Archive for the ‘History’ Category

415. Ten millennia of Native history (appeared in Omaha World-Herald 5-9-2021)

On May 2nd, OWH Community Columnist Lance Morgan, a member the Winnebago Tribe, wrote about the prevailing racism that prevented the burial of his great uncle, John Price, an Army sergeant who had won high honors in WWII and died heroically in Korea, in a white cemetery.  Sgt. Price’s burial service was actually halted and his body removed from his grave once whites realized he was Native American.

That Mr. Morgan’s uncle fought heroically in two wars is no surprise – Native Americans have a long and proud tradition as warriors, a tradition dating back into the mists of antiquity and still alive today.

I was recently reminded of how long Native Americans lived in southern Boone and northern Nance counties when I was given a tour of the area by long-time amateur archaeologist Ron Cruise.  Ron, now approaching 80, has been fascinated with the people who lived here before us since finding an arrowhead as a child.  Ron’s tour illustrated how at one time or another over many millennia people lived just about everywhere along the numerous small creeks in this area.  And there’s no reason to assume that the principles exemplified by Sgt. Price don’t extend back to the most ancient of these Nebraskans.

Mr. Morgan also mentions perhaps the most famous Native Nebraskan, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who after being forced with his people to leave their ancestral home near the mouth of the Niobrara River and walk to Oklahoma, returned with the body of his son to bury him among his ancestors.

Apprehended near Omaha, Standing Bear’s small party would have been returned to Oklahoma had it not been for a landmark legal decision which finally recognized that the original inhabitants of this land were human beings in the eyes of the law.

The power of Standing Bear’s connection to this land was brought home to me a few summers back when my family and I visited the Northern Ponca’s Educational Trail near Niobrara. A young Ponca man gave us an extensive tour.  As we stood under a stature of Standing Bear, looking out at the lush Niobrara Valley, he explained that so many of his ancestors lie buried in that soil that the land itself is Ponca.

In the traditional view of many tribes everything was a part of their extended family.  By including all of Nature in their family, they were literally brothers and sisters to the land and sky.

Lakota visionary Black Elk termed this great pan-human family the “hoop of the nation”.  Black Elk was a deeply spiritual man, and his visions were immortalized by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt in the book Black Elk Speaks.  Black Elk’s vision transcends the boundaries of culture, speaking to all mankind, and Black Elk, who later converted to Catholicism, is currently being considered for sainthood.  But Black Elk’s visions were just a few of many – most tribes encouraged both men and women to undertake vision quests, and Native culture was richly infused with spirituality as a result.

Though much Native American culture is now forever lost, a few writers with tribal connections recorded as much as they could.  Among these authors was George Bird Grinnell who recorded stories of Nebraska’s Pawnee tribe in his book Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales.  Among these is the story of Pa-hu-ka’-tawa, who was believed to have been transformed after death into a powerful spirit who stayed with his people to heal, guide and protect them.

A beautiful insight into Nebraska’s Native spirituality is captured in Pa-hu-ka’-tawa’s ghost’s description of what he had become:

‘I am living but I am a spirit.  I am in everything; the grass, the water, the trees.  I am a part of all these things. I am the wind and I go over the whole world.  I know everything, and about everything, even about the ocean, which is so far off, and where the water is salt.’

Unless one has explored the terraces surrounding Nebraska’s many small streams, as my friend Ron has spent a lifetime doing, it’s easy to overlook that they provided homes to people for at least 10,000 years.  Ten millennia of bones rest somewhere beneath our feet.  And the fact that not that long ago a Native American military hero was not allowed to rest in this same earth is a damning reminder of what happens when we forget that we are brothers and sisters with everyone and everything that shares this earth with us.

412. Shadows

Sunday, as I waited for the shadow to creep across the grass, I had plenty of time to think.  How long had it been since someone did this here?  Obviously, someone had, but how long ago?

I was watching a gnomon, a vertical pole used to cast a shadow and a time-honored way to determine the position of the sun.  By marking the sun’s shadow in the morning and drawing an arc on the ground that distance from the gnomon, when the sun reaches your line in the dirt in the afternoon the two points are exactly east and west from each other.  Carefully paint a line between them and you have a handy visual reference.  My son William and I have been mapping Native American earthworks with a drone, and by having a visible line showing east and west, it’s easier to determine the alignment of the mounds.

But it takes a LONG time.  I couldn’t help but think about lots of things while waiting, including a comment by a woman who once remarked that while men and women are “so different, we’re also so much the same.”

The people who built these mounds were very different from us.  For one thing, the roles of men and women were different, but again, probably quite a bit the same.

Women were equal – or even superior – to men in many Native societies.  Descent was figured through the mother.  So important was the mother’s line that a woman’s brothers took on most of the responsibility for raising her sons, just as her husband’s primary child rearing duties were to his sisters’ sons.  The domed earthen lodges these people lived in symbolized a woman’s womb, with the long covered entryway the birth canal.  Every morning these people, in their minds, were literally reborn.

So yes, they were different from us.  Yet the women ended up doing most of the work.  So I’m sure the female half of our population would say that things were also very much the same.

But why build mounds?  It must have taken a lot of work, and the more my family and I study these mounds the more we realize they aren’t just haphazard piles of dirt – they have varied and sometimes complex shapes.  There seems to have been standard units of measure, both on the mounds and in the larger spaces between them.  They were carefully planned, and enough people believed in their value to construct them one basket full of dirt at a time.

As the gnomon’s shadow drew close to the arc on the ground, the trees to the west started casting their own shadows over both the gnomon and the ground around it.  Ooops – I hadn’t thought about that.  Could we catch the gnomon’s shadow before the shadows of the trees caught us?  Fortunately, there were enough gaps in the leaves that we were able to mark our spot.  But the shadows were too long for us to take good drone photos – we’ll have to try that another day.

Trying to decipher the meaning of these mounds is much like chasing shadows, the elusive shades of those who lived here long ago.  These people cast a long shadow, visible still in the silent mounds they left behind.  But I have to wonder if I’ll ever understand why they built them.  They were as human as we are; they laughed and loved and wondered about the world just as we do.  Yet they were so different, and like the gulf between men and women, I wonder if I’ll ever bridge it very well.