As I revisited (in research and in travel) the Republican River Valley of The Darkwater Liar’s Account for my next novels, I sought to learn about people of all races who lived and died in that region. My research led to the Pawnee tribe, with its Skidi, Kitkehahki and Chaui bands, who historically and currently call Nebraska and Kansas their ancestral home. Learning invoked my respect, which encouraged further study and blessed encounters with two Pawnee tribal members, who helped me see how the Pawnee people and culture remain vital today. In all of this, I learned about Magpie as Pawnee presence.
Magpie was a significant animal and spiritual figure to the Pawnee, as evident in stories recorded by George Amos Dorsey (1868-1931). G.A. Dorsey was an American ethnographer of North American Indigenous people and an anthropologist for the Field Columbian Museum. He is both a helpful and troublesome character for me in terms of research, as he documented a great deal of Native folklore, even as he desecrated and plundered Native graves and regarded Indigenous people and customs as relics of dead civilizations. Yet, I had to appreciate that several of Dorsey’s Pawnee stories, recorded in his The Pawnee: Mythology, feature Magpie as recounted by specific, named members of the three Pawnee bands in the waning years of the 19th Century.
A few of the traditional stories tell how Magpie stood out from other birds as a helper to humans, an intercessor and actor who would guide the lost and bring healing. Even though I was once-removed from the first storytellers, reading Dorsey’s translation from the Caddoan Pawnee language, I felt a quaver of the old voices through the pages, across time. My world view is far from theirs, but I treasure their meaningful accounts of Magpie and the other powerful animals and characters in their tradition, such as Coyote and Bear. So much so, that I wove a few into my next two novels.
In my next post, I’ll talk about Magpie as a character in my writing, and how I received my own blessing from this bird. (And thanks to Nanette Day, a writer, editor, publishing consultant and friend, for this post’s key illustration, which she designed with a quote from one of my previous posts.)