A Lost Covenant


Among all the Native tribes of North America to whom sacred bundles were part of their spiritual tradition, there was none to whom the bundles and the ceremonial prayers that accompanied them were more central than the Pawnee. According to the Kansas Historical Society,

Sacred bundles were a powerful part of Pawnee ceremonies linked to planting and harvesting. They contained tools necessary to those ceremonies, and the rituals and ceremonies associated with them were passed from generation to generation along with the bundles. Bundles were owned by women and inherited through the female line, but could be used by men only. To open or use a bundle without the proper ritual and ceremony invited disaster.

Some bundles were particular to a clan or even a family, and the ritual and prayer associated remained unknown even to other Pawnee outside that group. One of the most profound expressions, then, of the disruption of Native cultures specifically sought and caused by the European conquest and the United States government’s policies was the separation of American Indian generations from the knowledge of how to use the bundles. Pawnee taken from the tribal community and sent to American Indian boarding schools did not receive the transmission from  their elders of the secret knowledge necessary to perform the ceremonies connected with individual bundles. Most existent Pawnee sacred bundles are held in the collections of various museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The Pawnee actually prefer this arrangement, since they no longer possess the knowledge to use the bundles and know the bundles will receive the appropriate preservation at the museums.

Yesterday I visited the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site near Republic, Kansas, at the location of what was a Pawnee village estimated by archaeologists to have been occupied between 1790 and about 1809. Our group traveled there with Pat Leading Fox, head Nasharo Chief of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Chief Leading Fox shared with us the story of one particular bundle, recounted also at the Kansas Historical Society site. It is the story of Massacre Canyon, the last significant battle between two American Indian tribes, in 1873, the details gathered and recounted by Indian agent John W. Williamson, who had accompanied the Pawnee on what turned out to be their last seasonal buffalo hunt.

A thousand Sioux warriors swarmed around the band of four hundred Pawnee men, women, and children. Even with the added protection of the canyon into which they had fled, the Pawnees were overwhelmed. Their hunting bows were no match for Sioux rifles.

The Pawnees had been returning from the summer buffalo hunt when they were attacked by their traditional enemies, the Sioux. It was an August day, probably a hot one, in 1873 and their earth lodges on the Loup River in central Nebraska still lay a week’s journey to the northeast. Their horses were loaded down with buffalo meat. Prospects were bright until they were shattered by the one-sided fight at “Massacre Canyon.”

In the heat of battle, a Pawnee father lashed his five-year-old daughter to his horse, slipped a treasured peace medal around her neck, and bound his sacred bundle to her back. “Take care of this bundle and it will take care of you,” he said as he smacked the horse, sending the little girl to safety through the enemy ranks. Perhaps the bundle did take care of her, for she was among the few Pawnees to survive that day.

Following the attack by the Sioux, young Sadie found her way back to her village. Other survivors straggled in but her parents were not among them; they had been killed. Heeding her father’s admonition, Sadie took care of the sacred bundle and later passed it down to her own daughter as was the Pawnee custom. Tragically, the ritual use of the bundle was lost with her father because only he knew the proper ceremonies.

Before she died in 1971, Sadie’s daughter, Dolly, willed the sacred bundle to the historical society, for preservation in the Pawnee Earth Lodge that has been uncovered and enclosed at the historic site.

That bundle was x-rayed to identify its contents. Carefully wrapped in bison hide, the bundle contains ceremonial objects tied on the outside. These items include a long smoking pipe, arrow fragments, a meat fork tipped with a raccoon bone, and small American flags. The x-ray revealed that the inside contains stuffed bird bundles, hawk bells, counting sticks, and glass beads sewn on a leather strip.

It hangs, at about 25 lbs, in a glass case within the lodge. It may not be photographed. Since no one since haS known the proper ceremony to perform, the bundle has not been opened since the spring planting ceremony before the massacre, since the day Sadie rode out tied to a horse, the sacred bundle tied to her back, under fire from the Sioux in 1873.



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3 thoughts on “A Lost Covenant

  1. That “bundle” was my grandma’s Dolly’s. Where is her “peace medal”?
    Who has it. As for leadingfux, he does not represent me or my family.
    That bundle needs a replica made and the original needs to be given
    back to my family the true owners. My so called aunt sold it to that place so they could make money off it. and those so called pawnees do not have any
    right being up there praying to it or using it in any of there so called ceremonies, they are witching people and causing the pawnees to die, see the recent deaths that have happened lately. I went to Chicago and the pawnees were scared of the bundles in there and made them take down that star chart, but I see its picture everyday on the internet, its not sacred anymore. We were never allowed to even look at our family bundle -the generation bundle-the only time I seen it for the first time was on the internet and the pamphlets your museum puts out. I am deeply insulted and hurt. The City of Pawnee killed my son and I am in litigation now. I will fight to the end. In the mean time sure you have my families bundle, but watch out for tornados.

  2. Dear Jay,

    Thank you for honoring this in this way, humanizing what Sadie went through, zooming in and out, changing angles, now a wide shot, now the details, making it real, taking us there, helping us to be more aware.


  3. Extinct languages are one thing, but this is on a whole different plane. Is there even a term for such a specific cultural loss?

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