An Unspeakable Past
One day my oldest brother gave me some old Pawnee ceremonial corn, white with blue speckles. Walter took to calling it “eagle corn” because the tiny speckles resembled a bird shape. He got it from a seed bank in Kansas – they had obtained it from a Pawnee woman who last grew it long ago, probably before World War II. That corn traveled a long way to enter our family traditions along the Colorado Front Range.
My brother grew this pretty corn in the summer of 1991. The next spring he gave me a perfect ear of it, and I turned it over to my wife Linda. Preparing a little garden of mounds in our back yard, together we planted that Pawnee corn one early Saturday morning in mid-May 1992. Linda and I planted it carefully under the cool vanishing twilight of the morning star.
That speckled corn grew beautifully; unruly stands of shining green leaves soon lengthened into the middle of summer. We watched as Jaxon, one of our cats, made this Pawnee ceremonial corn garden his new special place, guarding the growing plants, napping among the mounds.
Today we have a couple of tall shady trees back there and it’s too sheltered for a corn garden. But in the summer of 1992 it seemed a great place for a little garden.
In the fall, Linda and Jaxon gave me a basket of that pretty speckled corn to take to Oklahoma. I danced in the Kitkahahki ceremonial dance and the Morgan family used that corn during the corn ritual – the first time in many years this ceremonial corn saw use in a Pawnee ceremony.
A few years later, about the time 1998 morphed into 1999, Lynne Goldstein, the editor of American Antiquity, got in touch with me. She invited me to submit a paper on Pawnee oral traditions and archeology. Sure, I said. Lynne had always treated me with respect and this seemed like a good chance to talk about some things that mattered to me.
I had various research papers and notes that I’d prepared right around the time that my wife and Jaxon grew that Pawnee ceremonial corn. In the late nights, wandering between the evening star and the morning star, Jaxon would come inside to nap at the back of my chair while I excavated the buried secrets of the ancient past. When he died, we buried him in that corn garden with a copy of the final paper that he helped me to write.
Preparing a new paper in the first half of 1999, it got too long and it rambled too much and that summer I had to cut out some important sections. I liked those sections, but they had to go. “Ancient History in the New World” appeared in the spring of 2000, and when I got my copy, I wished I could have left in some of that stuff I had cut out.
So when I got an invitation to give a paper at the University of Oklahoma and an invitation to present a paper at a conference at Dartmouth College, I decided to revisit that material and I did. I wrote “An Unspeakable Past.” Writing it, I kept thinking back to the summer of 1992.
I went on tour with “An Unspeakable Past” in the spring of 2001. In Norman, Oklahoma my sister Deb and another Pawnee woman sat in the audience, and the Pawnee woman – I don’t remember her name now – she said some nice things later. A lot to think about, she remarked. The next day I boarded an airliner to fly back to Colorado and a woman sitting next to me felt friendly and we chatted abut race.
Among the various fascinating topics I addressed in “An Unspeakable Past,” I tried to say something useful about race. It’s the first paper where I really experimented with that topic – I guess it helped to set my feet on the road I have followed since.
In May 2001 I read the version which follows below as the opening plenary paper for the Dartmouth conference, On the Threshold: Native American - Archaeologist Relations in the Twenty-First Century, organized by Deborah Nichols and Joe Watkins. It was at that conference that the Closet Chickens first appeared.
This paper evokes a lot of things for me. When I look at it, I picture Jaxon in his enchanted garden, and I see my wife Linda planting that pretty speckled corn under the morning star, and I think of the Kitkahahki ceremonial dance, and I’m grateful to Lynne Goldstein for publishing my 2000 paper, and I value the memory of standing up before an audience full of proto-Coop Closet Chickens, and I’m glad I wrote this paper. It explores aspects of the ancestry of American identity, certain almost-forgotten journeys, and some of the places where we became ourselves....
Dehumanizing and Rehumanizing Ancient Americans
When we create versions of the historical past, our shared humanity emerges from the details of history, so our stories must convey accurate, complex information. To understand the human world of ancient North America, we must draw upon oral traditions, archeological evidence, physical anthropology, and other sources of information. We must also consider the very construction and transmission of our shared history, and we must explore every major feature of our humanity in time. In order to understand ourselves and our ancestors, we need both clarity and depth in our explanations of human experience. To do otherwise is to willingly dehumanize ourselves.
In the cultural life of every human community, dehumanization provides an effective means of exerting social power and promoting cultural values. Dehumanization, in its strict definition, is “to divest of human qualities or personality” through selective inclusion and exclusion of character traits. Dehumanization can thus be employed as a tool both to create positive images and to craft negative ones. In the more popular usage of the term, however, dehumanization refers to the process of reducing human character to an imposed set of culturally objectionable traits for the purpose of subjecting a defined group to some form of social control.
The concept of race – born in Europe, domesticated in America – has provided an effective rationale for dehumanizing groups of people. It produced artificial categories of humankind: white people, black people, Indians, and many other groups. It has historically served to justify the hegemony of arbitrarily defined “white” people. Race can be usefully broken down into two basic principles. “Racialism” is the idea that biology provides a viable means of sorting out people into groups, the various races; while “racism” compares races and ranks them in accordance with some form of stereotype. Racialism automatically sets up groups according to comparative characteristics, but it can refrain from preferential ordering. Racism relies upon systematic rankings, making it useful for exerting power and control.
