Pawnee Family Life

The Pawnee had a sedentary lifestyle combining village life and seasonal hunting, which had long been established on the Plains.

Pawnee - Villages

The Pawnee generally settled close to the rivers and placed their lodges on the higher banks. They built earth lodges that by historical times tended to be oval in shape; at earlier stages, they were rectangular. They constructed the frame, made of 10-15 posts set some ten feet apart, which outlined the central room of the lodge. Lodge size varied based on the number of poles placed in the center of the structure. Most lodges had 4, 8 or 12 center poles. A common feature in Pawnee lodges were four painted poles, which represented the four cardinal directions and the four major star gods (not to be confused with the Creator.) A second outer ring of poles outlined the outer circumference of the lodge. Horizontal beams linked the posts together.

The frame was covered first with smaller poles, tied with willow withes. The structure was covered with thatch, then earth. A hole left in the center of the covering served as a combined chimney/smoke hole and skylight. The door of each lodge was placed to the east and the rising sun. A long, low passageway, which helped keep out outside weather, led to an entry room that had an interior buffalo-skin door on a hinge. It could be closed at night and wedged shut. Opposite the door, on the west side of the central room, a buffalo skull with horns was displayed.

Mats were hung on the perimeter of the main room to shield small rooms in the outer ring, which served as sleeping and private spaces. The lodge was semi-subterranean, as the Pawnee recessed the base by digging it approximately three feet below ground level. This insulated the interior from extreme temperatures. Lodges were strong enough to support adults, who routinely sat on them, and the children who played on the top of the structures.

As many as 30-50 people might live in each lodge, and they were usually of related families. A village could consist of as many as 300-500 people and 10-15 households. Each lodge was divided in two (the north and south), and each section had a head who oversaw the daily business. Each section was further subdivided into three duplicate areas, with tasks and responsibilities related to the ages of women and girls, as described below. The membership of the lodge was quite flexible.

The tribe went on buffalo hunts in summer and winter. Upon their return, the inhabitants of a lodge would often move into another lodge, although they generally remained within the village. Men’s lives were more transient than those of women. They had obligations of support for the wife (and family they married into), but could always go back to their mother and sisters for a night or two of attention. When young couples married, they lived with the woman’s family in a matrilocal pattern.

Pawnee - Tribe Structure

The Pawnee are a matrilineal people. Ancestral descent is traced through the mother, and children are considered born into the mother’s clan and are part of her people. Traditionally, a young couple moved into the bride’s parents’ lodge. People work together in collaborative ways, marked by both independence and cooperation, without coercion. Both women and men are active in political life, with independent decision-making responsibilities.

Within the lodge, each north-south section had areas marked by activities of the three classes of women: mature women (usually married and mothers), who did most of the labor; young single women, just learning their responsibilities; and older women, who looked after the young children.

Among the collection of lodges, the political designations for men were essentially between the Warrior Clique and the Hunting Clique.

Women tended to be responsible for decisions about resource allocation, trade, and inter-lodge social negotiations. Men were responsible for decisions which pertained to hunting, war, and spiritual/health issues.

Women tended to remain within a single lodge, while men would typically move between lodges. They took multiple sexual partners in serially monogamous relationships.

Pawnee - Hunting

After they obtained horses, the Pawnee adapted their culture and expanded their buffalo hunting seasons. With horses providing a greater range, the people traveled in both summer and winter westward to the Great Plains for buffalo hunting. They often traveled 500 miles or more in a season. In summer the march began at dawn or before, but usually did not last the entire day.

Once buffalo were located, hunting did not begin until the medicine men of the tribe considered the time propitious. The hunt began by the men advancing together toward the buffalo, but no one could kill any buffalo until the warriors of the tribe gave the signal. Anyone who broke ranks was severely beaten. During the chase, the hunters guided their ponies with their knees and wielded bows and arrows. They could incapacitate buffalo with a single arrow shot into the flank between the lower ribs and the hip. The animal would soon lie down and perhaps bleed out, or the hunters would finish it off. An individual hunter might shoot as many as five buffalo in this way before backtracking and finishing them off. They preferred to kill cows and young bulls, as the taste of older bulls was disagreeable.

After successful kills, the women processed the bison meat, skin and bones for various uses: the flesh was sliced into strips and dried on poles over slow fires before being stored. Prepared in this way, it was usable for several years. Although the Pawnee preferred buffalo, they also hunted other game, including elk, bear, panther, and skunk, for meat and skins. The skins were used for clothing and accessories, storage bags, foot coverings, fastening ropes and ties, etc.

The people returned to their villages to harvest crops when the corn was ripe in late summer, or in the spring when the grass became green and they could plant a new cycle of crops. Summer hunts extended from late June to about the first of September; but might end early if hunting was successful.

Pawnee - Farming

The Pawnee women were skilled horticulturalists and cooks, cultivating and processing ten varieties of corn, seven of pumpkins and squashes, and eight of beans. They planted their crops along the fertile river bottomlands. These crops provided a wide variety of nutrients and complemented each other in making whole proteins. In addition to varieties of flint corn and flour corn for consumption, the women planted an archaic breed which they called “Wonderful” or “Holy Corn”, specifically to be included in the sacred bundles.

The holy corn was cultivated and harvested to replace corn in the sacred bundles prepared for the major seasons of winter and summer. Seeds were taken from sacred bundles for the spring planting ritual. The cycle of corn determined the annual agricultural cycle, as it was the first to be planted and first to be harvested (with accompanying ceremonies involving priests and men of the tribe as well.)

In keeping with their cosmology, the Pawnee classified the varieties of corn by color: black, spotted, white, yellow and red (which, excluding spotted, related to the colors associated with the four semi-cardinal directions). The women kept the different strains pure as they cultivated the corn. While important in agriculture, squash and beans were not given the same theological meaning as corn.