256. An Overdue Apology

I was pleased to be invited to the rededication of the Pawnee memorial outside the Nance County Courthouse in Fullerton this past Saturday, but never imagined it would give me an opportunity to address old wrongs.

Originally dedicated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1916, the monument was rededicated by this organization in the presence of a small group of spectators, including a delegation of Pawnee Indians.

During the ceremony audience members were invited to come forward and share their thoughts.  Among the first was Nebraska writer Roger Welsch who has long known the Pawnee and even given land to them.  He spoke eloquently of these people and how we would all have benefited if our ancestors had treated them better.  He ended by saying he was proud to be Pawnee.

Next various men and women from the Pawnee tribe spoke, many recalling their grandparents’ stories of walking from Nance County to Oklahoma in 1874.  Two of the speakers were descendants of the last Pawnee chief in Nebraska, White Eagle, who had led them on their Trail of Tears.  But these were gracious people and had only good things to say about their hosts and the beauty of the Loup valley.

I’ve always been interested in the people who were here before us, and many of the things the other speakers said resonated with my views.  So as the last of the Pawnee finished, I asked if I might share a few words.

I explained that Boone County had once been part of the Pawnee reservation but had been opened to settlers in the early 1870s.  One of the stipulations had been that settlers not deplete the Pawnee’s timber resources because they needed the wood for cooking and staying warm.  I explained that two branches of my family had been among the very first settlers in Boone County and that while I didn’t know for certain, it could well be that they were among those who violated this restriction and did take the Pawnee’s firewood, thereby hastening the Pawnee’s departure from this area.  At this the Pawnee responded with a plosive “hu!” which I understood from hearing it earlier was an indication of agreement.

I then apologized for whatever wrongs my ancestors had done to these people’s ancestors.  My eyes fell on the great-grandson of White Eagle as I spoke, and he was visibly startled to hear this – I suspect he never imagined he’d hear these words in his life.

I concluded my remarks by saying that though the rest of us could not say as Roger Welsch can that we are proud to be Pawnee, that if we emulate the Pawnee’s love for this land and for one another, we can say that we are proud to be like the Pawnee.

As I stepped away the President of the Pawnee, Marshall Gover, came forward and extended his hand, uttering one last ceremonious “hu!”  I knew it is a sign of disrespect in his culture to look him in the eye, but I couldn’t help doing so.  His gaze met mine and communicated an interpersonal – and intercultural – connection deeper than any words could have expressed.

Opinions vary on how to deal with the actions of our ancestors.  It was they, after all, rather than we who dispossessed the original occupants of this land.   Nothing we say today can make up for that, but perhaps by acknowledging past wrongs we can take a small step towards easing the pain those wrongs clearly still cause.


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