The categories of race are arbitrary and variable, and over time have included as few as three human groups, and as many as 87. As intellectual ideology, the concept of race reflects the general human inclination to sort people into groups and to then rank them according to preferences in which your own comes out on top. No group is immune to the lure of bonding by thinking of ways in which their group is superior to others. The Pawnees, for example, are really the Chaticks Si Chaticks, the people of people – the really civilized people compared to everyone else. Race is just another systematic way to rank groups.
Race has great power in American culture because it is deeply rooted in the American academic enterprise. This extends back to the 19th century establishment of craniology and phrenology. Through the study of skulls, American science sought to define racial groups. The most famous proponent of such study was Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia physician who ranks as America’s foremost scientist of the first half of the 19th century. Morton experimented with techniques through which the idea of race could be understood as a biological reality. Under his tutelage, the skulls could speak. What they said to Morton was that individual character emerges from “race,” and races can be compared, and white people, according to this science, are the people of people.
Looking at Indians through the lens of science, white Americans of the mid-19th century assured themselves of the rightness of their domination of the American world. Indians were less capable people; they would never really grasp the principles of civilization. Their biology made it inevitable that they would be overwhelmed by white people. Worse, Indians had to be controlled because they were racially inclined toward violence. As historian Robert Bieder discovered, in one popular book on phrenology published in 1856, Orson Fowler dehumanized Indians by reducing them to bloodthirsty savages:
Their extreme destructiveness would create a cruel, bloodthirsty, and revengeful disposition – a disposition common to the race – which in connexion with their moderate or small benevolence, would make them turn a deaf ear to the cries of distress, and steel them to such acts of barbarity as they are wont to practice in torturing the hapless victims of their vengeance. [Because of] their extremely large destructiveness combined with their large secretiveness and cautiousness…we may expect them to glory in dark deeds of cruelty; in scalping the fallen foe, and in butchering helpless women and children.
The idea of race could sweep away biological complexity, and through phrenology and craniology, the illusion of racialism became rooted in human biology – or rather, pseudobiology. The creation of a group defined as “Indians” dehumanized the native populations of North America first by making them a racial group, and then by saddling them with an undesirable group identity. To the degree that American historical scholarship has portrayed white people as heroic victims of Indian brutality, Indians have responded by emphasizing the violence inflicted by brutal white people upon heroic Indians. Both approaches accept the precepts of racialism. Both approaches presume that human history consists of the history of racial groups. But if race biology is pseudobiology, then race history must be pseudohistory.
Still, one clear lesson of this scholarship is that historical violence cannot be ignored. Violence is a very human activity. To transform it into a racial trait, or to shear it away, is to dehumanize people.
Racialism is such a powerful source of personal identity in American society today that it takes a leap of imagination to understand that ancient America was a place where no one was “Indian.” But at some point in time, my Pawnee ancestors looked at each other and saw not just Kitkahahki or Skidi Pawnees – they began to see “Indians.” By the end of the 19th century, Indians had thoroughly imbibed race. Discovering that its oppressive structure of artificial group identity could also serve as a source of group power, Indians became Indians with great skill and enthusiasm. This is an outcome of history. Whatever we make of ourselves today, a thousand years ago, there were no “Indians” or “Native Americans” in America. These were not structures of group identity because race was absent from communal discourse.
The ideology of race has historically shaped American discourse on ancient America. The paradigm of racialism, together with the racist stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage, shaped the stories whites told when they observed the American landscape and pondered its mysteries. Encountering the great Midwestern earthworks, some whites could hardly believe that Indians had built these structures. Absorbing the stereotype of Indians as biologically bent toward ruthless violence, many white Americans of the 19th century could easily imagine that Indians had swept away a superior human race in a frenzy of bloodletting. The subtext of such narratives meant that Indians could not be permitted to hold power in America; they must be prevented from undoing the destiny of the white race; they had to be refashioned, or removed, or even exterminated. In constructing ancient human history in the New World, racial whites inspired one another to make manifest the proper destiny: America would be civilized and white.
American archeology in its 19th century childhood did something quite precocious. It helped to defuse the imaginings of whites by finding that Mound Builders were Indians. Through the magic of archeology, the ancient, abandoned cityscapes were suddenly peopled with Indians. It was a great moment, but it was also a moment in which archeology explicitly denounced the study of oral traditions.
In oral traditions and the archeological record, forgetting and remembering together shape the imprint of human existence. When we construct history as a record of our humanity, we necessarily focus on selective details; so the very creation of history is an editorial process, and people in history are inherently incomplete. This form of dehumanization permeates our efforts to memorialize our humanity in written and oral texts, in personal recollection, and in every endeavor which aims at characterizing humankind. Dehumanization therefore hovers at the core of history as an intellectual enterprise, and as a factor in the shaping of personal identity.
If dehumanization constitutes a shearing away of aspects of selfhood and identity across time, we should counter it with complexity. We must require the landscapes of the past to carry the full weight of our humanity, because it is our very humanity that is at stake. We must acknowledge the ancestry of our religious selves, our sexual selves, our nurturing selves, our violent selves. This is our continuously elaborate humanity at work, preparing the infinite details that we recognize as the productions of self-aware humankind.
