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.


Tolkien in Pawneeland

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013 (Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

Real Myth and Mithril, May 19, 2013
(Photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

One of my grandmothers was Skidi, and my other grandmother had English and German ancestry.  So I found it fascinating and meaningful when I discovered that my favorite author, JRR Tolkien (who was English with German ancestry), made use of certain obscure Skidi traditions in his writings.  As I studied the evidence for this, I slowly came to the conclusion that between 1919 and 1942 Tolkien drew on at least six Skidi Pawnee stories to sculpt subtle aspects of characters and events in The Book of Lost Tales, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

In the course of this research, I was fortunate to have the support of the Grey Havens Group – a circle of friends who gathered each week to discuss and appreciate Tolkien’s writings.  They encouraged me to present my ideas in May 2013 at our symposium, Real Myth and Mithril.  I followed this with a longer talk in July 2013 at Mythcon 44, an annual conference of the Mythopoeic Society.


The Pawnee oral traditions that inspired Tolkien were preserved through the efforts of a Skidi named James R. Murie.  He narrated stories to the staff of the Field Museum of Natural History, and an anthropologist there edited and published them in a 1904 book called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  A copy of this book made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the collections of Oxford University in England.  And in 1919, after Tolkien began working as a researcher at Oxford, echoes of various Skidi narratives began to enter his writings.

Roaming Scout

Roaming Scout

Two of the stories that interested Tolkien were told to Murie by an old man named Roaming Scout, a leading kurahus or priest.  Roaming Scout was born about 1839, a member of a royal family among the Skidi and a son of a priest named Mud Bear.  He held the name Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah, and in the late 1880s he married a young woman named Stah-pe-chicks-sah.  If they had any children, none survived into adulthood.

It must have been about the time of the 1892 allotment that Tah-whoo-kah-tah-wee-ah took the name Kee-lee-kee-lee-soo-lah-kah-wah-lee, or Roaming Scout.  In A Dictionary of Skiri Pawnee linguist Douglas Parks renders the name as Kirikiirisu Rakaawarii, meaning Scout Roaming the World.  Among the Americans, Roaming Scout also became known as Pawnee Tom.  Confusion grew around his Pawnee name because he had a nephew known as Running Scout who died in October 1888 – many Pawnees today are descended from this nephew.  Roaming Scout died in June 1914.

In 1906 Murie recorded Roaming Scout’s life story on wax cylinders at the American Museum of Natural History.  This autobiography begins with a story about a party of men who suffer from hunger.  As they kill and cook an animal they engage in a philosophical debate on the role of faith versus a lack of faith.  Their debate centers on a concept termed “kawaharu,” a spiritual power in the universe that can bestow both blessings and punishment upon humankind.  As Roaming Scout relates in the story, “We are not the ruling power, we people who are living, it is the power in the heavens, Tirawa[hut], and the power ready to give, Kawaharu, they are the powers who send forth game to us and through them we eat.”

Sharing his stories and the events of his life with James R. Murie, Roaming Scout sought to pass along his sense of piety and his perspective on life.  He had been born in a time when thousands of Pawnees had built earthlodge cities in their ancient homeland.  And he had witnessed the evaporation of this realm all through his life.  By 1900 it seemed fitting to predict a continuing decline of the Pawnee population and to foretell the end of the religious traditions that he treasured.  These circumstances must account for Roaming Scout’s willingness to share what he knew with Murie, to record his stories and memoirs.

Pawnee Earthlodge Art

One day in early 1919, just a few years after Roaming Scout died, my research shows that JRR Tolkien opened the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  What he found there intrigued him.  And in the decades that followed, he drew from two of Roaming Scout’s stories and from a handful of other Skidi traditions to shape various details in his emerging mythology of Middle-earth.

