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First Posted: Dec 9, 2010
Mar 6, 2011

Pawnee, Paneassa, Pari or Pariki Indians

Total population: 3,210 enrolled
Regions with significant populations" Oklahoma, United States
Languages: English, Caddoan Pawnee
Religion: Christianity, Native American Church, other
Related ethnic groups: Arikara, Caddo, Kitsai, and Wichita

Pawnee Scouts, photograph by Frank North,1869 (left) and Good Chief Pawnee (right)

The Pawnee (also Paneassa, Pari, Pariki) are a Caddoan-language Native American tribe that historically lived along outlying tributaries of the Missouri River: the Platte, Loup and Republican Rivers in present-day Nebraska and in Northern Kansas. They were one of the dominant tribes on the Great Plains and followed a way of life whose major patterns had been continuous since about 1250 CE. In the 1830s, they still numbered about 12,000 people, as they had escaped some of the depredations of exposure to Eurasian infectious diseases. They have a ritual named Trails of tears From Nebraska to Oklahoma where they were exiled.

By 1859, their numbers were reduced to about 3,400 and they entered a reservation in Nebraska. Still subject to pressure from Lakota and European Americans, finally, most accepted relocation to a reservation in Oklahoma. This is where the nation primarily lives today. The Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma is federally recognized. Their autonym is Chaticks-si-Chaticks, meaning "Men of men".

There are approximately 3,210 enrolled Pawnee, with 1,725 living in Oklahoma. Their tribal headquarters is in Pawnee, Oklahoma and George E. Howell is their President. They issue their own vehicle license tags, operate their housing authority, and maintain two casinos, four smoke shops, two fuel stations, and one truck stop. Their estimated economic impact is $10.5 million.

Traditional Culture

The Pawnee were divided into two large groupings-the Skidi-Federation living in the north and the so-called South Bands (which were further divided into several villages.) and the Chaui. While the Skidi-Federation were indeed the most populous group of Pawnee, the Chaui were generally the political leading group, although each band was autonomous. As was typical of many Indian tribes, each band saw to its own. In response to pressures from the Spanish, French and Americans, as well as neighboring tribes, the Pawnee began to draw closer together.

Skidi-Federation or Skiri (derived from Tski'ki - 'Wolf' or Tskirirara - 'Wolf-in-Water', therefore called Loups - 'Wolves' by French and Wolf Pawnee by Americans)
Turikaku ('Center Village')
Kitkehaxpakuxtu ('Old Village' or - Old-Earth-Lodge-Village')
Tuhitspiat ('Village-Stretching-Out-in-the-Bottomlands')
Tukitskita ('Village-on-Branch-of-a-River')
Tuhawukasa ('Village-across-a-Ridge' or 'Village-Stretching-across-a-Hill')
Arikararikutsu ('Big-Antlered-Elk-Standing')
Arikarariki ('Small-Antlered-Elk-Standing')
Tuhutsaku ('Village-in-a-Ravine')
Tuwarakaku ('Village-in-Thick-Timber')
Akapaxtsawa ('Buffalo-Skull-Painted-on-Tipi')
Tskisarikus ('Fish-Hawk')
Tstikskaatit ('Black-Ear-of-Corn,' i.e., 'Corn-black')
Turawiu (was only part of a village)
Pahukstatu ('Pumpkin-Vine', did not join the Skidi and remained politically independent, but in general were counted as Skidi)
Tskirirara ('Wolf-in-Water', although the Skidi-Federation got its name from them, they remained politically independent, but were counted within the Pawnee as Skidi)

South Bands

Chaui or Tsawi ('Asking-for-Meat', also called Grand Pawnee)
Kithehaki or Kitkehaxki ('Little-Earth-Lodge', often called Republican Pawnee)
Pitahaureat or Pitahawirata ('Man-Going-Downstream', 'Man-Going-East', derived from Pita - 'Man' and Rata - 'screaming', the French called them Tapage Pawnee - 'Screaming, Howling Pawnee', later the Americans Noisy Pawnee)
Pitahaureat (Pitahaureat proper, leading group)
Kawarakis (derived from the Arikara language Kawarusha - 'Horse' and Pawnee language Kish - 'People' , some Pawnee argued that the Kawarakis spoke like the Arikara living to the north, so perhaps they belonged to the refugess (1794-1795) from Lakota aggression, who joined their Caddo kin living south)