Among the various productions of ancient America, oral traditions and the archeological record memorialize the doings of Mother Corn and her world. A thousand years ago, she changed the face of ancient America. The cultivation of corn became entwined with a gynocentric ideology of human well-being. Women and men flourished under the benevolent authority of Mother Corn, but they encountered oppressive and at times very violent social repression. The comparative status of women and men was negotiated in the continuous alignments of social agendas from northeastern America to the Plains, and onward into the Southwest. These alignments represent the outcome of history, rather than invented mythology or timeless tradition. Mother Corn appeared upon a specific American stage in time as a vigorous presence, a source of power, a point of contention. We can hear her footfall in our oral traditions and see her footprint in the archeological record.
In ancient times, a religious complex arose around Mother Corn ideology, and evidence suggests that this system included female religious leaders who traveled to neighboring communities. They were, in essence, Mother Corn missionaries. In their world, ideological conflict brought warfare, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Over time, polarization gave way to more integrative social structures, and forms of the Mother Corn ideological system have endured into the present, leaving its imprint upon many communities.
The formulation and initial diffusion of these circumstances occurred from about 1000 to 1400 of the Common Era (CE). This time frame presumes that the appearance of corn cultivation as a prominent subsistence strategy in particular regions may also reflect the presence of some form of Mother Corn ideology. Corn has a long presence in the Southwest, extending back about 3500 years, and spreading across the Plains and into the trans-Mississippi east about 1700 years ago by the third or fourth century (CE). But in many of these regions, we do not find consistent, community-scale corn cultivation until after 1000 CE. These historical developments can only be timed through careful study of the archeological record and oral traditions.
David Benn and his colleagues define the term “ideology” as referring to the “organizing force or principle of society” which “constitutes the prevailing consciousness or ethos of a group of people and literally permeates every aspect of human behavior through internalization of values, attitudes, beliefs, morality, and the like.” Ideology is a conceptual framework that includes ideas and ritual behavior, but also serves to guide the construction of lifeways in general. Ideology is a complex human production, and it may be useful to think of multiple ideologies, rather than a single uniform ideology at work in every human social context, shaping both culture and history.
Mother Corn ideology tends to reflect women’s religious inclinations. Noting the academic view that two sex-based orientations can be distinguished in all religions, Susan Sered sees a worldwide pattern in which religions dominated by women emphasize “life in the here and now, relationships between people, and the alleviation of suffering in this world in this lifetime.” Male-dominated religions, on the other hand “focus attention on life after death, future redemption, and mystical truth.” Mother Corn had the greatest effect upon the lives of women. Men also participated, and could even be the primary beneficiaries of Mother Corn empowerment, but Mother Corn ideology fits into the pattern of female-centered religious orientation, indicating that women shaped its character as a continental movement.
The ideology of Mother Corn endured through time, shaping an ongoing heritage of ceremonialism. Mother Corn appears as an important figure in the Pawnee Pipe Dance, recorded around 1900 from a Chaui Pawnee priest. I believe that the Pipe Dance took shape during the same era when Mother Corn ideology first appeared. In discussing one of the Pipe Dance songs, the Pawnee priest framed the philosophy behind the ceremony: “The second stanza says that Mother Corn has arrived, bringing gifts…. These gifts…are the promise of long life, of children, of plenty, and of peace.” In a Wichita origin story narrated by Tawakoni Jim at the same time that the Pawnee Pipe Dance was being recorded, Mother Corn ideology focuses on women. In the story, the cultivation of corn is given into the control of women for their well-being, with ritual prayers and blessings for their children. Menstruation and childbirth were important to Mother Corn. She also gave women a particular game, which was connected in some manner to travel.
Gynocentric Mother Corn ideology introduced changes in social lifeways by emphasizing cultivation of corn. The degree of such change varied from place to place, depending upon the existing levels of horticulture. On the Central and Southern Plains, plant cultivation emerged as a dominant pattern around 1000 CE, but east of the Mississippi River and in the Southwest, farming was more established, and Mother Corn therefore may have had the most dramatic social impact in the Plains. Mother Corn ideology could have even originated in the Plains; but more likely, a variety of centers arose over time and ideas flowed in many directions across the continent.
Ideology is transmitted in a variety of ways, but at least two general means of inter-group transmission are readily available to explain the movement of Mother Corn. First, people may learn of religious activities while visiting other communities. In 1891, for example, the Pawnees took up the Ghost Dance when a Kitkahahki man visited the Wichitas and witnessed its performance. As the Pawnees were experimenting with the Ghost Dance, an increasing number were also attending the local Methodist-Episcopal church, established as a mission during the 1880s. This form of transmitting religious ideas involves missionaries who proselytize new converts. It is probable that Mother Corn ideology spread in both ways. Such processes, I believe, are generally invisible in the archeological record. We can observe the spread of corn cultivation, though the exact method of transmission may be invisible. And the movement of corn in American landscapes may not be automatically equivalent to the spread of Mother Corn ideology. We must examine oral records to see how Mother Corn moved across North America.
