Indian Country

Six Pawnee Scouts: a Homecoming


The history of Indigenous-European relations in North America is sometimes simultaneously complex and simple. We find complexity in the clash of cultures and world views and the intersecting cultures, including among the Indigenous tribes themselves. Simple, too often, was the sheer racist betrayal and barbarism.

Pawnee were shrewd and fierce warriors, often in conflict over resources with the larger tribes around them, particularly the Sioux. By the time of expanding European encroachment, the Pawnee’s numbers had been so reduced by disease that they made the easy recognition that conflict with the white man was futile. More often, the Pawnee cooperated the U.S government, as was the case of the Pawnee scouts inducted into the U.S. Cavalry to aid in tracking and combating other tribes who had been the Pawnee’s longtime enemies anyway.

The history of the Pawnee Scouts is well recorded, as are many small events of the Western saga many people might automatically think were lost in the obscurity of the “wilderness.” There is, for instance, the story of six Pawnee Scouts who, soon after the honorable discharge from the Army in 1869, were traveling through Kansas when they were shot and killed by settlers. Their bodies disappeared.

Nothing more definite was known of the ultimate fate of these six Pawnee Scouts until James Riding In, a Pawnee scholar of American Indian Studies published in 1992 “Six Pawnee Crania: The Historical and Contemporary Significance of the Massacre and Decapitation of Pawnee Indians in 1869.” Here is his later commentary:

As the battles against archaeological desecration and administrative fiat raged at UCLA, the Pawnee Nation had begun to question the Nebraska State Historical Society and Smithsonian Institution regarding Pawnee remains in their collections. My work as a repatriation researcher began when the Native American Rights Fund asked me, on behalf of the Pawnee Nation, to investigate the identity of six human crania at the Smithsonian listed by accession records as Pawnee.

When the Pawnee leadership requested information about those remains, a Smithsonian official denied that the skulls were Pawnees, saying that many Indian raiders had been killed in Kansas and it would be impossible to positively identify the skulls in question as Pawnees. My research acquainted me with the dark, secretive history of white America’s treatment of our dead. By examining documentation held at the Smithsonian and the federal archives, my research determined that those remains belonged to six Pawnees, just discharged from the U.S. Army, who had been killed in 1869 by U.S. soldiers and settlers near Mulberry Creek in Kansas.  Following a lengthy search for the bodies, a Fort Harker surgeon had the heads severed and sent to the Army Medical Museum for craniometric study. This study was published with other documents and the testimony that contributed to the enactment of NMAIA (National Museum of the American Indian Act).

As a consequence of additional congressional legislation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the remains of the six Pawnee Scouts and hundreds of other Pawnee remains were repatriated and reburied on traditional Pawnee lands between 1990-1995. Since the Pawnee tribe was relocated to “Indian Country” in Oklahoma during the removal period of the 19th century, it is a special occasion for present day Head Nasharo Chief Pat Leading Fox to return to Nebraska and visit the remains of his ancestors. We were with him this week as he stood before the monument to the buried remains and sang a Pawnee song in honor of the dead.

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Indian Country On The Road

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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