Pawnee Cosmology

The Pawnee are one of the best-known native American groups in the U.S. Midwest. Before the spread of Europeans into the area, they inhabited what was to become northern Kansas and southern Nebraska. The Skidi (or Skiri), one of four Pawnee bands, received particular attention from ethnographers in the early twentieth century, which provided a strong basis for more recent studies of many different aspects of traditional Pawnee lifestyle, including myths and rituals relating to the sky.

The Skidi Pawnee creation myth tells of how Tirawahat (or Tirawa), creator of all things, instructed various sky gods, including the Sun, the Moon, Bright Star (Evening Star), Great Star (Morning Star), and Star-that-does-not-move (Polaris). The four World Quarter Stars were charged with holding up the heavens and were given the power to create people. Sun pursued Moon to produce the first boy; Great Star pursued Bright Star to produce the first girl. The gods in the heavens provided people with materials for tools, weapons, and clothing, and also with precious objects that they would need to create sacred bundles. Different star gods created different groups of people with complementary knowledge and different sacred bundles. By coming together and keeping their lives in tune with the patterns established by the gods in the heavens, and in particular by undertaking the appropriate ceremonies associated with each of the bundles at the right times, the Skidi people as a whole were able to live in harmony with themselves and with the cosmos for many generations.

The traditional cosmology, or worldview, of the Skidi Pawnee is based upon a rich set of associations that are perceived to exist between people, the earth, and the sky, intricately woven together to form a complex framework of understanding. Thus each of the four World Quarter Stars occupied one of the intercardinal directions and was associated with a color, one of the four seasons of nature, one of the four seasons of life, a meteorological phenomenon, an animal, a type of wood, and a type of corn. The various ethnographic accounts differ slightly in some of the finer details, but we can say with reasonable confidence that Yellow Star occupied the northwest, controlled the setting sun, and was associated with the spring, childhood, lightning, the mountain lion, willow, and yellow corn. Likewise Red Star occupied the southeast and was associated with summer, youth, cloud, the wolf, box elder, and red corn. Big Black Star occupied the northeast and was associated with autumn, adulthood, thunder, the bear, elm, and black corn. Finally, White Star occupied the southwest and was associated with winter, old age, wind, the wildcat, cottonwood, and white corn. Black Star (male) and White Star (female) were mates, as were Red Star (male) and Yellow Star (female). Red Star controlled the coming of day, while Black Star controlled the coming of night. White Star stood by the Moon. Black Star was the patron of knowledge. The associations seem endless. (The question of whether the World Quarter Stars represented actual stars, and if so, which, has been investigated extensively but remains unresolved.)

The Skidi view of the world was reinforced by story and by observations of nature itself. For example, the Sun continually chased the Moon across the sky, regularly (once every month) catching up and causing her to disappear. It was also continually enacted in activities and ceremonies that ensured harmony with the cosmos. As an outsider might see it, the Skidi Pawnee based their lives around observations of the heavens. However, it would be a more accurate representation of the complete picture to say that the pattern of their lives reflected the structure of the cosmos in many different ways, both in space and time.

This is particularly evident in the layout of individual dwellings, often known as earth lodges. They are round because the world is round; the floor represents the earth and the ceiling the sky. The lodge entrance faces east, toward Morning Star, so that people can enter the lodge in the same way as the stars enter the sky; the altar is located in the western part, the domain of Evening Star, to symbolize creation and renewal. The roof is held up by four main posts that represent the World Quarter Stars. They are placed in the intercardinal directions and each is painted with the appropriate color. These reflect the four quarters of the world, and symbolize the connection between the earth and the sky.

The structure of the cosmos was not only reflected in individual dwellings; the whole landscape reflected the arrangement of the sky gods. Four villages were particularly associated with the World Quarter Stars and were situated in appropriate intercardinal directions in the landscape. Each possessed sacred bundles bestowed by the World Quarter Star in question and led ceremonials at certain times of year. These ceremonies, in turn, were related to seasonal activities such as planting, harvesting, and buffalo hunting.

The Skidi Pawnee provide an excellent example of why, and how, human communities strive to keep their lives in tune with the cosmos as they perceive it.

See also:

Cosmology; Ethnoastronomy.

Pawnee Earth Lodge.

References and further reading

Chamberlain, Von Del. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America. Los Altos, CA, and College Park, MD: Ballena Press/Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1982.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 269-301. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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