Oral traditions among many tribes attribute the establishment of Mother Corn ideology to female deities such as Mother Moon, White Buffalo Calf Woman, Changing Woman, and Mother Corn herself. These religious explanations refer to spiritual agency as the source of Mother Corn ideology, and they provide self-sufficient models for religious authority and cultural practice. It is the responsibility of academic history to clarify historical processes behind events in time. Mother Corn oral traditions, in my view, preserve memories of ancient historical events upon the Caddoan Plains.
Wichita and Arikara stories seem to refer to female religious figures, women who traveled from community to community for the sole purpose of proselytizing other women into accepting Mother Corn ideology. In Tawakoni Jim’s Wichita origin story, corn was given to the first woman as a gift to sustain future generations. Later, this woman – identified as Moon, a female deity – began her work to educate women about how to live, primarily through corn cultivation. She was a fount of instruction, advice, and knowledge, and through her authority she empowered women to perform certain ritual activities to bring blessings. In this oral tradition, she also tells of a game using a ball which serves as her symbol for traveling, and then she speaks explicitly of her missionary activities:
When [Moon] began her work among the women she gave them Mother-Corn, and told them that this was theirs, and this was their mother; that from this time they should be nursed; that with the use of Mother-Corn they could live and it would strengthen the young ones; that Mother-Corn was to be used as long as the world should last. **** She showed them how to play the [double-ball] game and told them that the ball was for their use in traveling. Now she told them the time was drawing near when she would leave them, for she had gone from one place to another, showing the women what to do, how to travel, how to raise Mother-Corn, how they must eat it and offer it, in all the ways that Mother-Corn was to be used.
Mother Corn figures prominently as a deity in Arikara origin stories, playing a central role in shaping Arikara communal identity. In some stories, Mother Corn resided among the Arikara for a period of time, teaching them bundle ceremonies, but when she had distributed this sacred knowledge, she gave instructions for the people to take her to the Missouri River “and throw her in” for “she was now to go back to the place where they had come from.…” One must look down the Missouri River for her homeland, her place of origin. These traditions describe Mother Corn’s spiritual dimensions, with the remembrance of her advent linked to the history of corn cultivation, the formation of communal identity, and the founding of ceremonial practices and political processes among Plains Caddoans after 1000 CE.
Several traditions recounted at least one later visit by Mother Corn to the Arikara, before leaving forever. In one account Mother Corn set out on a journey from her residence somewhere in the east, and she visited a number of other communities before arriving among the Arikara. Some days later, an enemy attacked the Arikara, and Mother Corn was slain, “causing great grief among the people. The Arikara were defeated on that day. They took MotherCorn and buried her.” In this story, Mother Corn was murdered by enemies. This is not the typical fate of a deity, but it does happen to living people who dare to spread revolutionary ideas. This unusual story can be read as enshrining the martyrdom of a female priestess visiting the Central Plains, and it also memorializes a military assault on the practitioners of Mother Corn ideology. Mother Corn collided with an established social order in her journey across North America.
The Sioux story of White Buffalo Calf Woman also fits the Mother Corn missionary pattern. In the story, a female deity bearing corn and a pipe visited the Sioux with specific teachings to impart. As explained by Joyzelle Godfrey: “[T]he first four days She taught us the rituals, and the songs, and admonished us to treat each other at all times with love, honor, and respect. The second ten days that She was here, she taught us how to hunt buffalo. We were still on foot….” In Sioux traditions, White Buffalo Calf Woman appears as figure of great authority and perilous beauty. At various points in time, the ancestors of the Sioux encountered Mother Corn, and she left an indelible imprint upon their culture.
Summarizing archeological evidence for the presence of corn in the American Northeast, Barbara Mann and Jerry Fields observe that it first appears after 800 CE and is well-established by 1100. Iroquois oral traditions attribute the origin of corn to a female deity known as Otsitsa and her daughter, but according to a Cayuga oral tradition reported by Peter Jemison, Otsitsa was a Wyandot from the vicinity of Princess Point, Canada. This oral tradition matches archeological evidence that this region served as the direct source for corn in New York. According to Mann and Fields, the term Otsitsa in various Iroquoian dialects means corn. Otsitsa was Corn Mother among the Iroquois. Mann and Fields argue that sometime prior to 1100 CE, corn cultivators initiated a new female-centered social order that led to regional conflict with existing lifeways dominated by males. Those favoring the old order ultimately resorted to cannibal terrorism as a method of intimidating the corn farmers and suppressing the assertion of power by women. This social discord led to the creation of the Iroquois Confederation, which Mann and Fields date through various means at 1142 CE, centuries earlier than other researchers.
The archeological evidence for social discord in the form of warfare, together with instances of cannibalism, is broadly accepted for this time in the American Northeast. This is also true for the American Southwest. Christy Turner and Jacqueline Turner hypothesize that the disintegration of Mexican Toltec society after 800 CE brought “warrior-cultists” into the Southwest, wielding cannibal terrorism as an ideological weapon to oppress the Pueblo people. These Mexican invaders worshipped gods who required human sacrifice and cannibalism, and the Turners point to several major Hopi deities as representing versions of these Mexican gods. The archeological evidence for violent warfare in the Southwest during the time in question is broadly accepted, and evidence for incidents of cannibalism is also gaining wide acceptance.