The Pawnee generally settled close to the rivers and placed their lodges on the higher banks. They built earth lodges, that by historical times tended to be oval in shape; at earlier stages they were rectangular and then became more circular. They constructed the frame, made of 10-15 posts set some ten feet apart, which outlined the floor of the lodge. Lodge size varied based on the number of poles placed in the center of the structure. Most lodges had 4, 8 or 12 center poles. A common feature in Pawnee lodges were four painted poles, which represented the four cardinal directions and the four major star gods (not to be confused with the Creator.) They covered almost the entire framework with willow branches, earth and sod, which inhibited erosion and provided insulation from heat and cold. A hole left in the center of the covering served as a combined chimney and skylight. The lodge was semi-subterranean, as the Pawnees recessed the base by digging it approximately three feet below ground level. A buffalo-skin door on a hinge could be closed at night and wedged shut.

As many as 30-50 people might live in each lodge, and they were usually of related families. A village could consist of as many as 300-500 people and 10-15 households. Each lodge was divided in two (north and south), and each section had a head who oversaw the daily business. Each section was further subdivided into three duplicate areas, with tasks and responsibilities related to the age of women and girls, as described below. The membership of the lodge was quite flexible. The tribe went on buffalo hunts in summer and winter. Upon their return, the inhabitants of the lodges would often move into another lodge, although they generally remained within the village. Men's lives were more transient than that of women. They had obligations of support for the woman (and family) they married into, but could always go back to their mother and sisters for a night or two of attention.

Political Structure

The Pawnee are a matrilineal people. Ancestral descent is traced through the mother, and, traditionally, a young couple moved into the bride's parents' lodge. People work together in collaborative ways, marked by both independence and cooperation, without coercion. Both women and men are active in political life, with independent decision-making responsibilities.

Within the lodge, the sections included roles for the three classes of women:

Mature women (usually married and mothers) who did most of the labor;
Young single women just learning their responsibilities;
Older women who looked after the young children.

Amongst the collection of lodges, the political designations for men were essentially between:

The Warrior Clique;
The Hunting Clique.

Women tended to be responsible for decisions about resource allocation, trade, and inter-lodge social negotiations. Men were responsible for decisions which pertained to hunting, war, and spiritual/health issues.

Women tended to remain within a single lodge, while men would typically move between lodges. They took multiple sexual partners in serially monogamous relationships.


The Pawnee women were "skilled horticulturalists" and cooks, cultivating and processing ten varieties of corn, seven of pumpkins and squashes, and eight of beans. They planted their crops along the fertile river bottomlands. These crops provided a wide variety of nutrients and complemented each other in making whole proteins. In addition to varieties of flint corn and flour corn for consumption, the women planted an archaic breed which they called "Wonderful" or "Holy Corn", specifically for inclusion in the sacred bundles. The holy corn was cultivated and harvested to replace corn in the winter and summer sacred bundles. Seeds were taken from sacred bundles for the spring planting ritual. The cycle of corn determined the annual agricultural cycle, as it was the first to be planted and first to be harvested (with accompanying ceremonies involving priests and men of the tribe as well.)

In keeping with their cosmology, the Pawnee classified the varieties of corn by color: black, spotted, white, yellow and red (which, excluding spotted, related to the colors associated with the four semi-cardinal directions). Nonetheless, the women could keep the different strains pure in their cultivation. While important in agriculture, squash and beans were not given the same theological meaning as corn.


After they obtained horses, the Pawnee adapted their culture and expanded their buffalo hunting seasons. With horses providing a greater range, the people traveled in both summer and winter westward to the Great Plains for buffalo hunting. They often traveled 500 miles or more in a season. In summer the march began at dawn or before, but usually did not last the entire day.

Once buffalo were located, hunting did not begin until the medicine men of the tribe considered the time propitious. Then the hunt began by the men advancing together toward the buffalo, but no one could kill any buffalo until the warriors of the tribe gave the signal. Anyone who broke ranks was severely beaten. During the chase, the hunters guided their ponies with their knees and wielded bows and arrows. They could incapacitate buffalo with a single arrow shot into the flank between the lower ribs and the hip. The animal would soon lie down and perhaps bleed out, or the hunters would finish it off. An individual hunter might shoot as many as five buffalo in the way before backtracking and finishing them off. They preferred to kill cows and young bulls, as the taste of older bulls was disagreeable.

