81. Those Who Came Before

In my last column I talked about a small group of Omaha Indians who would visit my family’s farm annually for many years after White settlement.  My great-aunts would talk about these Indians; their visits left a strong impression on three little pioneer girls living miles from the nearest community.  Their stories, along with some Indian ancestry of our own and the occasional pottery shards and stone flakings I’d find along the Beaver Creek, led me to develop a strong interest in Native Americans.

Some years ago I had an opportunity to meet the oldest woman in the Pawnee tribe, Maude, and her niece Rebecca in Genoa during their first-ever visit to the traditional Pawnee homeland. 

A few years later, on Labor Day weekend 2001, a group of Pawnee, including Maude and Rebecca, traveled from their homes in Oklahoma to put on a dance at the Genoa football field.  As a brilliant full moon rose, the ancestral owners of this land set up a drum in the center of the field and put on their elaborate hand-made dance costumes.

I’ve only been to a handful of powwows, but the ones I have attended have all begun with dances belonging to the host tribe.  Only that tribe’s members dance to ancient and sacred songs, songs which preserve important stories from the tribe‘s history.  Later, the hosts will open the dancing up to everyone, calling it “intertribal.”  Even Whites are allowed to dance in these dances.

So I sat back to watch with the other Whites scattered about on lawn chairs and blankets.  But soon after the dancing began, Rebecca left the dance ring and invited a friend and me to join her on the field.  From the looks we received from the other dancers I suspected this was an unusual occurrence.  Other Native Americans don’t join these dances let alone Whites — I could only imagine how resented our joining would have been had we not been so publicly invited.

I took Rebecca’s invitation as an honor and tried to convey the same sense of seriousness the other dancers displayed.  We circled the drum as the announcer explained that this dance expressed the sorrow and hardships the Pawnee had experienced relocating from Nebraska to Oklahoma.  Although I couldn’t understand the words they were singing, I could tell how real their pain still was.

The most memorable dance was the Pawnee’s war dance, a ritual act as old as the tribe itself.  The announcer explained that the Pawnee would only engage in war to defend their homes, their fields, their possessions and most of all, their loved ones.  War was a last resort and the solemnity with which these people approached the prospect of fighting and dying was evident in their dance, even to an outsider like me.

(I would soon be struck by the prescient way this dance had eerily foreshadowed what was to happen less than two weeks later, when Islamic terrorists attacked our homeland on 9/11… )

The next day my friend and I returned with gifts for Maude and Rebecca to thank them for inviting us to participate in their dances.  The Pawnee seemed to know why we were there but were happy to let the gifts wait, inviting us instead to join them for hamburgers.  Finally, as the sun dropped low in the west, the men silently formed a semi-circle around Maude, arms folded across their chests, eyes hidden behind unneeded sunglasses.  There was no mistaking that it was now, finally, our time to speak.  As they looked on impassively, my friend and I thanked them for the honor they’d bestowed upon us and presented our simple gifts.

One of these gifts was a small, multi-colored stone hide scraper I’d found along the Beaver.  I’ll never forget the way Rebecca turned it over and over in her hands, gazing on it the way a mother will study and admire her new baby.  Her sense of connection was palpable — this simple yet elegant tool had been fashioned by her ancestors perhaps a thousand years earlier.

Only after our gifts had been received and Maude had called me her grandson did the menacing sentinels surrounding her relax.  We were now members of the tribe — at least for the moment — and treated as such.  I felt a very old and deep chasm had been bridged and will forever cherish this unique encounter with the still-proud descendents of those who for millennia called this land home.

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