This evidence finds some support in the oral traditions of many groups. Douglas Preston cites Navajo oral traditions to the effect that Chaco Canyon in New Mexico was a place of “hideous evil” whose residents practiced cannibalism and sorcery. Conflict between the sexes sets the stage for one Navajo story in which women engage in sexual practices resulting in the creation of monsters – some in human form – who terrorized, murdered, and ate humans. This occurred at a time preceding the formation of the Navajo, when Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon was occupied, dating from 800 to 1130 CE. The destruction of these murderous man-eaters by the twin children of Changing Woman and Sun set the stage for the formation of the Navajo people, who do not clearly emerge in the archeological record for the Southwest until well after the fall of Chaco Canyon from regional preeminence. The formation of the Navajo people was a complex set of processes over time, and one process involved competition between lifeways, framed as conflict between the sexes.
Some Pueblo oral traditions, like the Navajo stories, make reference to incidents of oppressive brutality and cannibalism. In one Pueblo narrative recorded by Franz Boas in 1919, a fearsome sorcerer at a town somewhere in the Four Corners region slaughtered people and hung them up to let their blood drip into a dish of cornmeal which he then served to visitors. Dead bodies and bones lay scattered about his dwelling. Spider Woman acted as a savior of the Pueblo people in this gruesome story. Throughout the Southwest, she is greatly revered as a wise and benevolent deity, a primary source of cultural traditions central to Puebloan and Navajo communal identities.
Spider Woman has a much different image upon the Plains. Among the Pawnees – as with the Pueblos – Spider Woman is associated with Mother Moon and has a role in human creation. Unlike the Pueblos, however, Spider Woman is not a benevolent figure. Instead, she is a cannibal, often called Witch Woman, sometimes said to live in a “far-away country,” and she wields her sorcery in a capricious and murderous manner. Among the Wichita, the figure of Spider Woman is also portrayed as a cannibal. In one Pawnee story, Morning Star vied with Spider Woman to free the people from her oppressive control of bison. In this story, Morning Star acts to champion the cause of human well-being, while Spider Woman is ultimately slain and sent to dwell in the heavens as the moon. Spider Woman generally seems to have been treated as an aspect of Mother Moon, but Mother Moon is never explicitly characterized as a cannibal witch, while Spider Woman is often referred to in this fashion.
In another Pawnee story, a reference is made to what sounds like Puebloan architecture. In the tale, a daughter of Evening Star is taken captive by a rolling head or skull named Long Tongue who takes human form and dwells in a “lodge which was built of rock.” The woman is rescued by a raven that carries her eastward to freedom, where she meets a family who own a bundle with corn in it. The woman takes up residence with them, assuming responsibility for planting the corn. It seems possible, at least, that these Pawnee oral traditions reflect interaction between the Plains and Southwest.
This interaction left its imprint upon the Pawnees. A variety of evidence indicates that the ancestors of the Pawnees imported at least one major ceremony from the Southwest involving human sacrifice.
Among the Skidi Pawnees, the Morning Star Bundle required the performance of a ceremony in which a captive – generally a woman – was tied to an altar and ritually executed. In the Skidi story that serves as the justification for the ceremony of human sacrifice, Morning Star and Sun were brothers who ruled over a community of eastern stars in the heavens “which were like men” and Evening Star and Moon led the western stars “which were like women.” Moon protected Evening Star and the other women, slaying all the male stars who came from the east looking for brides. Morning Star and Sun, however, set forth to seek wives, and they managed to overcome each of the obstacles that Moon placed before them.
The murder of a captive woman is intended to honor the ordeal of Morning Star in accomplishing the quest to marry Evening Star and create human life. Other purposes are cited as reasons for holding this ceremony, but it basically reflected a commitment by the Skidi people to maintain a sacred relationship with the spiritual powers that sustain human life. Taken at face value, the ceremony dramatized human creation and was intended to ensure the continuity of life.
Pondering the details of the various accounts of this story and the accompanying ceremony, Von Del Chamberlain has argued that the entire complex of ideology and ritual arose from careful observations of the motions of planets in the night sky. He rejected the idea that the Skidi ceremony holds features in common with Mexican ceremonialism.
But Skidi oral traditions themselves indicate a complex history behind the ceremony. At least three Skidi oral traditions account for the origins of the Morning Star Bundle. The invention of earthlodge structures occurs in the course of two of these stories, and according to the archeological record, this architectural form appears in the Central and Southern Plains after 1000 CE. In the third Skidi story, the Morning Star Bundle originated as a gift from two old men who dwelt in a stone house in another land. The story implies a divine source for the bundle, but it can be usefully assessed on its own terms – that is, as a historical account of the actual origin of the Morning Star Bundle.
Viewing the Skidi Morning Star, Robert Hall observes a striking resemblance to the same Mexican god (Xipe Totec) that the Turners see among the Hopi. It appears that Mesoamerican ideology was transmitted into the Plains from the Southwest, and the Caddoan ancestors of the Skidi acquired their human sacrifice ceremony in some form during the period 900 to 1300 CE from a Pueblo source. Elsie Parsons postulated common roots for some Pueblo and Skidi religious ideas. Skidi and Pueblo conceptions of Morning Star, for example, both associate him with warfare.
