Pawnee Nation


Pawnee Literature

“Oh, Eagle, come with wings outspread in sunny skies. Oh, Eagle, come and bring us peace, thy gentle peace. Oh, Eagle, come and give new life to us who pray.”

“Remember the circle of the sky, the stars, and the brown eagle, the great life of the Sun, the young within the nest. Remember the sacredness of things.

Pawnee Prayer



Making the Sacred Bundle

Long ago, a young Pawnee named Eagle Feather was very proud of the way he looked. He wore the best clothes and the richest ornaments he could find. Always when he hunted, he wore a magic downy eagle feather in his hair. He was not married, though many of the young Indian girls admired his handsome appearance.

One day while hunting with his companions, Eagle Feather became separated from the others, but continued to follow some buffaloes for a long distance. All of the animals escaped him except one young buffalo-cow, which had become stuck in a mudhole. When Eagle Feather aimed his arrow to shoot, the buffalo-cow suddenly vanished and in its place stood a pretty young woman.

Eagle Feather was astonished. He could not understand where the buffalo had gone, or from where the girl had come. They talked together and became friends. She did not want to return with him to his tribe when he asked her to marry him. Eagle Feather agreed to remain there with her and she became his wife. For a wedding gift, he gave her a blue and white string of beads, which she always wore around her neck.

They made a camp there and were very happy together. One day, Eagle Feather returned from hunting to find that his camp had disappeared, his wife was missing, and marks of many buffalo hooves covered his campsite. Since he could not find his wife anywhere, Eagle Feather returned to his Pawnee tribe.

After a few years passed, one summer morning Eagle Feather and his friends were playing stick ball. A little Indian boy came toward them, wearing around his neck a string of blue and white beads.

“Father,” he said to Eagle Feather. “Mother wants you to follow me and I will take you to her.”

“Go away,” replied Eagle Feather. “I am not your father.”

When the little Indian boy ran back to the woods, Eagle Feather’s companions laughed at the boy calling him father. They thought Eagle Feather had never married.

In a little while, the boy returned from the woods. Again, he was told to go away, but one of the men said to Eagle Feather, “Maybe you had better go with the child and see what he wants.”

All of this time, Eagle Feather had been wondering, “Where have I seen those blue and white beads before?” Suddenly, in his mind’s eye, he saw a buffalo-cow and a calf running across a prairie. He then remembered the blue and white beads he had given the buffalo-maiden for a wedding present.

Taking his bow and arrows with him, he followed the two buffaloes that he now believed were his wife and child. A long and weary chase followed, because the woman was angry that first he had denied the boy’s request. As she ran, she magically dried up every creek they passed. Eagle Feather thought he was going to die of thirst. But his son secretly left some food and water for him along the way, until they arrived at the home of the buffaloes.

The big buffalo-bulls were the herd leaders. They became angry with Eagle Feather for marrying the buffalo-cow. They wanted to kill him. But first they would test him. Six buffalo-cows were lined up in a row, all looking exactly alike. Eagle Feather was to point out his wife. His son helped him secretly, and Eagle Feather correctly chose his wife.

Surprised, the old bulls gave Eagle Feather another test. This time, several calves were placed in a row, and Eagle Feather was to choose his son. Again the child secretly helped his father point out the right one. Then the bulls decided that Eagle Feather must run a race against the fastest buffaloes.

On the day set for the race, a freeze occurred and the buffaloes could not run well on the slippery ground. Eagle Feather ran swiftly and won the race.

Now the chief bulls grew angrier and they determined to kill Eagle Feather. He was told to sit down on the ground in the centre of a circle surrounded by buffalo-bulls. Upon a signal from the Chief, the buffaloes charged Eagle Feather. His magic feather was seen floating above the confusion that followed.

When the Chief called a halt to the charge, he expected to see Eagle Feather trampled to death. The bulls withdrew and there sat Eagle Feather in the centre of the ring with his magic feather still in his hair.

A second charge of the buffalo-bulls ended with the same result as the first. Deciding that Eagle Feather possessed powerful magic-protection, the Chief welcomed him into their camp on one condition: that he bring them gifts from the Pawnee tribe. This, Eagle Feather agreed to do.

When he returned to his tribal village with his wife and son in human form, he found his people without food. But his wife had brought some buffalo meat under her robe, and, magically, every one of the Pawnees had enough to eat. Later, when Eagle Feather and his family took gifts to the buffalo leaders, they were greatly pleased.

In return, the leaders offered some of their old bulls to help the Pawnees secure more food. The young son of Eagle Feather returned with the herd in the form of a yellow calf, while his parents went ahead in human form.

“Do not kill the yellow calf,” warned Eagle Feather. “When you hunt, always save the yellow calf, because it will always bring back more buffaloes to the Pawnee tribe.”

Consequently, they had an abundance of food for a long time. Then one day, the son of Eagle Feather said to his father, “No more will I visit you as a boy. No longer should the hunters spare the yellow calf. They should kill it and sacrifice it to the Great Spirit. They should tan its yellow hide and make a bundle containing an ear of corn and other sacred objects wrapped within. This will be your tribal sacred bundle.

“Every year, you must look for another yellow calf leading the buffalo herd to the Pawnees. Each year you must sacrifice it and keep a piece of its fat, adding it to your sacred bundle.

“Then if food ever should become scarce, your chiefs should gather in council and pay a friendly visit to a young buffalo. He will tell of your need to the Great Spirit, so that another yellow calf might be sent to lead a buffalo herd to the Pawnees.”

