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War Party in Blue
Pawnee Scouts in the U.S. Army
By Mark Van De Logt
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Pawnee Military Culture in the Mid-1800s
Shortly after the birth of Lone Chief, around 1850, his father, a Kitkahahki Pawnee chief, died. Lone Chief's mother took up the responsibility for instructing her son in becoming a successful and important man in the tribe. Among the things she taught him as a child was the following lesson:
You must trust always in Ti-ra'-wa. He made us, and through him we live. When you grow up, you must be a man. Be brave, and face whatever danger may meet you.... Your father was a chief, but you must not think of that. Because he was a chief, it does not follow that you will be one. It is not the man who stays in the lodge that becomes great; it is the man who works, who sweats, who is always tired from going on the warpath.
When you get to be a man, remember that it is his ambition that makes the man. If you go on the warpath, do not turn around when you have gone part way, but go on as far as you were going, and then come back. If I should live to see you become a man, I want you to become a great man. I want you to think about the hard times we have been through. Take pity on people who are poor, because we have been poor, and people have taken pity on us. If I live to see you a man, and to go off on the warpath, I would not cry if I were to hear that you had been killed in battle. That is what makes a man: to fight and to be brave. I should be sorry to see you die from sickness. If you are killed, I would rather have you die in the open air, so that the birds of the air will eat your flesh, and the wind will breathe on you and blow over your bones. It is better to be killed in the open air than to be smothered in the earth. Love your friend and never desert him. If you see him surrounded by the enemy, do not run away. Go to him, and if you cannot save him, be killed together, and let your bones lie side by side. Be killed on a hill; high up. Your grandfather said it is not manly to be killed in a hollow. It is not a man who is talking to you, advising you. Heed my words, even if I am a woman.
This story, recorded by ethnologist George Bird Grinnell in the 1880s, sums up some Pawnee attitudes toward warfare. Only successful men could become prominent members of Pawnee society. In order to be successful, a man had always to put his faith in the sacred powers, without whose supernatural assistance he was destined to fail. Manhood was defined in terms of ambition, hard work, bravery, generosity toward the poor, and loyalty toward friends. One way for a man to satisfy his ambitions was to go to war. Should death come to him while he displayed these virtues on the battlefield, he died with honor, and this honor would then be bestowed on his family. These were the attitudes the Pawnees carried into battle as scouts for the United States Army. Lone Chief, the boy to whom the preceding words were directed, enlisted in the Pawnee battalion in 1867. He distinguished himself in battle against the Arapahos while serving in Luther North's company.
To understand the attitudes, behavior, and tactics of the Pawnee scouts, it is necessary to understand the role of warfare in Pawnee society and culture in the mid-nineteenth century. In this chapter I describe the character of what ethnologist Marian W. Smith called the "war complex" of the Pawnees. I explain why the Pawnee scouts were such effective allies of the United States Army and why the Pawnees formed an alliance with the United States and assisted the army as scouts in the first place. My emphasis is on the nineteenth century, by which time the Pawnees had fully incorporated horses and guns into their military organization.
Because this chapter is focused solely on Pawnee martial values, it may leave the impression that Pawnee culture was highly militaristic. Such an impression would be false. In reality, Pawnee men identified themselves in many different ways: as hunters and providers, doctors, philosophers, teachers, artists and craftsmen, husbands and family men, workers, political leaders, and religious officials. After work, most men enjoyed visiting friends and relatives and attending religious ceremonies or social events and dances. They took part in meetings of one of the men's societies, where they sang songs, challenged each other to games of chance, exchanged stories, and discussed town politics. Pawnee culture was exceptionally rich and offered Pawnee men many ways to express themselves. Warfare was only one aspect of Pawnee life in the mid-nineteenth century, and community expectations of men extended far beyond military matters.
Around 1800, the four bands that composed the Pawnee confederacy —the Skiri, Chawi, Kitkahahki, and Pitahawirata bands—occupied a territory along the Platte, Loup, and Republican Rivers in present-day Nebraska and north-central Kansas. They lived in semipermanent towns of dirt-covered lodges. Their economy was based on corn horticulture supplemented by hunting and gathering. During the summer, while their crops matured, the Pawnees left their earth-lodge towns for several months and traveled west in search of buffalo. During this time they camped in buffalo-skin-covered tepees. The four bands of the tribe were socially and politically autonomous. Indeed, until the late 1700s it is perhaps more accurate to view the northernmost group, the Skiris, as a tribe entirely separate from the three "South Band" Pawnee groups. Still, the four bands shared many of the same basic cultural values and practices.