After successful kills, the women processed the bison meat and skin: the flesh was sliced into strips and dried on poles over slow fires and stored. Prepared in this way, it was usable for several years. Although the Pawnee preferred buffalo, they also hunted other game, including elk, bear, panther, and skunk, for meat and skins. The skins were used for clothing and accessories, storage bags, foot coverings, fastening ropes and ties, etc.

The people returned to their villages to harvest crops when the corn was ripe in late summer, or in the spring when the grass became green and they could plant a new cycle of crops. Summer hunts extended from late June to about the first of September; but might end early if hunting was successful. Sometimes the hunt was limited to what is now western Nebraska. Winter hunts were from late October until early April and were often to the southwest into what is now western Kansas.


Like many other Native American tribes, the Pawnee had a cosmology with elements of all of nature represented in it. They based many rituals in the four cardinal directions. Sacred bundles were created by medicine men and put together of materials, such as an ear of corn, with great symbolic value. These were used in many religious ceremonies to maintain the balance of nature and the relationship with the gods and spirits. The Pawnee were not part of the Sun Dance tradition. They did participate in the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

The Pawnee believed that the Morning Star and Evening Star gave birth to the first Pawnee woman. The first Pawnee man was the offspring of the union of the Moon and the Sun. As descendants of the stars, cosmology played an integral role in daily and spiritual life. They planted their crops according to the position of the stars, which related to the appropriate time of season for planting. Like many tribal bands, they sacrificed maize and other crops to the stars.

The Morning Star Ritual

The Skidi Pawnee practiced child sacrifice, specifically of captive girls, in the "Morning Star ritual". They continued this practice regularly through the 1810s and possibly after 1838, the last reported sacrifice. They believed the longstanding rite ensured the fertility of the soil and success of the crops, as well as renewal of all life in spring. The sacrifice was related to the belief that the first human being was a girl, born of the mating of the Morning Star (the male figure of light) and Evening Star, a female figure of darkness, in their Creation story.

Typically, a warrior would dream of the Morning Star, usually in the autumn, which meant it was time to prepare for the various steps of the ritual. The visionary would consult with the Morning Star priest, who helped him prepare for his journey to find a sacrifice. The warrior, with help from others, would capture a young girl from an enemy tribe. The Pawnee kept the girl and cared for her over the winter, taking her with them as they made their buffalo hunt. They arranged her sacrifice in the spring, in relation to the rising of the Morning Star. She was well treated and fed throughout this period.

When the morning star rose ringed with red, the priest knew it was the signal for the sacrifice. He directed the men to carry out the rest of the ritual, including the construction of a scaffold outside the village. It was made of sacred woods and leathers from different animals, each of which had important symbolism. Below was a pit with elements corresponding to the four cardinal directions. All the elements of the ritual related to symbolic meaning and belief, and were necessary for the renewal of life. The preparations took four days.

A procession of all the men, boys and male infants accompanied the girl out of the village to the scaffold. Together they awaited the morning star. When the star was due to rise, the girl was placed and tied on the scaffold. At the moment the star appeared above the horizon, the girl was killed with an arrow, then the priest cut the skin of her chest to bleed. She was quickly shot with arrows by all the participating men and boys to hasten her death. The girl was carried to the east and placed face down so her blood would soak into the earth, with appropriate prayers for the crops and life she would bring to all life on the prairie.

News of the sacrifices reached the East Coast about 1820-1821; it caused a sensation. Before this, agents counseled Pawnee chiefs to try to get them to suppress the practice, as they warned of how it would upset the American settlers, who were arriving in ever greater number. Knife Chief ransomed at least two captives before sacrifice, but trying to change a practice tied so closely to belief in renewal of life for the tribe was difficult. The Missouri Gazette of St. Louis contained the account of one sacrifice in June 1818. The last known child sacrifice was of Haxti, a 14-year-old Oglala girl, on April 22, 1838.

The historian Gene Weltfish drew from earlier work of Wissler and Spinden to suggest the sacrificial practice might have been transferred in the early 16th century from the Aztec of present-day Mexico. More recently, historians have disputed the proposed connection to Mesoamerican practice and believe the sacrifice ritual originated separately within ancient traditional Pawnee culture.


