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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Pawnee Heritage:
Tribe's Corn Grows In 'Original Homeland'
by Leslie Reed - (Omaha, NE) World-Herald Staff Writer
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KEARNEY, Neb. - Two centuries ago, the Pawnee were a powerful and confident people who dominated broad swaths of what is now Nebraska.

Numbering 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.

But 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.

In 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.

Like a cottonwood tree uprooted by a tornado, the Pawnee were gone.

But they took with them the seeds of their Nebraska past.

With nurturing by tribal members and a few sympathetic Nebraskans, the Pawnee traditions are showing new tendrils of life in Nebraska.

About 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.

Nebraska "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.

LeadingFox and other dancers will have several things to celebrate:

  • New 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.
  • A nonvoting seat on the Nebraska Indian Commission, the state government body representing American Indian tribes based in Nebraska.
  • The return of their ancestors' remains, once held in museums and other collections, to proper graves in their Nebraska homeland.
  • A new crop of Pawnee corn, grown in Nebraska soil under a Nebraska sun.

When 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.

But the corn didn't thrive in Oklahoma soil. And the tribe's agricultural traditions were dwindling.

"When 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."

More 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.

After 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.

Ronnie 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.

"We 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."

After much soul-searching, the tribe's culture committee decided to share some of its precious seed with O'Brien, who has planted some near the arch.

"We came to a big conclusion - we may lose it altogether if we don't trust her or trust someone," EchoHawk said.

Farmer 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.

The Carlsons joined other master gardeners that O'Brien recruited from the Kearney area to help grow the corn. So far, 10 varieties have been revived.

"You can tell this seed is back in the soil it considers home," O'Brien said. "It is amazing to watch it grow."

But it was a more somber matter that first brought the Pawnee back to Nebraska.

The 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.

As 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.

"We 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."

The 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.

But the Pawnee needed more space.

Welsch, 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.

Pawnee 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 in Oklahoma.

"I don't know if I could handle the winter," said LeadingFox, who lives on family-owned land.

Initially, 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.

Although 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.

Welsch said the site the settlers describe can only be his land.

"We 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 shelter."

Judi 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.

"It's 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."

Information 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.

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