"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


The Pawnee nation lived in Nebraska for many years before the first white men came. Their traditions say that a long time ago they came from the Southwest, perhaps from the borders of Mexico. Through hundreds of years they were slowly moving northward. When the first white men found them, over two hundred years ago, what is now the Nebraska country was their home. The Pawnee nation was divided into four tribes, each of which had an Indian name and a white man's name: Chau-i, Grand; Kitke-hahk-i, Republican; Pita-hau-erat, Noisy; Ski-di, Wolf. These tribes were divided into bands, each of which lived in a group of houses and kept together on the march and in the village.

Pawnee Earth Lodge.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

The Pawnees were the most advanced in culture of any of the Nebraska Indians. In farming, in handiwork, in medicine, in music and religion they had made remarkable progress and were imitated by the other Indians. They built large circular houses, called earth lodges, with walls of dirt and a roof supported by trunks of large trees set upright inside of the walls, the whole covered with poles, grass and sod. On the east side was a covered entrance and on the west were the sacred bundle and buffalo skull. There was a hole in the center of the roof to let out the smoke. The people slept around the edge of the circle made by the walls and gathered about the lodge fire in the center to eat and talk. Such houses were warm in the coldest weather. The sod houses of the early white settlers were like them in structure, but not in shape. In some places Pawnees built sod walls around their village to protect it from enemies.

In the rich, moist valleys near the rivers, the Pawnee women raised crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, squashes and melons. They gathered roots from the prairie and wild fruit from the bushes and dried them for winter use. Twice a year the tribe went on buffalo hunts, leaving their villages deserted except for the men and women too old to go on the hunt. Thus they made part of their living by the chase and part by farming, very much as did our forefathers, the Germans, in the time of Julius Cæsar.

Ancient Pawnee Pottery

Before the white men came the Pawnees made their own tools and weapons out of wood, flint and stone, chipping the flint into sharp points for their arrow and spear heads and making hammers and axes out of stones. For hoes they tied, with strings of rawhide, the sharp shoulder blades of buffaloes to sticks. They also made many kinds of pottery and thousands of pieces are found on the sites of their old towns in our state.

The rulers of the Pawnees were chiefs. Sometimes a man came to be chief because his father was chief, and sometimes the son of a common man who proved to be wise, brave and fortunate in war and in hunting became chief. A chief who did not have these qualities soon lost his power. There was a head chief of the tribe, a council composed of other chiefs, and besides these an assembly of the whole people, as there were among the early Germans, to decide what should be done in important matters.

The Pawnees were a very religious people. They believed in spirits, ghosts, fairies, and enchanted animals and in magical places where strange things were done. Above all these they believed in Tirawa, the father, who lived in the sky, who made all the people and who sent the corn, the buffalo, the rain, the sunshine and all other good things. If the people did as he wished they had good fortune and were happy. To gain the good will of the spirits there were dances, ceremonies, songs and sacrifices. There were special ceremonies and songs to secure the favor of Tirawa for every important event in the life of the Pawnees, the first thunder in the spring, the planting of corn, the start on a buffalo hunt, the return of a war party. Sacred bundles were kept in the lodges which held magical feathers and bones and other mysterious things. These were brought out for the great ceremonies.

Singers made many songs for their special occasions. Story-tellers told many stories of the deeds of their young men and of ghosts and spirits and animals. In all these things the Pawnees were very skilful and their songs and stories were famous among Indians everywhere. These were handed down from the old to the young until there were very many of them. Other tribes have borrowed and copied a great deal from the Pawnee stories and songs.

Medicine men had great power and influence among the Pawnees. Wonderful tales are told of the things done by them, such as raising in a few hours a full grown stalk of corn from a dry kernel, shaking a live fawn from a deerskin, making plums and cherries grow out of twigs, striking people dead with tomahawks and restoring them to life in a few minutes. White people who saw some of these wonderful feats were unable to explain them. Among the Indians themselves the mystery and magic of the Pawnee medicine men made them both courted and feared.

