Driven From Home
In my upcoming novel, Seven Kinds of Rain, one of my main characters is Kuruk, a Kitkehahki Pawnee character born in Oklahoma around 1904. As a child, he runs away from different Indian schools to finally establish a tenuous existence in the heart of his ancestral homeland. Yet, in the early 1900s there were few, if any, Pawnee tribal members living in that part of Nebraska. For my writing, I set out, into libraries and on a trip through the Republican River Valley of Kansas and Nebraska to more deeply understand this change.
Looking back to Nebraska in 1900, where are the Pawnee?
For the following information, I draw heavily and cite page numbers from David Wishart’s powerful book, An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. I encourage you to consult it for more information on the course of Indian tribal histories in Nebraska. It was one of my most useful resources for understanding the devastations of regional history, and gave me insight to the injustices visited on Plains Indian tribes in the 1800s and 1900s.
The Pawnee’s Chaui, Skiri and Kitkehahki bands traditionally inhabited much of the region the U.S. divided into Nebraska and Kansas.
They made their homes, circular, domed riverbank earth lodges, and raised some crops, living off native plants and hunting native animals.
model of Pawnee earth lodge at Pawnee Historical Museum
They seasonally migrated west for buffalo hunts, utilizing portable hide-covered dwellings.
I learned about Kitkehahki Pawnee band plains life, as it flourished in the 1700s and early 1800s, at the Pawnee Indian Museum near Republic, Kansas, where I saw this and other Pawnee portraits by George Catlin.
George Catlin painting of Man Chief, a Kitkehahki (Republican) Pawnee
A series of government-engineered cessions of Pawnee lands during the 1800s (most of which occurred against a backdrop of tribal starvation and decimation by disease) drove the Pawnee into smaller and smaller spaces. By 1844, the meager Pawnee annuities expired, and in 1848, they lost rights to all lands south of the Platte River. (Wishart, 66) By 1858, all four Nebraska Indian societies had sold the last of their tribal lands, apart from small reservations. (69) Neglect by reservation agencies, conflicts with White settlers, and repeated intertribal conflicts further weakened the Pawnee, making Nebraska reservation life near the Loup River at best unstable, and at worst, untenable. (132)
An 1857 treaty required all Pawnee children between the ages of seven and eighteen to attend school. (179) The continuity of Pawnee culture was even more completely disrupted, as was that off all Indian tribes, by the American government’s Indian School policies of the 19th and 20th Centuries. One such Indian Industrial School was located at Genoa, Nebraska, and while some Genoa and other Indian school students reported being pleased with their American education and acculturation, for many others, their separation from family and the attempts at assimilation they suffered were devastating, sending trauma down through generations of Native families.
Genoa Indian Industrial School photo from usgennet.org
After the Kansas-Nebraska act, and by the 1870s, the Pawnee in Nebraska suffered from White settlement and theft of Pawnee land and resources, including timber, along the Loup and Platte rivers. By 1873-1875, the Pawnee were squeezed out and relocated to Oklahoma Indian Territory. (188)
Nebraska, 1900: Where are the Pawnee?
On their allotted reservation lands in Oklahoma, the Pawnee and other Plains Indian tribes came together to embrace change, wrestling with the government for decades and adapting to survive legislated deprivations and broken promises. Some of the young people became outwardly modern, educated in White ways, even as their elders preserved traditions, as in this photo.
Pawnee father and son, 1912
Long removed from their ancestral lands, the Pawnee have re-established a presence on their sacred land near the Loup River, an interesting development I’ll address in a later post. Both on and off the reservation, the Pawnee flourish and their population is on the rise. But in the early 1900s, a Pawnee character in Nebraska would seem to have been unlikely. Yet, from my authorial standpoint, one seemed necessary, to expose and explore the injustices of history.
So Kuruk Sky Seeing came to be. I hope I have done him some justice, by showing his dispossession, his fragility, and his tenacity in the place he insisted on calling home, against a world that insists he doesn’t belong off the reservation.
*All page numbers (in parentheses) refer to: Wishart, David J. An Unspeakable Sadness: the Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians. Lincoln, Neb.: U of Nebraska, 1994.