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The history of Indigenous-European relations in North America is sometimes simultaneously complex and simple. We find complexity in the clash of cultures and world views and the intersecting cultures, including among the Indigenous tribes themselves. Simple, too often, was the sheer racist betrayal and barbarism.

Pawnee were shrewd and fierce warriors, often in conflict over resources with the larger tribes around them, particularly the Sioux. By the time of expanding European encroachment, the Pawnee’s numbers had been so reduced by disease that they made the easy recognition that conflict with the white man was futile. More often, the Pawnee cooperated the U.S government, as was the case of the Pawnee scouts inducted into the U.S. Cavalry to aid in tracking and combating other tribes who had been the Pawnee’s longtime enemies anyway.

The history of the Pawnee Scouts is well recorded, as are many small events of the Western saga many people might automatically think were lost in the obscurity of the “wilderness.” There is, for instance, the story of six Pawnee Scouts who, soon after the honorable discharge from the Army in 1869, were traveling through Kansas when they were shot and killed by settlers. Their bodies disappeared.

Nothing more definite was known of the ultimate fate of these six Pawnee Scouts until James Riding In, a Pawnee scholar of American Indian Studies published in 1992 “Six Pawnee Crania: The Historical and Contemporary Significance of the Massacre and Decapitation of Pawnee Indians in 1869.” Here is his later commentary:

As the battles against archaeological desecration and administrative fiat raged at UCLA, the Pawnee Nation had begun to question the Nebraska State Historical Society and Smithsonian Institution regarding Pawnee remains in their collections. My work as a repatriation researcher began when the Native American Rights Fund asked me, on behalf of the Pawnee Nation, to investigate the identity of six human crania at the Smithsonian listed by accession records as Pawnee.

When the Pawnee leadership requested information about those remains, a Smithsonian official denied that the skulls were Pawnees, saying that many Indian raiders had been killed in Kansas and it would be impossible to positively identify the skulls in question as Pawnees. My research acquainted me with the dark, secretive history of white America’s treatment of our dead. By examining documentation held at the Smithsonian and the federal archives, my research determined that those remains belonged to six Pawnees, just discharged from the U.S. Army, who had been killed in 1869 by U.S. soldiers and settlers near Mulberry Creek in Kansas.  Following a lengthy search for the bodies, a Fort Harker surgeon had the heads severed and sent to the Army Medical Museum for craniometric study. This study was published with other documents and the testimony that contributed to the enactment of NMAIA (National Museum of the American Indian Act).

As a consequence of additional congressional legislation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the remains of the six Pawnee Scouts and hundreds of other Pawnee remains were repatriated and reburied on traditional Pawnee lands between 1990-1995. Since the Pawnee tribe was relocated to “Indian Country” in Oklahoma during the removal period of the 19th century, it is a special occasion for present day Head Nasharo Chief Pat Leading Fox to return to Nebraska and visit the remains of his ancestors. We were with him this week as he stood before the monument to the buried remains and sang a Pawnee song in honor of the dead.

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