The Skidi tribe of the Pawnee nation was the largest and most warlike. It kept up the old customs longer than any other tribe, among them the custom of offering human sacrifice to the morning star. Prisoners taken in war were offered in these sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the god and bring good luck to the tribe. The last sacrifice of this kind known took place sixty or seventy years ago. There are old Pawnees who say that they saw it. The Pawnees often kept prisoners as slaves and other tribes held captured Pawnees as their slaves. There was also a custom among the Pawnees by which young men and boys who had as yet made no name for themselves by their deeds, lived as servants in the families of chiefs. Here they were fed and lodged and in their turn did all kinds of errands, such as caring for the horses and carrying messages. Older men who had not made a success in life lived in the same way, receiving support and protection from the chief in payment for their services. In all this the Pawnee custom was very much like that of the feudal system in Europe when the common people served the lords and knights.

The Pawnee nation as a whole was never at war with the white people. At times some of the young Pawnees had trouble with the settlers over stock. The so-called Pawnee war of 1859 was to punish a few such thieves. Pawnee men, women and children were frequent visitors in the homes of early Nebraska settlers and a Pawnee camp near a ranch served as a protection against hostile Sioux and Cheyenne.

All the other Indian tribes of the plains were at war with the Pawnees. Sometimes peace would be made for a short time, but through the years the larger tribes of the plains, the Comanches, the Cheyennes, the Utes, the Arapahoes and especially the Sioux, were the constant and bitter enemies of the Pawnees. Always at war with these great tribes about them, it is little wonder that the Pawnees became fewer in number.

One hundred years ago the Pawnee people were estimated to number 10,000. The Republican, or Kitkehahki tribe had villages on the Republican River near Hardy, and near Red Cloud. The other three tribes lived in the valleys of the Platte and Loups. Graves and lodge circles extend for many miles near Linwood, in Butler County, Osceola in Polk County and Leshara in Saunders County, marking the sites of Pawnee villages south of the Platte. In the North Platte region the valleys of the Loups and of Shell Creek in Colfax, Platte, Merrick, Nance and Howard counties are thickly dotted with remains of Pawnee villages.

By a treaty with the United States in 1833 the Pawnee nation ceded all its country south of the Platte and agreed to move up on the Loups. A part went, but in 1846 the Sioux burned one of their villages there and the Pawnees came down the Platte, making their homes near Bellevue and Fremont.

In 1849, the cholera swept away nearly 1200 Pawnees and every year their enemies, the Sioux, made raids upon them, so that their women hardly dared to hoe in the fields of corn.

In 1857, the Pawnee nation ceded to the United States all its country north of the Platte except a reservation, now Nance County, on the Loup, and in 1859 the entire nation, then numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 people, moved there.

For the next fourteen years the once proud Pawnees led a life of misfortune and disaster. The Sioux raided their villages. The white men coveted their beautiful tract of land and urged the government to remove them. Grasshoppers and drought ruined their crops. Buffalo became scarce and could be found only by long journeys to the Republican River, in the country of their enemies, the Sioux. Finally in 1873, a party of Pawnees hunting buffalo were surprised by the Sioux near Culbertson in Hitchcock County and eighty-six were killed.

Many of the Pawnees now desired to move to the Indian Territory and live near the Wichita tribe, who are near relatives. In 1873 a party of 300 went south and wintered. In 1874, 1,500 men, women and children left Nebraska and reached the Indian Territory in February, 1875. In November, 1875, those left in Nebraska joined them, making a total of 2,200, all that remained of the Pawnee nation.

For a number of years after this the Pawnees died very rapidly. They had left a land of clear flowing rivers, bright skies and cool dry climate. They went to a land where the climate was hot and damp, biting insects of all kinds abounded, and the water in the streams flowed red as blood from the red soil through which it passed. For a time it seemed that the whole nation would quickly disappear.

The Pawnee reservation is now a part of Oklahoma and the remainder of the nation living there number 653. They never cease telling stories of the old times and the old home in Nebraska. To their children Nebraska is a wonderland, full of magical places, the scenes of heroic battles and strange events in their history, some of which are related in the pages of this book.


  1. How long and how accurately are stories of old times kept by people who do not know how to write and read?
  2. Why were the sod houses of the early settlers different in shape from the Indian earth lodge?
  3. Do white men in Nebraska select their chiefs in the same way as the Pawnees did?
  4. How did the medicine men learn their art?
  5. Which Pawnee customs and beliefs were different from those of white men? Which were like the white men's customs?
  6. Why do you think the other tribes fought the Pawnees?
  7. Do you wish the Pawnees had stayed in Nebraska?