Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Celestial Pawnee

Celestial Pawnee by Deirdre Kelleghan

The Pawnee were a North American Plains Indian tribe. They lived along the Platte, Loup and Republican rivers in Nebraska from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

The name Pawnee comes from the native word Pariki meaning “Horn” which referred to their typical hairstyle. The Pawnee were a proud people with a strong sense of identity. Their description of themselves is Chatick - si - Chaticks, which means “Men of Men”. Indeed this title is very apt as the Pawnee were very often the scouts leading the Calvary across lands to which they had key knowledge. The Pawnee familiarity with the night sky gave them a unique edge when travelling by night. They were also known as the “Wolf People” cloaking themselves in the mantel of a wolfs cunning and courage.

The Pawnee had several distinct groups and of these the Skidi Pawnee or the Wolf Pawnee were considered some of the best astronomers of the Native American tribes. Centuries ago the Pawnee observed the stars passing over the smoke holes of their lodges and tee pees. In the autumn when they noticed the Pleiades shining through the smoke holes at midnight, they knew the winter solstice was only one month away. Six months later they observed the Circle of Chiefs or Corona Borealis above the smoke holes at midnight; it was one month from the longest day or summer solstice.

Corona Borealis is an important constellation in the mythical past of nearly all the tribes of the plains. The Pawnee believed the Circle of Chiefs were the guardians of the Tirawaatius.

Tirawa Atius (atius = "lord") was the great god, he created everything and catered to the needs of every living thing. Known to us as the Milky Way, Tirawa Atius created the Path of the Departing Spirits.
The Pawnee chiefs painted their faces with blue lines representing the arc of heaven and the path of decent. They wore feather-down on their heads, a symbol of celestial life. The members of this group of chiefs did not dance or sing; they talk quietly and tried to be like the stars.

The Pawnee made sky charts from elk skin. These sky charts were kept in sacred bundles. Every household had a sacred bundle, which they believed were gifts from the stars. These powerful bundles are referenced as sometimes containing meteorites wrapped in animal skin star charts. The sacred bundles were only brought out to great ceremony when the Swimming Duck Cluster was rising in the morning sky.

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.

The Pawnee did not have a solar calendar of a lunar calendar; they marked their year purely with the observance of the stars. They had more star ceremonies and rituals than any other tribe. Their lodges were laid out in patterns, which mimicked the patterns of the constellations.

Their observations of the stars helped them to know when to plant and harvest crops and to know when to hunt bison.

These interesting people had a deep association with the cosmos.

The Pawnee were a matrilineal people, ancestral descent was through the mother and a young couple would traditionally move into the bride's parents' lodge.

Women and men were politically active with both sharing decision making responsibilities.

They viewed themselves as descendants of the stars. The believed Mars – The Red Morning Star Warrior and Venus – The White Star Woman mated and had a daughter from which the human race descended. So according to the Pawnee the first human was a woman. Furthermore they believed that the sun and the moon mated to create the first male child. The image created by the whole of the star patterns in the night sky was they believed the image of a wild bobcat. The wild bobcat with its spotted skin and its nocturnal habits represents the night sky and all the stars therein.

Newborn Pawnee children were wrapped in bobcat skin thereby they were considered to be wrapped in and protected by the heavens.

The Pleiades star cluster was worshiped by these earthbound tribal peoples.

Look as they rise, up rise

Over the line where sky meets earth

Seven Stars!

Lo! They are ascending, come to guide us.

Leading us safely, keeping us one.

Oh, Seven Stars,

Teach us to be, like you, united

The Pawnee people saw the United States as allies against their traditional enemies the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche’s. The Pawnee gained fame as scouts for the United States Army, and a battalion of them served from 1865 to 1885 within the army on the Plains. Working for the US Cavalry as scouts was better than facing the ignominy of reservation life and the inevitable loss of their freedom and culture.

In the late 18th century the Pawnee Nation numbered some 10,000 individuals but in the 19th century
epidemics of both smallpox and cholera were responsible for wiping out most of these earthy people.

By the end of 1900 only 600 were left alive. Today records indicate that they are building up their numbers and up to 5,500 twenty first century Pawnees carry on their nation’s spirit. Today's Pawnees meet biannually and celebrate their rich culture.