Francisco Vásquez de Coronado visited the neighboring Wichita in 1541 where he encountered a Pawnee chief from Harahey in Nebraska. Nothing much is mentioned of the Pawnee until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when successive incursions of Spanish, French and English settlers attempted to enlarge their possessions. The tribes tended to make alliances as and when it suited them. Different Pawnee subtribes could make treaties with warring European powers without disrupting the underlying unity; the Pawnee were masters at unity within diversity.

In the 18th century, they were allied with the French, with whom they traded. They played an important role in halting Spanish expansion onto the Great Plains by defeating the Villasur expedition decisively in battle in 1720.

Until the 1830s, the Pawnee in what became United States territory were relatively isolated from interaction with Europeans and escaped some of the losses due to introduction of Eurasian infectious diseases, such as measles, smallpox, and cholera, to which Native Americans had no immunity. In the 19th century, however, they were pressed by Siouan groups encroaching from the east, who also brought disease. Epidemics of smallpox and cholera and endemic warfare with the Sioux and Cheyenne drastically reduced the numbers of Pawnee. From an estimated population of 12,000 in the 1830s, they were reduced to 3,400 by 1859, when they went to a reservation in Nebraska. In 1874 they requested relocation to Oklahoma, but the stress of the move, diseases and conditions in Indian Territory reduced their numbers even more. By 1900 the population as recorded by the US Census was only 633. Since then the tribe has begun to recover.

Historian Marcel Trudel documented that close to 2,000 Pawnee (Panis in French) slaves lived in Canada until the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1833. The Indian slaves comprised close to half of the known slaves in French Canada (also called Lower Canada). Traditionally Native American and First Nations tribes sold captives from warfare as slaves to other tribes and to European traders.

In French Canada, Indian slaves were generally called Panis (anglicized to Pawnee). Most were captured from the Pawnee tribe, so Pawnee became synonymous with "Indian slave" in general use in Canada. As early as 1670, there was a historical reference to a Panis in Montreal.

A Pawnee tribal delegation visited President Jefferson. In 1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, Major G. C. Sibley, Major S. H. Long, amongst others, began visiting the Pawnee villages. Under pressure from Siouan tribes and European-American settlers, the Pawnee ceded territory to the United States government in treaties in 1818, 1825, 1833, 1848, 1857, and 1892. In 1857, they settled on the Pawnee Reservation along the Loup River in present-day Nance County, Nebraska, but managed to keep their regular pattern of life. They were subjected to continual raids by Lakota from the north and west. On one such raid a Sioux war party of over a thousand braves ambushed a Pawnee hunting party of 350 men women and children. The Pawnee had gained permission to leave the reservation and hunt buffalo. About 70 Pawnee were killed in this attack which occurred in a canyon in what is today Hitchcock County, Nebraska. The canyon where this massacre occurred is known today as Massacre Canyon. Because of the ongoing hostilities with the Sioux and encroachment from American settlers to the south and east, the Pawnee decided to leave their Nebraska reservation in the 1870s and settle on a new reservation in Indian Territory located in what is today Oklahoma.

In 1875 most members of the nation moved to Indian Territory, (Oklahoma), a large area reserved to receive tribes displaced from the east and elsewhere. Many Pawnee men joined the United States Cavalry as scouts rather than face the ignominy of reservation life. The warriors resisted the loss of their freedom and culture by adapting to reservations.

In the 20th century, Christianity supplanted the older religion, but some Pawnee also combined their two traditions. As of 2005, there are approximately 5,500 Pawnee.

Recent History

In the 1960s, the government settled a suit by the Pawnee Nation regarding their compensation for lands ceded to the US government in the 19th century. By an out-of-court settlement in 1964, the Pawnee Nation was awarded $7,316,096.55 for land ceded to the US and undervalued by the federal government in the previous century.

Bills such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 have helped address the mistakes of the past. The Pawnee Nation has regained some of its self-government, culture and pride. The Pawnee continue to practice cultural traditions, meeting twice a year for the inter-tribal gathering with their kinsmen the Wichita Indians. They have an annual four-day Pawnee Homecoming for Pawnee veterans in July. Many Pawnee also return to their traditional lands to visit relatives and take part in scheduled powwows...

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