The Turners explain acts of cannibalism as a strategy reflecting an exported ideology through which a powerful clique terrorized the Pueblo populace. Although the existence of cannibalism has gained wide acceptance among archeologists, its explanation is a topic of unsettled debate. The Turners do not connect corn cultivation, warfare, cannibalism, and the status of women in Southwestern societies. In discussing the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy, Mann and Fields do not consider imported ideology as an explanation. The historical outcomes in the Southwest and Northeast reflect wide patterns of cultural interaction involving forms of competing ideologies. The general correspondence in history of similar circumstances in both the Southwest and Northeast implies broad geocultural developments. The coming of Mother Corn must be viewed as a process in time rather than as a timeless event.
Mother Corn encountered opposition wherever she appeared, and her experience upon the Plains was no different. Evidence for warfare occurs in the Central and Southern Plains, but the most dramatic instance is found in South Dakota at the Crow Creek Massacre site, dated at about 1300 CE. No other battlefield in ancient North America compares with the horrific carnage found at Crow Creek.
Perched above the floodplain of the Missouri River, the Crow Creek site contains the ruins of a fortified earthlodge community. During the 1970s, archeologists discovered the remains of some 486 persons in a mass grave in the town’s fortification ditch, and virtually all had been mutilated in some manner. The damage included widespread scalping, blunt trauma to the head, avulsion of teeth, dismemberment of limbs, burning of skulls and limbs, and severing of tongues and noses. Two persons who were slain on this occasion had survived previous scalping incidents. Seven skulls and other bones were charred, as if cooked, and the patterns of decapitation, dismemberment, and tongue removal resembled practices associated with butchering large animals. Whether or not cannibalism occurred, these people were brutally slaughtered.
Patrick Willey concluded from study of the skeletons that the people slain at Crow Creek were Caddoan, probably ancestral to the Arikara. John Ludwickson and his colleagues explain the Crow Creek Massacre as a product of rivalry between the Initial Coalescent tradition Caddoans and Middle Missouri tradition Siouan neighbors. They speculate that the intrusion of Caddoan invaders was motivated by competition for control over bison products that could be traded to distant Cahokia.
Another explanation, however, fits better with Caddoan oral traditions. Larry Zimmerman and Lawrence Bradley have proposed that the massacre represents an internecine slaughter inflicted upon the residents of Crow Creek by a neighboring Initial Coalescent Caddoan group or alliance. Evidence for dietary deficiencies was observed in many of the skeletons, and competition for limited food resources is given as the likely motive for the aggression that resulted in the massacre.
Reliance upon agriculture was a long-established subsistence lifestyle along the Missouri River by the time of the 13th century founding of Crow Creek. Caddoan and Siouan communities of the region had been engaging in systematic agriculture for about ten generations by 1300 CE, and Mother Corn ideology would have found fertile ground among both groups. The Crow Creek Caddoans were clearly corn agriculturalists. Atop the mass grave were found five hoes which may have been used in the construction of the burial.
Memories of Caddoan internecine warfare can be found most clearly in Pawnee oral traditions collected by John Dunbar and George Bird Grinnell. In one such story, Grinnell heard that 100 South Band Pawnees were said to have been slain by the Skidi at a time in the past when the two groups first became neighbors in the Central Plains. Drawing upon racist stereotype, Grinnell asserted that this “unprovoked attack” occurred because “no peace between two such warlike tribes could last very long[.]” This oral tradition probably became conflated with later events in some manner, because it also mentions horses, but its reference to antiquity leaves open a connection to Crow Creek. Possible memories of Crow Creek are less obvious in Arikara stories, but one tradition cited the cause of the Arikara-Pawnee separation as the Skidi adoption of the Scalp Ceremony.
The pattern of the Skidi versus South Band Pawnees, with a hint of Skidi/Arikara rivalry brings to mind linguistic studies showing a closer affinity of modern Arikara to modern South Band Pawnee. Reconciling oral traditional information to the archeological record at Crow Creek, it seems likely that the survivors of the massacre became ancestral to the South Band Pawnees and the Arikara. The aggressors at Crow Creek probably included Caddoans who contributed to the formation of the Skidi Confederacy. The founding of the Lynch site on the Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska during the 13th century may be related to Skidi oral traditions about the establishment of the Skidi Confederacy.
The South Band Pawnees, like the Arikara, engaged in Mother Corn ceremonialism. Kitkahahki Pawnee women performed a ceremony known as the Corn Dance every spring, utilizing corn, hoes, and a pipe. In accordance with women’s religious ideology, this ceremony was designed to benefit humanity, and the leading female sponsor was considered to be “like a chief.” An intriguing statement is made in one story recorded by Grinnell, probably regarding the South Band Pawnees, that prior to the events of the story, “the Pawnees had always had a woman chief[.]” The status of women underwent change over time among the Pawnees, and Mother Corn influenced these events.
The Skidi origin story of Morning Star versus Evening Star as well as the story of Morning Star versus Spider Woman preserve memoirs of social discord in human history. Morning Star personifies a form of ideology involving male prerogatives and male-centered religious ideology. Mother Corn stands in opposition. The Crow Creek Caddoans, it is likely, fell victim to powerful and competing ideologies. When they were slaughtered, Mother Corn was also slain that day. And Morning Star prevailed. Time brought ambiguity to these historical events.