I believe that Tolkien borrowed from these Skidi narratives in order to add a certain antiquarian tone to his storytelling.  Some of the stories touched by Skidi colorations include Tolkien’s creation story in The Book of Lost Tales, the story of Beorn in The Hobbit, and the construction of aspects of Gandalf in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I do not know what Roaming Scout would have thought about Tolkien’s use of his narratives.  But in many ways the two men were kindred spirits.  Roaming Scout was a veteran of a bitter total war, a prominent ceremonial leader, and a renowned storyteller.  Tolkien saw military service in the trenches of World War I; he was a life-long devout Christian; and he became a world-famous storyteller.  Both men were highly respected teachers of tradition in their different worlds.

Pondering what my discovery might signify, I traveled with colleagues from Grey Havens to Mythcon 44 in Lansing, Michigan.  I thought of my two grandmothers as I sat down to reveal what I had learned.  The discussion that followed was very positive and lively, and through the rest of the conference a steady succession of people introduced themselves to me, saying they either attended my talk or heard about it. All the folk of Mythcon were extraordinarily gracious and amiable.  And they all seemed to grasp what my paper signified.

Drawing inspiration from the Skidi stories to enrich the artistry of his mythmaking, Tolkien created a marvelous legacy of writings that slowly grew into a world mythology.  And with my discovery of the Skidi elements in his tales, it has become evident that Tolkien integrated Pawnee and Northern European traditional literature into a unique mythological legacy, a new narrative of global culture.  In this narrative we glimpse a social world shaped by a sharing of symbolic essences that transcend our notions of nationhood and ethnicity.

The literary endeavors of JRR Tolkien have woven together the mythological truths of Middle-earth and Pawneeland.  In this weaving of culture, when we open the pages of Tolkien’s books, we encounter a subtle Pawnee magic that has the power to enchant the imaginations of people worldwide.

When Roaming Scout sat down long ago to tell his stories to James R. Murie, he could not know what the future would hold for the stories he told.  But he was a very religious man.  He saw the mysticism of kawaharu in every aspect of life.  And I suspect that he would be pleased to see how Skidi traditions have changed the world.

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013

Itskari, Many Wild Potatoes River, July 2013

The White Wood Magic

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

Eight months after I published a book called The Magic Children, I went on tour with it.  By “tour” I mean that a friend who owns a bookstore asked me to join a group of writers for a book fair, and I sat down at a table with several other authors and I sold a few books and I met a woman who had published a book on cottonwood trees.

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain
May 15, 2011

Kathleen Cain grew up in the ancient Pawnee homeland.  One day in that realm her father revealed a secret of the cottonwood tree.  If you slice open a cottonwood twig at the right place you will find a pretty five-pointed star.  This star had surprised her.  When Kathleen grew up she couldn’t stop thinking about cottonwoods and she wrote a book called The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion.

I guess it wasn’t much of a book tour for me.  But Kathleen showed me that star inside the cottonwood and I enjoyed my book tour.  I promised I would look for the Pawnee word for cottonwood, and I would write down whatever I found on the topic and I would send it to her.

I didn’t know then that I would tell this story.  And I for sure didn’t know that it would be such a strange sad frightening story.

Once upon a time a man captured a small duck and took it home to show his wife.  They kept this little duck in their tipi until the woman told him to let it go, and so he turned it loose.  Not long later the woman gave birth.  As this baby girl grew up, the parents began to notice that she loved to spend her days swimming in ponds.  The mother said to the father, “See, our girl is like that duck you brought home!  I guess we should let her do as she chooses – and you’d better not complain about it.”  They named her Young Duck.

One day Young Duck dug a small hole on the west side of their tipi.  From some nearby ponds she brought flag root and peppermint, and she planted these in the hole.  That night this hole mysteriously filled with water.  Young Duck told her mother, “When I’m not doing anything, I think I’ll sit on this pool.  And every day you will wash my face with water from the pool.”