When he had finished speaking, the boy left the camp. In the future of the Pawnee tribe, everything happened as he said it would. Food was plentiful, Eagle Feather became a great Chief, respected and loved by his tribe. His buffalo-wife, however, was almost forgotten, and one night she vanished forever.

Chief Eagle Feather felt great remorse when he came to realize his neglect of her. He never recovered fully from the loss of his wife. In time, he withered away and died. His magic eagle feather was added to the sacred bundle of the Pawnee tribe.

The Pawnees’ sacred bundle has long been preserved by the tribal shaman for its magic charms, which always bring back the buffaloes. The Pawnees knew that in a time of great need, the sacred bundle could be opened by the tribal priest in a proper solemn ceremony, imploring the help of the Great Spirit.

Prisoners of Court House Rock

Far out on the plains of western Nebraska is a towering formation of rock and clay which the early fur traders named Court House Rock because its shape reminded them of the first courthouse in St. Louis. In the years before the white men came, and before wind and rain eroded its shape, Court House Rock was much more difficult to climb or descend. On all sides except one the walls of this rock were smoothed and polished, offering no projecting points to serve as foot or hand holds. Only on one side could a climber reach the flat surface of the rock, and this could be done only by chopping steps into the hard clay with a hatchet or some other sharp tool.

One day during that long ago time a Pawnee hunting party was camped near Court House Rock. Suddenly a large war party of Sioux appeared and surrounded the Pawnees. The Sioux drove them back to the rock, and the Pawnees escaped with their lives by climbing to the top.

Although the Sioux dared not follow the Pawnees up the steep steps, they posted guards at the only place where the Pawnees could come down, and then the remainder of the warriors camped all around the base of the rock to starve the Pawnees into submission.

The Pawnees had little food and no water, and after two or three days they began to suffer terribly from hunger and still more from thirst. Spotted Horse, their leader, suffered most of all because he was responsible for the lives of all the warriors in the hunting party. He did not mind dying himself, but he knew that his memory would be disgraced if he lost the young men that he

Every night he went alone to the edge of the rock and prayed to Tirawa the Spirit Chief. One night while he was praying a voice spoke to him out of the darkness: “If you look hard enough you will find a place where you can escape from this rock, and so save all your men and yourself.”

At first daylight, Spotted Horse searched all the ledges for a place where it might be possible to descend without the Sioux discovering them. At last he found near the edge of the cliff a knob of soft clay sticking up above the hard rock surface. Looking over the edge, Spotted Horse saw that just below the knob of clay was one of the smooth sides of the rock which had been left unguarded by the Sioux. With his knife he began cutting into the clay, and by nightfall he had carved an open hole as large around as a man’s body.

Spotted Horse then called his warriors together and asked them to give him all their lariats. After tying the lariats end to end, he looped the first one around a projecting rock, and dropped down through the hole he had dug. As it was too dark to see whether or not the rope reached the ground, Spotted Horse slowly descended it until his feet touched the earth. All around him he could see the glimmering campfires of the besieging Sioux, and he could hear the distant voices of the guards who were watching the place where the Pawnees had climbed to the summit.

Pulling himself up hand over hand, Spotted Horse soon reached the top of the rock again. Cautioning his warriors to make no sounds during the descent or after they reached the ground, he started them down. He ordered the youngest to go first, then the next youngest, and so on, until last of all came his turn. Then he let himself down, and they all crept through the unsuspecting Sioux camp and escaped.

Spotted Horse and his Pawnee braves never knew for certain how long the Sioux remained in camp around Court House Rock, waiting for them to starve. Very likely the Sioux discovered the dangling lariats the very next morning, and realized that they had been outwitted by a worthy foe.

The Pawnee Indians of North America possess one of the oldest native American cultures of the Great Plains. Sometime after about AD 1200 these Caddoan speakers entered the plains from east of the Mississippi River and settled near the Platte River in present-day Nebraska.

From the beginning they grew corn, beans, pumpkins, and fruit, and they harvested a perennial plant of grassy cereal-like grain found in wet or swampy areas, called “wild oats” by the French, and similar to wild rice of today, and hunted for their game and fish. Their women are skillful weavers and pottery makers. Elaborate forms of religious ceremonies are presided over by a strong tribal priesthood. Primarily, the Pawnees are nature worshippers.

Four independent Pawnee bands lived in villages composed of large, sturdy earth lodges adjacent to their maize fields. After planting and after harvest they made two tribal migrations a year to hunt the plains bison herds for meat and skins. Storage of dehydrated meat and vegetables assured an ample food supply. Their highly developed religion, directed by an organized priesthood, taught that all energy is derived from the stars and constellations; it may have been influenced by ancient Mexican civilizations. The chief of each village received instructions from a celestial body, whose sacred objects he held. One of the many Pawnee rituals demands that every spring a young female captive be sacrificed to the Morning Star to compensate for his part in the creation of humanity.

Attacked by nomadic hunting tribes, who were fleeing from European colonization farther east, pressed also by incursions of the westbound pioneers, and weakened by smallpox and cholera, the Pawnee accepted a reservation in Nebraska in 1857. They later joined their relatives the WICHITA in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1876.

Although centered in Oklahoma, Pawnee now live and work all over the United States. Estimated at 10,000 in 1790, the Pawnee nation numbered 2,428 in 1988.

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