Religion played a major role in the daily lives of the Pawnee people and formed the basis for their social and political organization. The Pawnees did not clearly distinguish between a "natural" and a "supernatural" world. The "supernatural" was simply part of the natural world. According to Pawnee theology, Tiiraawaahat ("This Expanse" or "The Heavens") had created the universe, the Earth, and everything that existed, both living and nonliving. He was addressed as "father" in prayers and ceremonies. Ranking below him were stars and other celestial objects. Most prominent of these were Evening Star, a female power, and Morning Star, a male power. Morning Star was usually portrayed as a warrior and presented the ideal for any Pawnee man. These celestial powers protected the tribe, band, or town against disease, starvation, and poverty. The power of the celestial beings was represented in so-called sacred bundles called cu'uhre re ipi ru' ("rainstorm wrapped up"). Priests were responsible for conducting ceremonies to maintain the covenant with the celestial powers. Meanwhile, the head chief of a band, town, or village was usually a descendant of the original bundle owner. The positions of priest and band or village chief were hereditary.
The Pawnees also recognized terrestrial powers, manifested in the form of animal benefactors or guardians. The animals appeared to individuals in dreams or visions and instructed the visionary to make a sacred bundle. These personal bundles were called karu su' ("sack"). Such bundles and the songs and rituals that accompanied them could be sold to others. Although less powerful than the sky powers, the animal guardians granted individual Pawnees power and fortitude in hunting, doctoring, and warfare. The power bestowed by one of the animal benefactors enabled ordinary people to become doctors and warriors and to accumulate wealth and status in the community. A successful warrior might eventually be raised to the position of subchief and take a seat in the town or village council. Not surprisingly, ordinary Pawnees spent considerable time and effort in acquiring spiritual power.
A man could attain status in Pawnee society in different ways. Doctoring and hunting were both considered important—if not essential —honorable, and noteworthy. Men sought to perfect their skills in these endeavors by obtaining the blessings of the sacred powers.
Another way to attain wealth and status was to go to war. A Pawnee man had plenty of opportunities to do so. By the mid-1700s the Pawnees were surrounded by other tribes. To the east were the Omahas, Iowas, Otoes, and Missourias. To the south were the Kaws, Osages, Kiowas, Comanches, and Plains Apaches. To the west were the Arapahos and the mighty Cheyennes, and to the north were the Poncas and the powerful Lakotas, or Western Sioux. The Pawnees' relations with these tribes were complex. Their interactions with the other sedentary tribes (Omahas, Iowas, Otoes, Missourias, Kaws, and Poncas) fluctuated between war and peace, as did their relations with the more nomadic Kiowas and Comanches. But Pawnee relations with the Sioux and Cheyennes appear to have been poor from the beginning. Certainly by the 1830s, the Sioux and Cheyennes had become the most fearsome enemies of the Pawnees. The Pawnees called the Sioux paahíksukat, and the Cheyennes, sáhi.
Pawnee men went to war for a variety of reasons: to defend their home territory against invaders, to protect their hunting grounds, to avenge the deaths of relatives, to end the mourning period for deceased loved ones, to gain prestige by accumulating war honors, to accumulate wealth (primarily in horses), to gain social status by giving away the spoils of war, to protect tribal trade interests, to capture (or recapture) women and children, to take scalps, which they sacrificed in honor of the sacred powers, and to prove their readiness to be married.
It is unclear exactly when this particular martial culture developed, but it has roots stretching back to earlier, perhaps even ancient, times. There is little doubt, however, that when new tribes appeared on the Great Plains, having been drawn there from the east as a result of opportunities afforded by horses and guns and pushed there through displacement by Europeans and later Euro-Americans, warfare between the Pawnees and these newcomers broke out and quickly escalated. The immigrant tribes competed with the Pawnees for increasingly scarce natural resources, especially buffalo. Pawnee scholar Roger C. Echo-Hawk believes that Pawnee martial culture intensified in response to Sioux and Cheyenne pressures in the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, warfare had become a reality of life for the Pawnees. It was even sanctioned by their religion.
Warfare with the Sioux and Cheyennes was both defensive and offensive. Two forms of offensive warfare can be distinguished: expeditions in search of horses and loot and expeditions to kill and destroy the enemy. Even though participants in the former of these often sought to avoid battle, it was considered an act of war. The latter was more "noteworthy"—that is, it was recognized by the sacred powers. Such expeditions were ceremonial undertakings and involved elaborate ceremonial preparations, such as the opening of a sacred bundle. The act of going on such a dangerous mission could be regarded as a ceremonial act in itself. Like most other Pawnee ceremonies, it involved a sacrifice. In this case, the sacrifice came in the form of the killing of an enemy. If the expedition was unsuccessful, the Pawnee warrior or warriors themselves might end up being the sacrificial victims. If it was successful, the ceremony was not over until the warriors returned home, shared their victory with the people there, and returned the war insignia to the sacred bundles.