This magic water smelled fragrant, very sweet.  The mother washed her daughter’s face each day after that.  As the months went by, she noticed how Young Duck slowly grew into a pretty girl.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

In her dreams Young Duck heard a voice.  Following the advice of this voice, Young Duck one day went to the ponds and found a hooked stick.  She took this stick with her the next time the other young women went to gather wood.  In the forest they came upon a dead cottonwood.  Young Duck said, “You girls go on.  I’ll stay here while you gather your wood.”  After the girls left, Young Duck lifted her stick, “Now pull down that dry limb!”  The hook in her hand stretched up and broke off the dead branch from the cottonwood.

When the other girls returned, they found Young Duck sitting with her wood pile neatly bound.  Each day she accompanied the young women to get wood.  And every day her mother would wash her face with water from the magic pool.  Pretty Young Duck slowly became very beautiful.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

As noted by linguist Douglas Parks, a Skidi term for cottonwood is ráhaaktaakaaru or ráktaakaaru, meaning white wood.  This term refers to the fact that under the bark of this tree the flesh of the wood is very pale.  Versions of this Pawnee term appear in both the Skidi Pawnee dialect and the South Band Pawnee dialect.  The South Band Pawnees had another term for cottonwood: téhtu.  Among all the Pawnees, if a cottonwood tree is small in size, the term for it is pásaki, but a large one is called pásakucu.

Resources from this tree once provided firewood, construction material, wood implements, and horse-feed.  According to Parks, there is a Skidi word for a wooden bowl made from the root of a cottonwood tree: rákaraaraariksisu – the final portion of this term (rariksisu) signifies that the wood bowl is real or authentic.

Cottonwood bark

Several Pawnee words refer to the use of cottonwood as feed for horses during winter.  The Skidi word asaháktaakaaru literally means horse wood white, and it signifies the use of bark for feed.  In The Lost Universe Gene Weltfish described the preparation of “cottonwood tops and bark” for horse winter feed – axe-cuts were made to loosen the bark for horses to chew.  On cold snowy nights the Pawnees would prepare this feed and set it on a hide for their horses.  Bark prepared in this fashion is termed rákataatu or wood dung.  The South Band Pawnee terms for white horse wood and wood dung are very similar to Skidi: asaahaáktakaaru and rakataatu.

Everyone thought Young Duck looked very beautiful.  Young men found her quite fascinating.  One young gambler set up his hoop & stick playing field near Young Duck’s tipi.  Others demonstrated their mastery of the arts of archery.  A number of hopeful suitors took out their flutes in the late evening and competed for her admiration.

But Young Duck ignored them all.  Until… until one day on the eve of a ceremonial dance, Young Duck noticed a hawk sitting on the limb of a cottonwood tree.  “Yes,” she murmured softly.  “If you become a man you can court me.”

This hawk took note of Young Duck’s extraordinary beauty.  He flew to a holy place; a hidden underground house of spirit-animals.  Humbling himself, he appealed to them for help and they performed their magic upon him and he became a young man.

Magic Water

Young Duck knew him when he called upon her.  She fell in love with Hawk, and he fell in love with her, and she told her parents, “I will marry this young man, Hawk.”  So Hawk moved in with her and her parents.  Young Duck continued to sit upon her pool of water.  Her mother washed her face and her hair with the enchanted water.  And Young Duck would then wash her husband’s face and his hair.  They became a beautiful, happy couple.

And every day Young Duck gathered wood with her girlfriends.  She used her magic stick to take down branches from tall cottonwoods in the forest.  Hawk stood guard nearby upon a high hill, watching over the young women as they worked.

In this Skidi Pawnee tale, told by a woman named Bright Eyes over a century ago to James R. Murie, there is an association that seems random.  A woman who has the nature of a water bird performs magic upon cottonwood trees.  The Pawnees knew that cottonwood trees prefer to live along ponds and waterways.  Anthropologist Gene Weltfish described how the Skidi doctors once used cottonwood tree-trunks in constructing the ritual spaces for the annual autumn Doctor Dance, and in so doing, “The cottonwood symbolized the Beaver and the waters of the earth.”  James R. Murie told another researcher that cottonwood boards were used to make Pawnee cradleboards, and the associated symbolism referred to star deities and to sweet cleansing rainwater.