Research into women’s roles in corn cultivation and Mother Corn ideology can shed important light upon the historical past. The diffusion of corn and the subsequent rise and spread of Mother Corn ideology may provide the general historical setting for references in oral traditions to conflict between the sexes. Through Mother Corn, women received social authority and economic empowerment, and the assertion of this status encountered resistance from more conservative social elements.
Across North America after 1000 CE, incarnations of Mother Corn periodically redefined the social authority of women. We should not look for women battling men, or for separate communities of women and men, but rather for situations involving vast polarization between competing ideologies. In the Northeast, the toils of Mother Corn gave rise to the Iroquois Confederacy in the twelfth century or later. In the Central Plains, Mother Corn ideology and Morning Star human sacrifice were both practiced among the Skidi Pawnees – the story of how Morning Star prevailed over Evening Star commemorates social discord involving Mother Corn. The memory of these events faded over time, but did not grow dim, and to some extent, history cast a cosmological shadow, evolving into the story of celestial doings told among Pawnees many centuries later. Historical process involves ambiguous interactions, conflict, and integrative results. Morning Star human sacrifice continued, but so did the Mother Corn Pipe Dance, and an ever-receding period of social unrest became framed in oral traditions as a simplistic clash between the sexes.
It may be significant that among both the Iroquois and Navajo, women controlled corn production, and their stories of conflict between the sexes have female-centered agencies prevailing over fearsome opponents. Among many Southwestern Pueblo groups, women do not have exclusive control over corn cultivation, nor do they occupy positions of political and religious authority. Hopi men, for example, assume primary responsibility for the cultivation of corn, rather than women. In terms of ideology, as in the Central Plains, time brought integration, and Spider Woman brought an end to terrorism, and kachina ceremonialism unified the Hopi people. Hopi society, like that of every other human group, reflects a deep, complex past in which struggles for authority among many groups have shaped the contours of an endless historical process rather than a timelessly static social heritage. The tendency of oral traditions to frame matters as driven by women vying with men for social power reflects a simplification of complex historical situations. It is easier to tell memorable stories that focus on women in conflict with men rather than attempt to preserve more finely woven narratives of historical processes involving the manipulation of social authority.
Inquiry into historical violence will confound the idealization of ancient America as an unspoiled social paradise prior to the arrival of European invaders. People were terrorized, murdered, massacred, and their remains were horribly mutilated without any help from abroad. The idealization of the past, wherever it occurs, means that unpleasant historical realities have been displaced by uplifting ideological pleasantries. Every human community, however, accommodates complex ranges of behavior, and acts of selfless nurturing and selfish brutality coexist in the ancient North American social world. The shared content of the archeological record and oral documents preserves these complexities of human history. Tribal historians who passed along the stories ensured that our historical introspection would include a multidimensional past filled with real men and real women. We must carry on that tradition as scholars today.
Research on Indian violence unfolds in a sensitive social environment. The telling of accurate stories about violence in ancient North America will be unsettling for persons who see the past as a utopian land of human harmony. The oppressive dehumanization of Indians as a racial group by white people as a racial group has created the need for Indians to idealize ancestors and hallow inherited “traditional ways.” Many Indians will resent scholarship on warfare, mutilation of the dead, cannibalism, and systematic social terrorism, because such stories further undermine the embattled cultural self-esteem that accompanies the status of being viewed as a second-class race in a highly racialized social world. In racialized America, one means of dehumanizing Indians has been to portray them as cruel and warlike in their cultural identities and personal dispositions. This strategy succeeded in the 19th century because it relied upon scientific racialism for its authority.
The academic enterprise, at its worst, is fundamentally dehumanizing; at its best, it is fundamentally humanizing. History is essential to the production of humanity. We know who we are because humanity and history interface at many points, and one cannot exist without the other. Through history and every other sphere of academic inquiry, we can explore our humanity and we can diminish our humanity. We have complex reasons for the choices we make in producing stories of our lives, but we are fully human when we weave into our stories the manifold dimensions of our shared identities.
To the extent that such terms as Indian, native, indigenous, and aboriginal are visibly and invisibly rooted in racial pseudobiology, we should recognize that racialism is a self-defeating enterprise. Fake biology is inherently dehumanizing, and we should distrust efforts to empower the falsification of our humanity. Profiling humankind according to phony frameworks of race may provide a convenient means of social empowerment, but we should recognize the uncertainties of racial ideology. We should instead look for a complex historical past to explain the present. In exploring the ancestry of our humanity, we recollect the travels of Mother Corn. Ultimately, in the ongoing tradition of our shared humanity, her various journeys become our own, and her stories preserve the places where we became ourselves.
