Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 31-40.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In June of 1871, at the Pawnee village on the Loup River, the chiefs and soldiers of the four tribes of the Pawnee Nation met in council with their Quaker agent and superintendent. The council convened in the midst of the spring ceremonies; the women had already planted the fields and the priests had performed the Young Mother Corn ritual that ended the planting cycle. As it had for centuries, the attention of the Pawnees shifted to the mixed-grass plains hundreds of miles to the west where, in the first of their semiannual hunts, they would soon seek simultaneously to find the buffalo herds and to avoid contact with the Sioux. The chiefs who met with the Quakers would, in a week or two, hold a second, far more significant ritual council in which they, personifying Tirawahat, the primal power of the universe, would acknowledge their responsibility to lead the people in search of the buffalo. Then, after the Great Cleansing Ceremony, thousands of Pawnees with their thousands of horses and dogs would trail away from the earth-lodge village and fields to live as nomads for the summer. Although this council with the Quakers was not directly concerned with the hunt, the approaching summer journey was what concerned Peta-Ia-sharo, the head chief of the Chaui Pawnee, as the meeting opened.

The Quakers had often spoken against these seasonal forays onto the Great Plains. This was natural enough for persons who wanted to transform the Pawnee men from hunters and raiders into farmers. But the Quakers were primarily concerned about the safety of the Pawnees. For almost forty years, the Sioux and their allies had been constricting the Pawnee buffalohunting range. They had repeatedly mauled the Pawnees while on the hunt; meanwhile other Sioux bands and some of the small, desperately poor tribes burned and looted the unoccupied Pawnee villages to the east. Americans added to the turmoil. Having first driven the buffalo away from the platte River, they were now rapidly destroying the herds. The hunt, the Quakers argued, promised few rewards. The Pawnees should be sensible; they should confine themselves to their earth-lodge villages and trust to agriculture alone.

Peta-Ia-sharo knew the history of the last forty years well enough-the pistol he kept beside him every night was a constant reminder of conditions on the plains-but what the Quakers recommended was impossible. During the council he tried once more to explain to white men the deeper logic of the hunt. His speech survives only in a single sketchy (and almost certainly distorted) note taken by the Quaker agent, Jacob Troth. "We want to go on Buffaloe hunt so long as there are any buffaloe- am afraid when we have no meat to offer Great Spirit he will be angry & punish us." The reply of Samuel Janney, the Quaker superintendent, was both condescending and uninformed; it was at once practical and irrelevant. "You must look forward," he replied, "to the time when there will be no buffaloe. We don't give the Great Spirit meat yet he favors us-what he requires is a good heart."

The brief exchange between Peta-Ia-sharo and Janney led nowhere. The two men talked past each other; but, ironically, their conversation is revealing for precisely that reason. It allows us to glimpse, if only fleetingly, the difference culture makes and the crucial distinction it creates between landscape and environment. Although Peta-Ia-sharo and Samuel Janney both recognized an environmental crisis on the plains-the destruction of the buffalo herds-they fundamentally disagreed on what it meant and what constituted an appropriate response to it. They could not agree because what buffalo meant to each was not an obvious and immediate corollary of the animal's physical existence. Instead, meaning was the work of culture, and since the cultures of Janney and Peta-Ia-sharo differed substantially, so did the meaning they attached to the buffalo. Culture, as used here, is best defined as a plan or program for behavior. It is a symbolic ordering of the world, and actions and objects take on meaning only within such symbolic systems.