This does not mean that a simple equation can be drawn between cottonwoods and riparian symbolism.  Cottonwood trees once had many uses in the Pawnee world.  But cottonwood sticks were also significant in the traditional rituals and religious ideology of the Skidi.  These sticks had ceremonial use in building the altar for the Skidi Morning Star ceremony (along with box elder, willow, and elm).  As Gene Weltfish makes clear, these four kinds of sticks in the Morning Star ceremony signified the four quarters of the earth, the semicardinal directions.

These same branches held some unknown significance in another story told to James Murie by Woman Newly Made Chief, daughter of a Skidi doctor.  In her story two twins of ancient legend used this same set of sticks to cremate their dead father, who they had slain.  This tradition told of frightful events, and no one knows what the twins intended when they brought forth wood signifying the four quarters of the world and used it to cremate their dead father.

Stories can sometimes touch on our fears.  And sometimes our fears are mysterious and we do not understand them.  And sometimes very fearful and mysterious things happen in our lives; and sometimes those things enter the stories we tell.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

One day when Young Duck got home with the limbs she had gathered from the cottonwoods, she noticed a strange old woman in the tipi.  This old woman watched as Young Duck’s mother washed her face and as Young Duck washed the face of her handsome husband, Hawk.

This old lady was a sorceress.  She envied Young Duck.  “I wish I could be Young Duck,” whispered the sorceress.  Deciding that she had to have what Young Duck had, she made a plan.  In the nearby forest this sorceress found a dogwood stick, and she sharpened it and she hid it in her clothes.

When Young Duck appeared with her friends, the sorceress watched from a thicket as the other girls went on their way to gather wood.  She watched as Young Duck brought forth her magic stick.  After Young Duck gathered a bundle and tied it neatly, the sorceress stepped forth.

“Hello, dearie,” cackled the old woman.  “You are so beautiful and good; I will sit with you.”  A moment later she took out her hidden dogwood stick and she swiftly jabbed it in Young Duck’s ear!  When the sorceress decided Young Duck was dead, she blew into Young Duck’s mouth.  Young Duck’s skin came off, but only from her waist up.

The old woman crawled into the empty skin.  When she stood, she looked like Young Duck.  She rolled the real Young Duck into the stream that ran beside the old cottonwood tree and the body floated away.

Now the sorceress yelled rudely for the other girls.  The young women all noticed how wild Young Duck’s eyes seemed.  And back at Young Duck’s tipi, the sorceress threw down her bundle of sticks and announced in a crotchety tone, “Mother, I’m tired and hungry!”  She ate heartily – even eating her husband’s food.

She lay down naked with Hawk.  She cackled, demanding he give her a good time.  She kept talking loudly, making vulgar remarks as if to distract him as he tried to pleasure her.  But Hawk noticed something very disturbing.  Young Duck’s legs were no longer smooth and pretty.  In fact, from the waist down, beautiful Young Duck had somehow become… well, very old and thin and decrepit.

Cottonwood forest

The next day the sorceress accompanied the young women to get firewood.  She talked loudly and she had a mean tone that had never before appeared in Young Duck’s gentle voice.  When they came to the first cottonwood, the sorceress sent on the other girls, just as Young Duck always did.  The sorceress took out Young Duck’s magic hooked stick.  “Okay!  Come now and stretch!”  But nothing happened.  “Hook that cottonwood limb,” she demanded.  But no, nothing happened.  She had to settle for cutting a few green willows.

Back at the tipi the sorceress threw down her rather sparse bundle of green wood and she complained to Young Duck’s mother, “I’m tired and I have a terrible headache.  I’m going to take it easy on my pool of magic water.”  But when she stepped over to the pool of water, she found it had dried up.  And the next day everyone noticed an odor.  The stolen skin was rotting.

The family sent for doctors.  But none could help.  The sorceress kept them at bay because she needed to protect her horrible secret.

