Pawnee Pottery Making

Original Text


“POTTERY MAKING. Potters of the plains were not so skillful as those of the pueblo region of the Southwest, but Pawnee women produced good and serviceable jars from the clay and sand of their local river banks. Often these pieces were decorated by incised designs on the upper part of the jar. In this scene the kneeling woman builds the walls of the jar by coiling a strip of soft clay until it reaches the desired height and shape. Another potter is finishing a jar by patting it with a cord-wrapped paddle until the walls are smooth and solid. It will be dried and subjected to great heat in the open fire before it is a finished jar, such as the white-clad maiden is using to carry clay and water. Jars were made large and small and were used for cooking and for food storage. In the distance, industrious workers lash poles together to form a framework for brush and sod which will make a weatherproof home like those behind it.”

“PAWNEE INDIANS. In the heart of the buffalo range and on fertile gardening soil, the Pawnees lived and prospered in their large villages along the prairie rivers of south central Nebraska and north central Kansas. Bits of broken pottery and the arrow makers’ flint chips now mark the sights where earth lodges once stood, and on nearby hills shallow unmarked graves contain the bones of their dead. The religion of the Pawnees was essentially a worship of the sun, moon, and stars, which they believed to be the ancestors of their people. An elaborate and colorful mythology reveals them as a romantic and happy people. Friendliness of the Pawnee toward immigrants was an important factor in the westward march of the white man, but the Pawnees did not receive due consideration in later years. Slowly their land was taken from them and they were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma.”

A Modern View

Prior to European contact, Pawnee ancestors migrated to Kansas and Nebraska, where they established permanent villages near waterways. Although the Pawnee left home on bison hunts, their primarily agricultural and sedentary lifestyle permitted them to produce delicate crafts like pottery. As discussed in the original text, Pawnee pottery was hand-built and included elaborate designs. Today, archeologists use these designs—which changed over time—to help date historic Pawnee village sites.

The Pawnee were also skilled astronomers. Although the original text simplifies Pawnee religion to “essentially a worship of the sun, moon, and stars,” their belief system was incredibly sophisticated with a creator god, a corn goddess, and various star and animal spirits who provided the Pawnee with guidance and protection. Each village had its own sacred bundle of objects, which priests used to communicate with the spirit world.

The Pawnee were among the Plains tribes most willing to forge alliances with Americans in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. In part, their “friendliness” stemmed from their desire to defend themselves against Indigenous rivals, like the Lakota. The Pawnee did not harass American migrants but rather aided them on their westward journeys. During the Plains Indian wars of the late nineteenth century, Pawnee warriors even served in the U.S. Army as scouts.

This alliance, however, did not protect the Pawnee from U.S. reservation policy. As noted in the original text, the federal government slowly reduced their territory to make way for White homesteaders. By 1857, the U.S. had confined the tribe to a small reserve in Nebraska. Finally, in 1874, the federal government resettled the Pawnee in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

The Pawnee suffered greatly on their reservation, in particular, due to the spread of epidemic diseases. Although they had numbered 12,000 in the early nineteenth century, their population decreased to 600 by 1900. The Indian New Deal, however, provided the tribe with the opportunity for rebirth. In the 1930s, the Pawnee established a new tribal government and gained federal recognition.

Today, the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma includes more than 3,000 enrolled tribal citizens. The Pawnee continue to celebrate their culture in yearly gatherings, homecoming ceremonies, and powwows.