Neb. - Two centuries ago, the Pawnee were a powerful and confident
people who dominated broad swaths of what is now Nebraska.
perhaps 20,000, they were the most populous American Indian tribe
in the region. Corn farmers who lived in permanent houses, the Pawnee
also spent long periods on the range hunting bison. In the 19th
century, many served as valued scouts for the Army.
the Pawnees' once-proud place in the Nebraska landscape was obliterated
by cholera and smallpox, the encroachment of white settlers and
incessant attacks by the tribe's nomadic rivals, the Dakotas.
1875, the last remaining bands packed their meager belongings and
moved to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. Their final Nebraska
home, a reservation based around the Mormon-founded town of Genoa,
was sold off and reorganized into present-day Nance County.
a cottonwood tree uprooted by a tornado, the Pawnee were gone.
they took with them the seeds of their Nebraska past.
nurturing by tribal members and a few sympathetic Nebraskans, the
Pawnee traditions are showing new tendrils of life in Nebraska.
100 Pawnee tribal members will make the seven-hour trip from Pawnee,
Okla. - the tribe's home for the past 130 years - to participate
in a June 20 exhibition powwow dance on the grounds of the Great
Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney.
"was our original homeland; it's sacred," said Pat LeadingFox
of Pawnee, president of the chiefs council for cultural affairs,
explaining why he's eager to participate in the trip.
and other dancers will have several things to celebrate:
tribal land, donated two years ago by Nebraska author Roger Welsch,
an honorary tribal member. It is the first Nebraska property to
be owned by the tribe since the Pawnee Reservation was sold.
nonvoting seat on the Nebraska Indian Commission, the state government
body representing American Indian tribes based in Nebraska.
return of their ancestors' remains, once held in museums and other
collections, to proper graves in their Nebraska homeland.
new crop of Pawnee corn, grown in Nebraska soil under a Nebraska
the Pawnee made their trek to Oklahoma in the late 19th century,
they carried seed corn with them in their sacred bundles of religious
icons, said Deb EchoHawk of Pawnee, a tribal member who's devoted
herself to reviving the tribe's traditional corn varieties.
the corn didn't thrive in Oklahoma soil. And the tribe's agricultural
traditions were dwindling.
we came down to Oklahoma, a lot of our tribal members passed away
along the way because of disease and mishaps," EchoHawk said.
"Some of the bundles, they didn't have anyone who knew how
to take care of them."
corn-growing traditions were lost during "the boarding-school
generation," when Pawnee youths were sent to boarding schools
and industrial schools for assimilation. EchoHawk said young people
were taught how to grow hybrid seed corn, not traditional varieties.
EchoHawk moved to Oklahoma in 1997, she and a cousin decided to
gather up the seeds that remained within the tribe. Despite their
efforts, the supply of seed remained dangerously low.
O'Brien, marketing director at the Kearney Arch, called six years
ago asking for corn to use in an elementary school program - only
to learn just how rare Pawnee corn is.
were terribly hesitant to work with Ronnie," EchoHawk recalled.
"We had this seed, and it was sacred to us and we only had
a little bit."
much soul-searching, the tribe's culture committee decided to share
some of its precious seed with O'Brien, who has planted some near
came to a big conclusion - we may lose it altogether if we don't
trust her or trust someone," EchoHawk said.
Jerry Carlson and his archaeologist wife, Nancy, are growing small
amounts of the corn, and other traditional Pawnee crops, in the
Genoa area. They started after seeing them grown at the Pawnee Indian
Village State Historical Site in Republic, Kan., and obtaining a
few seeds from Oklahoma seed saver Carl Barnes.
Carlsons joined other master gardeners that O'Brien recruited from
the Kearney area to help grow the corn. So far, 10 varieties have
can tell this seed is back in the soil it considers home,"
O'Brien said. "It is amazing to watch it grow."
it was a more somber matter that first brought the Pawnee back to
tribe helped lead the fight in the 1980s and 1990s to pass state
and federal laws requiring that Native American human remains and
burial goods, then held in museums and academic collections, be
returned to their tribes to be laid to rest.
a result, the Pawnee began receiving the skeletal remains of ancestors
who had never lived in Oklahoma, said Francis Morris, repatriation
coordinator for the tribe.
didn't have any land in Nebraska to rebury our remains," he
said. "Those people lived in Nebraska. We felt it wouldn't
be the thing to bury them in Oklahoma. This is not their home."
community of Genoa, once the headquarters of the Pawnee Reservation
and site of the Genoa Indian School, provided two grave sites at
the local cemetery, including an underground vault for burial goods.
the Pawnee needed more space.
who lives on land along the Loup River and had been involved in
the effort to return tribal remains, decided to give his 56-acre
residence to the Pawnee. He and his wife, Linda, continue to live
on the land, near Dannebrog, through a lease arrangement. Since
the gift two years ago, the land has been used as a burial site
for Pawnee remains.
Tribal Chairman George Howell said the tribe is seeking trust status
for the Welsch property, but the tribe has no plans to relocate
to Nebraska. Tribal leaders said the Pawnee have made their home
don't know if I could handle the winter," said LeadingFox,
who lives on family-owned land.
the Welsches planned to bequeath the property to the Pawnee. Later,
the couple decided to give the property before their deaths so they
could take part in the Pawnees' return to Nebraska.
the Welsch property was not part of the Pawnee Reservation, Danish
pioneers who founded Dannebrog said they found 200 to 300 Pawnee
camped there when they arrived in 1871.
said the site the settlers describe can only be his land.
find Pawnee tools here," he said. "The shelter from fire
and invasion provided by the huge circling loop of Oak Creek around
Dannebrog makes this a perfect camp site for game, wood, water and
gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Indian Commission,
said there is a bittersweet element to the Pawnee "homecoming."
gaiashkibos, who is Ponca, recalled gazing at the landscape around
her while visiting a Pawnee sacred site north of Fremont last year.
still a sad thing to look around you and to think this was all our
beautiful land," she said. "It's a good thing to reconnect
and see where your people stood at one time. On the other hand,
it's sad. It's a double-edged sword."
about Pawnee history was taken from interviews and the 1994 book
"An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska
Indians," by University of Nebraska-Lincoln historical geographer
David J. Wishart, published by the University of Nebraska Press.