Mark van de Logt, author of War Party in Blue, a book on the Pawnee Scouts, sent me some very interesting information on Arikara traditions that could well have some relevance to the Crow Creek Massacre. With his permission, I am including this excerpt from his history of the Arikara:
In 1978 archaeologists discovered a mass grave containing the remains of 486 individuals in an old earth lodge site at Crow Creek, South Dakota. Based on skeletal analysis, the researchers believe that the victims at Crow Creek were ancestors of the Arikaras. They date the time of the battle at 1325 A. D. All remains showed evidence of massive trauma. Based on the number of lodges in the village, the archaeologists estimated that at least 831 people lived in the village at the time of the massacre. Hence, more than half of the people had perished in the battle. Bone analysis further revealed that some of the victims had sustained trauma in earlier confrontations: many had suffered broken bones that had healed, two had been scalped previously but had survived, and one victim had a projectile point lodged in one of his bones around which new bone tissue had formed. The location of the village, protected by high cliffs and a defensive ditch, also indicates that warfare was not uncommon at this time. The relative absence among the victims of women age fourteen to thirty-four suggests that the attack was staged to capture women, but it is also possible that most of the women escaped while the men were holding off the attackers. Skeletal analysis showed that the people at Crow Creek suffered from malnutrition. Dendrochronological evidence (tree ring analysis) indicates that the Plains experienced an extended period of drought at the time of the massacre. This provides a possible explanation for the war: as the droughts continued, large game animals (bison, deer, etc.) became scarce and fields became less and less productive; malnutrition caused diseases and lowered fertility rates; warfare may have ensued as villages began to compete with each other for the best available horticultural lands and hunting grounds. This pattern of drought and warfare was confirmed in other archaeological sites on the Plains. (Endnote 1)
According to scientists, the victims at Crow Creek were Arikara. The identity of the attackers is unknown. Could it be possible that the attackers were Caddoans, too? Although unlikely, it is not impossible. After all, the Arikara creation story suggests that the first war was fought between the people themselves. The account published by Edward Curtis (1909) provides the most detailed information. The war started after the people had emerged from the ground and after they had traveled a great distance:
Having passed with such terrible losses through so many dangers, the people stopped to rest. Now Neshanu placed a thought in their hearts, and they prepared the sticks and the round stone for the wheel-and-pole game. They agreed then to play the new game, the victors to take the lives of the vanquished. Mother [Corn] disapproved of this plan and forbade it, but the people insisted and she reluctantly consented. Three successive victories were necessary to decide the contest. When the very first three trials were won by the same band, they raised a tremendous shout: “Let us not wait! Let us fight at once!”
“Wait! Let us try something else,” begged the others.
Two women were selected, and to each were given six plum seeds peculiarly marked with red and black and white. With the new game thus devised the women gambled, throwing the seeds into a small basket. Again the same player won the first three contests, and once more arose the clamor, “Let us fight!”
Then followed a fearful conflict, and so great was the turmoil and so intense the excitement that the language became confused. When the violence of the battle subsided, here and there on the tops of four hills were as many groups of people, all shouting and gesticulating wildly, and each speaking a language that none of the others could understand. The place therefore became known as Nawakachitadhich, Where They Stood Shouting On Hilltops, and this was the beginning of the Assiniboin, Yankton, Chippewa, and Arikara. All this was the doing of Neshanu. (Endnote 2)
The mention of the Assiniboine, Yankton Sioux, and Chippewas, appears to have been an eighteenth and nineteenth century modification, introduced after the arrival of the Siouans on the Plains and after the Arikaras moved into present day North Dakota. It is possible that earlier versions of the story referred to the separation of the Arikaras from the Pawnees. If so, then the Crow Creek site perhaps provides us with the physical evidence of this split. But this theory is highly conjectural, even more so because linguists place the date of the Arikara-Pawnee separation some two centuries after the massacre at Crow Creek.
Today many Sioux claim that their ancestors were responsible for the massacre. But this seems unlikely because the Sioux did not enter the Plains until a later date. The possibility that the Arikaras were both victim and perpetrator is also supported by another Arikara tradition. In the “last supper” ritual of the Arikaras (a wake) attendants are not allowed to start eating until all are served. Some Arikaras believe that this was done in memory of the time when the Arikaras were starving to the point that they began killing each other for food. (Endnote 3) But this custom, also, may refer to a different historical event.
- For a discussion of the Crow Creek massacre, see Patrick S. Willey, Prehistoric Warfare on the Great Plains: Skeletal Analysis of the Crow Creek Massacre Victims (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990); Patrick S. Willey and Thomas E. Emerson, “The Osteology and Archaeology of the Crow Creek Massacre,” Plains Anthropologist, Memoir 27, 38:145 (1993), 227-269; Larry J. Zimmerman and Lawrence E. Bradley, “The Crow Creek Massacre: Initial Coalescent Warfare and Speculations about the Genesis of Extended Coalescent,” Plains Anthropologist, Memoir 27, 38:145 (1993), 215-226; Douglas B. Bamforth, “Indigenous People, Indigenous Violence: Precontact Warfare on the North American Great Plains,” Man (New Series) 29:1 (March 1994), 95-115. For general discussions of changing warfare patterns on the Plains see Warren W. Caldwell, “Fortified Villages in the Northern Plains,” Plains Anthropologist 9:23 (February 1964), 1-7, and Craig M. Johnson, “The Coalescent Tradition,” in W. Raymond Wood, ed., Archaeology on the Great Plains (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 308-344.
- Edward S. Curtis, “The Arikara,” The North American Indian, volume 5 (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970), 82-83. For different versions see George A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Arikara (Washington, D. C.: Carnegie Institution, 1904), 16, and George Bird Grinnell, “Pawnee Mythology” The Journal of American Folklore 6:21 (Apr.-Jun., 1893), 125.
- Interview with Jasper Young Bear, Bloomington, Indiana, January 30, 2007.