Considering the importance of warfare in Pawnee culture, it is not surprising that Pawnees boys were prepared from an early age to follow the path of the warrior. They were told not to fear death and that it was better to die bravely when young than to live to an enfeebled old age. "For those of us that are men it is unworthy to be buried in a regular grave," Effie Blaine's father, a Pitahawirata headman, told her. "It is far better to lie in the open and be eaten by the birds." For this reason Pawnee families welcomed the birth of a son with a mixture of joy and sadness.
When a young man reached an "age of realization" that his fate was not in his own hands but in those of the sacred powers, he would walk around the town singing, "My spirit rests in the belief that power is in the heavens." This song signified his readiness to go on the warpath and his willingness to give up his life in the defense of his people. Declaring himself no longer afraid of death, he could now pursue the goal of becoming a brave warrior. Of course, declaring oneself brave did not necessarily make one so; the real test remained in facing the enemy in battle.
Bravery was the most highly regarded virtue in a Pawnee warrior. According to John Brown Dunbar, son of a Presbyterian missionary to the Pawnees, it determined a person's status in the afterlife. The Pawnees believed that the spirit of the deceased had to follow a dangerous path beneath falling arrows and cross a deep chasm on a small log. Only the brave passed over this dangerous route to a new country of peace and plenty. Cowardly spirits chose a path free of danger but strewn with hoes, axes, and other implements of labor, indicating that they would spend the afterlife in "an existence of endless toil and servitude." Ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recorded a Pawnee song that told how, should a person die in battle, the spirits would welcome him to the spirit world and talk of all his great deeds:
Aheru raa heru kitu tix wahe he weta axrau isirit ra tawe ("Beloved, come, Beloved, All the spirits spoke. Here he comes. It is openly known that he did these generous things.")
Warriors carried songs like these into battle because they gave them comfort on dangerous missions. Although men did not actively seek to die in battle, the songs reminded them that they should not fear death.
Apart from learning to place their fate in the hands of the sacred powers, Pawnee boys learned practical skills that were necessary attributes for a warrior. Among these skills were horsemanship, endurance, stealth, and the manufacture, repair, and maintenance of weapons.
"The Pawnees are expert horsemen," wrote visitor Edwin James in 1820, "and [they] delight in the exhibition of feats of skill and adroitness." Like most other Plains tribes, the Pawnees considered horses great "medicine." Their power allowed a man to outrun the buffalo during the hunt or to make deep forays into enemy territory. The Pawnee term for horse is aruúsa'. Another common term is asaa-, followed by a descriptive term.
Thus, asaataáka means "white horse,"asaakaatit, "black horse," and so forth. The Pawnees obtained the horse in the late seventeenth century. The animal had such a powerful effect on them that they believed it was a gift from Tiiraawaahat to the people. Pawnee warriors often painted and decorated their war horses before going on a war party. The decorations usually represented a higher power that would give the horse strength, endurance, speed, and fearlessness in battle. For example, Echo Hawk, a Pawnee scout, always painted his horse's head with white clay to symbolize an eagle. On his pony's chest was a beaded rosette depicting the skull of an eagle. According to Luther North, one of the officers in the Pawnee battalion, the Pawnees also painted their horses to make them less conspicuous targets and disorient the enemy. Conversely, warriors sometimes fastened colored feathers in the tails and manes of their horses. Warriors might spend several hours preparing themselves and their horses in anticipation of a fight.
Pawnee children learned to handle and care for horses at a young age. When John Treat Irving, who accompanied a U.S. peace commission in 1833, entered a Pawnee town he saw small bands of young men amusing themselves by racing their horses at full speed while attempting to throw each other from their saddles by violently steering their animals into each other. "There is nothing upon which the Indians pride themselves, more than their horsemanship," Irving wrote. "They are as much at ease, when mounted, as when sitting upon the floor of their own lodge."
Indian horses were generally better acclimatized to the harsh conditions of the plains than U.S. Cavalry horses. Unlike grain-fed cavalry mounts, which usually required large quantities of feed that had to be carried along in wagons, Indian ponies subsisted primarily on grass. Although usually smaller and therefore slower than cavalry horses, they had greater endurance. George H. Holliday, who served alongside the Pawnee scouts in 1865, wrote that Indian ponies were "better calculated for the use of cavalry on the plains than 'Americano' horses." According to Holliday, Indian horses could "travel a greater distance and carry a load in a day, or week, or all the time, for that matter, and do it on less rations than any other living animal." Pawnee warriors also had an array of "horse medicines" at their disposal. They applied boiled parts of the "sticky head" plant (Grindelia squarrosa) to treat saddle galls and sores and fed the bulbs of sheep sorrel (Oxalis violacea) to horses "to make them more fleet." They blew dried and powdered meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) into a horse's nostrils to increase its endurance "when obliged to make forced marches of three or four days' duration in order to escape from enemies."
Excerpted from War Party in Blue by Mark Van De Logt. Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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