Pawnee Actions

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Soon after the 1857 Treaty, the Indian agent assigned to the Pawnee reported that they were living in horrific conditions and that the United States had not provided the basic resources it had promised in the Treaty. Despite increasing pressures to abandon their culture, Pawnee communities found ways to resist assimilation into an “American” way of living. Drawing on the strengths of their own culture, the Pawnee acted to challenge the mistaken idea that they would abandon their own culture, values, and beliefs.

Despite the coercive terms of article 3 in the 1857 Treaty, many Pawnee parents elected not to send their children to reservation schools. In 1869—when the Quakers gained control of the reservation—only twenty percent of school-aged students attended reservation schools. In spite of the Quakers’ attempts to increase student attendance, by 1872 the percentage of Pawnee children who were enrolled in reservation schools remained the same as it had been in 1869.

Pawnee mud lodge of the Loup Fork Village. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, n.d. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. BAE GN 1248

Many Pawnee families continued to live in traditional earth lodge-homes and did not send their children to reservation schools. Instead, they chose to educate their children according to Pawnee values and beliefs.

Group of Pawnee schoolchildren. Photograph by William Henry Jackson, n.d. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Image P01290

In accordance with article 3 of the 1857 Treaty, some Pawnee parents did send their children to reservation schools. In addition to teaching students some English and a few other subjects, the instruction emphasized that Pawnee children should learn to live, think, and act as whites.

Discussion Questions

  • What consequences did Pawnee parents face if they did not send their children to reservation schools? Why might parents be willing to face such consequences?
  • Why would refusal to have children attend reservation schools be an effective form of protest against assimilation?

Patrolling Native Nations’ territories required a robust U.S. military force; however, the Civil War had left the U.S. Army depleted. To address this weakness, Congress authorized the military to enlist American Indians, including the Pawnee, to serve as scouts. American Indian scouts became valuable allies in U.S. military actions during the Plains Indians Wars of the 1860s–1880s.

Illustration by Maria Wolf Lopez, colors by Michael Sheyahshe

The decision to act in alliance with the United States military was a strategic choice on the part of the Pawnee. A military alliance allowed Pawnee to strike back at their enemies and helped the Pawnee coexist with the United States. Many U.S. Army officials thought that this alliance would have a “civilizing” influence on the Pawnee. Conversely, the Pawnee men in the regiments maintained their own Pawnee war practices and traditions.

Discussion Question

  • What choices did the Pawnee make as scouts that serve as examples of resistance against U.S. efforts at assimilation?

Despite pressures from the United States and missionaries to assimilate the Pawnee to a Christian religion, many Pawnee continued to practice traditional ceremonies. Spiritual leaders used every opportunity to practice important ceremonies and worked tirelessly to maintain the integrity of their customs and religious traditions.

Pawnee rattle used in the Star Dance, a Skidi Pawnee ceremony, ca. 1890. Oklahoma. Gourd, wood, hide, pigment. 27.9x10.6 cm. National Museum of the American Indian, 213016

This rattle represents Tirawahut, the Supreme Being of the Pawnee. The inscribed stars identify the four sectors for the universe and the deities that preside over each.

Discussion Question

  • How is maintaining customs and ceremonies a form of resistance to assimilation policies?


Map by Gene Thorpe. Cartographic Concepts, Inc. © 2014 Smithsonian Institution.

Conditions on the Nebraska Pawnee Reservation became dire as fewer resources were made available to the Pawnee. Neither the United States nor the Quakers came up with a way to address the deteriorating situation. Instead, the officials responsible for the health and well-being of the Pawnee recommended that the Pawnee be removed to Indian Territory–what is today known as Oklahoma.

In the late 1870s the United States government removed the Pawnee from their 1857 treaty lands to an even smaller reservation in Indian Territory.

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