'Remember Us': Museum In Far-North Kansas Honors State's Pawnee History And Culture
The Pawnee Indian Village Museum is as much an archeological site as it is a museum, and it’s recognized as such by the Smithsonian Institution and the state of Kansas.
The first voice visitors hear when they enter the main area of the Pawnee Indian Village Museum is a recording from Ma Chisholm, a member of the Skidi band of the Pawnee Nation.
“Hello, it’s good you came here to learn how we lived in our lodges,” Chisholm says on recording.
The museum is as much an archeological site as it is a museum, and it’s recognized as such by the Smithsonian Institution and the state of Kansas. The small museum building wraps around the circular floor of an earth lodge that was excavated beginning in 1967, along with about half of the original Pawnee village.
“They were just trying to find things that would tell the story of the Pawnee’s day to day life and what life would have been like for them,” said Dillon Bouray, a part-time volunteer with the museum.
Visitors can see the usual museum fare: displays of pottery and other artifacts from everyday life, including tools, art, and beadwork. All of it is carefully lighted and protected behind glass.
But there’s also the remains of the lodge itself, which is about 60 feet in diameter.
“The lodge really is only for sleeping,” Bouray said, “and if it was raining you could go in there and escape that. But most of your life was spent outside working.”
Historians estimate about 50 people lived in this dwelling. There were about 40 or 50 lodges in all, home to between 1,000 and 2,000 people.
The lodge floor is scattered with tools, shells and pottery shards, left where they were uncovered. You can see the post holes from the original structures, the place where the fire pit would have been in the center of the lodge and a six-foot deep chamber to hold dried corn, squash, beans and meat.
“It was a cellar, more or less,” Bouray said.
The Pawnee traveled west to find bison during the summer and back again to what is now Republic County to harvest crops in the fall. At one time, there were 60,000 in Kansas and Nebraska.
Crop failure, warfare with other tribes and diseases brought by Europeans diminished their numbers. Bouray said when the last of the Pawnee were forcibly moved to Oklahoma, the population numbered in the hundreds, not thousands.
The museum has a list of the census taken in 1903 with 142 names on it.
“That’s every Pawnee that was kind of accounted for at the time,” Bouray said. “So every Pawnee alive today is related to somebody on that list.”
Today there are about 3,200 people who identify as Pawnee, mostly living in Oklahoma. Bouray estimates there are about 10 people left who speak the language.
Some of the Skidi dialect is preserved through the recordings of Ma Chisholm. At the last exhibit, she thanks visitors for learning about her people and the way they lived.