Hawk had strong suspicions.  He thought of someone who could help.  When Hawk returned with this man, they both saw that Young Duck’s skin had a bruised look.  The man’s face was painted black.  He held a black gourd.

The sorceress cried out, “You black-eyed crow, I know you!  You are going to discover my secret!”  This man was a Crow Wizard.  He called for a bowl of water.  He sang and gestured with his gourd.  Tiny scenes appeared in the water and the Crow Wizard studied them and then he denounced the sorceress: “This crazy old woman has taken Young Duck’s skin and it is rotten!”

Hawk heard a far-off voice.  He didn’t linger to see what happened to the old sorceress.  A pretty song echoed in Hawk’s mind.  “Here now stands Young Duck!”  He came to a stream and listened.  Where was the singing?  The song made his heart ache for Young Duck.  He would find her!

He turned himself into a hawk and he flew up and down the stream.  For days he sought the voice.  He grew weary and hungry, but still he searched.  On the evening of the fourth day he paused upon a hilltop.  There was smoke in the valley below.  There stood a tipi.

Landing, he became a young man again.  He stepped inside.  There sat a man, a woman, and four young girls.  “I thought I heard my wife singing,” he said to them.  “Is Young Duck here?”  They said no.  There is no Young Duck here.  But he knew… he asked again.  And again.  Finally, the youngest girl pointed to a heap of things just beyond the firelight.

There Hawk saw two legs sticking out.  He recognized those pretty legs.  Young Duck!  He reached for her.  “No, husband,” spoke Young Duck.  “Do not uncover me!  For I am not the same pretty girl you married!”  But he uncovered her anyway.

Duck family

His beautiful wife had the upper body of an old woman.  “Dear husband,” cried Young Duck, “I will never go back to what I was.  I will never be your beautiful wife ever again!”  And she wept.  The family stood watching.  They were crying, too.  They loved Young Duck.  They were her duck family.  She had floated down the stream and they had rescued her and they loved her no matter what she looked like.

Hawk stared at the old woman with the young legs.  Yes; this was Young Duck.  He began to weep.  Young Duck thought he felt sorry for himself.  “See what I am now?  I can never be your beautiful wife, and you must let me go.  Carry me up into the sky and let me go.  And then you will marry again, Hawk.  You will find a pretty wife and you will both be happy.”

“No, Young Duck!” said Hawk.  “You are my wife and I will love you forever!”  Now she wept again, knowing he felt sad for her.  “Can’t you see?” she said to him, “I can never be happy, dear husband!  I can never go back to who I was when we first met and fell in love!  You must let me go.”

After a long night together Hawk at last understood the truth.  Young Duck was miserable.  She was old and thin and very frail.  Her skin hurt her.  The pain was terrible; her suffering was awful.  He had to let her go.

“We will take care of her until she is gone,” said the father.  The mother nodded, “You can leave her to us.”  But Hawk decided that he had to help Young Duck himself.  He carried his wife to the top of the hill.  There he turned again into a hawk.  He gathered up Young Duck upon his back.  “Now fly,” she whispered to him, “You are strong and I am withered.  I will be easy to carry.”

Hawk spread his wings and he leaped into the sky.  High above the earth, Hawk turned one last time, “I love you, Young Duck!”  And he let go of her.  He watched her fall.

Far below, Young Duck fell into a stream.  When Hawk flew down to the water’s edge, he found her there.  She had become a clam.  Her shell looked like old skin.  But inside the shell, the clam was smooth and young.

When you find yourself standing beside a stream, there might be a cottonwood tree nearby.  The bark will look rough and grey and wrinkled, as if very old.  But underneath this old bark the pale flesh of the cottonwood is forever young.

And standing there, if you happen to notice a hawk flying above… and if you peer into the stream at your feet… perhaps you will see what that hawk sees.  Young Duck will look old.  But somewhere inside her shell she will always be young and beautiful.

Cottonwood October 11, 2012

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.


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.