What is the Pawnee Tribe?

Vicki Hogue-Davies

The Pawnee tribe is a Native American people originally from the areas that are now the U.S. states of Nebraska and northern Kansas. The Pawnee people hunted and farmed along the Platte River and other Missouri River tributaries for hundreds of years. They lived in fixed villages, growing corn, squash, sunflowers, beans and other crops, and they hunted buffalo seasonally. They were one of the most powerful Native American tribes in the area. At their height, the Pawnee tribe, which consisted of four bands — the Chawi, Kitkahahki, Pitahauerat and Skidi — numbered more than 10,000 people.

The Pawnee tribe grew numerous crops, including sunflowers.
The Pawnee tribe grew numerous crops, including sunflowers.

The Pawnee language belongs to the Caddoan family, which is the family containing the languages of the Great Plains Indians. The Pawnee's traditional religion, based on the tribe's connection to the natural world and its understanding of astronomy, called for the sacrificing of corn and other crops to Gods and spirits. One of the Pawnee bands, the Skidi, also sacrificed people. The band took part in a yearly ceremony in which an adolescent girl was sacrificed to the "morning star."

The Pawnee tribe lived in fixed villages and grew corn.
The Pawnee tribe lived in fixed villages and grew corn.

As with other Native American tribes, the advent of white explorers and settlers into their territory signaled the beginning of the end of the Pawnee tribe's traditional way of life. By the mid 1800s, the Pawnee were living on a reservation in Nebraska. In the 1870s, the Pawnee tribe was moved to a reservation in Oklahoma. During the course of the 1800s, the Pawnee population was greatly reduced by disease brought by the settlers, by warfare with other Plains Indians, such as the Sioux and Cherokee, and finally by poor reservation conditions. The Pawnee Nation at its lowest point, around the end of the 19th century, numbered only about 600 people.

The Pawnee Nation headquarters is located in Oklahoma. The nation is run by an elected president and governing council. As of 2010, the Pawnee tribe numbered a few thousand people, of which the majority lived in Pawnee County, Oklahoma.

The Pawnee Nation owns several casinos; Pawnee Nation College, which provides American Indian Studies as one of its major degree areas; and the Pawnee Tribal Development Corporation, which seeks to create economic opportunity for tribal members. In 2009, a prominent Pawnee tribal member, Larry EchoHawk, became the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was nominated for the position by U.S. president Barack Obama.

The Pawnee Tribe hunted buffalo seasonally.
The Pawnee Tribe hunted buffalo seasonally.

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