial Indianhood would flow from those days into the future.

An artist named John Collins made a lithograph of the Pawnee skull for Morton, and according to historian James Poskett, Morton sent a copy of the lithograph to a colleague in England.  This lithograph caused a stir at the next annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  One phrenologist peered at it and decided the forehead of the Pawnee was “villainously low.”

"Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America"

John Collins lithograph, “Pawnee”

And BAAS sponsored a special committee that drew up a new protocol for ethnology.  A protocol that added momentum to the idea “that many races now existing are likely, at no distant period, to be annihilated.”  This committee devised guidelines for British travelers, encouraging the production of ethnographic notes on 89 topics.  The racial stereotype of the vanishing Red Indian became firmly rooted in European intellectual culture; this ethnohistory became a matter of weaker races inevitably giving way to stronger racial types.

I don’t know when Cherry Creek became Pawnee Creek.  It appears as Pawnee Creek on one 1866 map of Colorado and again on an 1880 map.  The waterway winds down from Pawnee Buttes.  One 1902 account gave an interesting history, saying it became known as Pawnee Creek “because a party of 200 Pawnee Indians were here surrounded by a greatly outnumbering force of Sioux, who, when they found they could not capture the Pawnees, proceeded to starve them out; but the Pawnees refused to surrender to escape even this death, and the last man of them perished by starvation.”

This must refer to a narrative that became embedded in Pawnee storytelling as a useful interpretive lens: the story of Pawnee Rock – a tale that overflowed onto the summits of Courthouse Rock and Pawnee Buttes.  We can guess that a variety of incidents may have fed into the making of this tale, but it could also have arisen from a single incident.  In the Pawnee Buttes story, after the battle, Spider Woman made a spring that flowed from the hillside – Pawnee Creek.

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Historian David Bernstein published a 2018 book that touched briefly on this matter.  A Skidi woman named Mary Faw Faw testified during the 1950s that some Pawnees got trapped on Pawnee Rock by “several tribes” and there was a battle and four Pawnees survived.  One survivor was her grandfather.  Mary Ricketts Faw Faw was the daughter of Charlie Walker (born circa 1837-1841), and he was the son of Te-ha-ka-ha-lus-pe – this could have been the grandfather who took part in the events at Pawnee Rock.  And we can surmise that those events happened sometime before 1831.  Te-ha-ka-ha-lus-pe dwelt at Kítkhahaahpakuhtu’ when the Long expedition appeared there in 1820; he knew Joseph Bijeau; he may have even known the Pawnee whose skull ended up a topic of interest in Britain.

Ancestors of the Pawnees once resided along the western edge of Pawneeland.  People today associate this region with later immigrants who briefly touched down here, like the Arapaho and Cheyenne.  But the ancient forgotten residents of this realm long ago helped give rise to the Kawarakis Pawnees and the Skidi.

During the early 19th century this region served as a crossroads.  People met here, they traded, they hunted together, they raided each other, they intermarried, they killed one another, and they picked up skulls and they wondered what it means to be human.  In this story we glimpse Americans, Canadians, the French, the Pawnees, the Crows, the Cheyennes, the Sioux, and the British.  Wandering at the feet of Those Distant Rocks, they manufactured the manifold details of the various stories they would pass down into the future.  The truths of human diversity give this story a particular kind of depth.  But in those days “diversity” had to be properly managed; everyone tumbled into the rigid channels of racial thinking and the pathologizing of diversity.

And one day in mid-September 2018 I stood on the shore of the Flat River among butterflies.  Pausing beside Pawnee Creek for a moment, I watched the water flow on, as if to find its hidden destiny, mingling with the Flat River, mingling with the Mysterious River, mingling with the Dark River… whispering onward to the edge of the world.

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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 Wind Inside the World

Arikara-Pawnee earthlodge

Wyoming felt as if it had always been waterless, profoundly arid.  A parched specter of a seafloor slept unconscious at the bottom of an ocean of sunlight.  Nothing moved from horizon to horizon.  Not even the wind moved.  It stood there in Wyoming looking back at very faint footprints stretching back to the greenways of Nebraska.  Why had it come here, anyway?

Driving through this land last Friday afternoon, I wondered what manner of folk had ever walked here.  Who had sat upon a horse and ridden across this arid thirsty world.  Why would anyone think to get into a wagon and say, “I think I’ll drive this thing across Wyoming in the middle of another scorching summer!”

A lonely antelope stood motionless beside the road, standing next to the motionless wind.  It was thinking, someone decided to put a road right here, hoping that people would someday find it and plan their day around driving down it.  Look!  There goes one of them now!  I turned up the air conditioning until I could feel it wafting across my arms.

Great Platte River Road Archway

I stopped in Kearney, Nebraska.  The next morning I found my nephew sweeping out the Arikara-Pawnee earthlodge;  Bob Frazier and his girlfriend Jazmin Lorentz helped to build this earthlodge in 2010.  The Great Platte River Road Archway sponsored the project under the leadership of Ronnie O’Brien, Director of Cultural Education.  The presence of this earthlodge – built by Arikara and Pawnee volunteers – reflects the recent return of the Pawnee Nation to our ancient Central Plains homeland.

Bob Frazier and Jazmin Lorentz

The day was warm already, but the interior of the earthlodge felt cool.  A traditional solar lighting panel (a hide stretched on a frame) lit the interior.  Bob moved it every so often to keep it positioned under the sunrays that fell upon it from the smoke hole.  I spent several hours talking with him and Jazmin about Pawnee history and earthlodges.

It was a very large earthlodge.  In a Pawnee earthlodge city of circa 1850, a structure this size would have been built by one of the leading families to double as a ceremonial sanctuary.  In The Lost Universe Gene Weltfish describes the kind of ceremony that would have happened in an earthlodge like this.

The garden beyond the earthlodge

The Skidi Awari Groundbreaking Ritual occurred in the spring after the first willow leaves appeared.  Women played a central role in this ceremony because it signaled the germination of life in seeds and provided a religious context for the spring planting of corn and other crops.  Weltfish offers an interesting note on the name of the ceremony:

The term awari is a compound stem, the first part a- signifying “being” or “living” and the second part, -wari, to go actively about, such as traveling.  The Pawnee used this stem as we do “up and about” meaning to be in good health.  The combination awari indicates the principles of life and motion… the vigor of life.

The idea is that independent motion signifies the essence of life, the life force that exists in the universe.  The Awari Ceremony offered an organized way to express respect for this life-force.  Life moves in seeds and they germinate and a living plant pushes up into the sunlight.  The mystical connection of life and motion beautifully articulates the spiritual mystery that links us all with living things.  We move; we live.

The traditional Pawnee concept of the origin of life is that it flowed into things from a form of celestial spiritual energy, out of Tirawahut – a divine life-force that was not anthropomorphized into a human-like god but was instead envisioned as a kind of vastness in the heavens.  Life exists as a consequence of this invisible mysterious life-force.  It slowly surges throughout the universe, powering the celestial motion of all the stars and planets and all the living things of the earth.

Speak Friend and Enter

Later that day, driving back to the far western edge of the ancient Pawnee homeland, I kept thinking about things moving.  In Nebraska the highway ran alongside the Flat River across old Pawnee hunting regions full of flying birds and wandering animals – a slender living greenbelt made its way across the middle of the Plains.  Getting out of my car in Wyoming, now the wind blew across this bleak corner of the world.  It wasn’t lifeless.  Just arid; a living expanse filled with its own kinds of mysterious motion.

Sunset in Nebraska