One fall near dusk I watched a flock of goldfinches feeding in a stand of sunflowers, and when I stepped toward them from the trail, my body moving among the rustling stalks, the flock turned to smoke and rose into the air. The cloud then settled in the trees along the creek while I stood silent among borders and conjunctions—the adjacent hill leveling out into recumbent flood plain; crepuscular air resting in bunchgrass and deciduous thicket. Moments later, the birds reversed their flight, returning from the nearby treetops to continue feeding on seeds, stoking the inner fire of their metabolism for the coming night of cold.
As I tell the story of the finch flock, the nouns and verbs stand out, lovely—and maybe lonely—in their own particularity, framed in my mind and on the page by the pale matting of space-between-words. It’s the way I experience the world, I think, sensitive always to the distances among things, the distinctive skin of separation so many objects present to all the elseness that surrounds them. Is that a deer or a shrub, I wonder, that darker patch I see halfway down the tawny Kansas hillside? Either way, my attention frames interest in the general rhythm of subjects and complements, things I might keep handy in the pockets of thought, fingering them as I move through the landscape—one I know well or one where I’ve never before set eyes or foot.
This week I’ve been reading a nineteenth-century publication on “onomatopes,” word-roots derived from sounds made by the things they signify, so my head is abuzz with unfamiliar consonant clusters. The author had collected examples from Siouan speakers, Native American words that could have once gestured towards this very topography. So when I leave the quiet house for a walk along that same stretch of trail, I remember the finches and think of their flight, and my own movement, like echoes of the place itself. An hour into today’s hike, snowflakes lunge from the northwest, countless tiny wind-sped points of cold. It’s the first snow of the season, though winter hasn’t even arrived. When I turn to face the oncoming weather I become disoriented, as if I’m speeding along to meet the wind. Zu΄de, that wind might be saying. Ga-zu΄-zu-de, whistling or roaring as it touches whatever lifts skyward from the ground. The first means simply a whistling sound; the second, the frequency of whistling (practically incessant!) that is wind in the Great Plains. Ga-zu΄-zu-de . Sometimes it drove newcomers nearly to distraction—one wealthy Kansas rancher’s wife in the 1880’s was said to hide in her fine home’s underground root cellar, just to get away from the sound. But I love the insistence of the prairie wind. When I listen, I hear vowels as the wind hits the gallery woods by the creek; consonants when it shivers whole hillsides of grass. Su΄-‘e, the sound of walking through grass.
In Siouan speech, the things of the world and the things that they do might all adhere to one another; in many languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, verbs tend to absorb both their subjects and objects in a little ecology of signification. Attention cinches them all together in agglutinating syntax-turned-word-formation. It’s a way of speaking so different from my own, I have to think hard just to imagine it, and just when I think I’ve caught the concept, it slips away.
I’ve brought a topographic map of these hills and draws, but nothing is labeled on it. With a finger I can trace that darker line of trees by the creek, approximating where I think I might be standing. If anyone has given names to the tiny intermittent streams that wrinkle these hillsides, I’ve never heard them, so I remember the landmarks with narrative pegs: here’s where the turkeys will cluster all winter; here’s where I once saw a badger push through the brush. These are recent inflections of the watershed, a memory-base that can’t be more than a few microns thick. If, in some sort of remote-sensing linguistics measurement, conducted with several geographers and plotted into a software database, I could survey the word-maps laid on the prairie landscape over centuries, I’d need to populate at least two fields with the findings. Caddoan, the speech of the Pawnee; Siouan, the speech of the Kansa.
For me, both tongues exist on the page rather than within the ear, though I sound them out slowly, experimentally. Right now I’m trying to shape words that, a century and a half ago, might have been breathed by someone—shall I call her a Kansan?—on this same hillside. Kha΄-dha, she’d say to describe her own movement. I try it, too. The last vowel should be slightly nasalized, softening the percussive quality as though sound itself drops into the grass and is lost. Kha΄-dha: the sound made by pushing one’s way through grasses or sunflowers. That’s what I did, that late afternoon more than a decade ago, when the birds turned to smoke.
“They used to tell stories”: a translated sentence I find in a book of Pawnee grammar. The linguist picks the phrase apart, showing how these little morphemes—stick-tight seedlets of thought—have coalesced into what looks like a single word in the text. Ar ri ir ur i uks ra: i: wati hus u:ku. Oh, it’s a constellation of meaning. In the typescript, colons indicate where I should extend the vowels, voice them a little longer than the others. I try it out, reading the explanations. Ar, an evidential, so we know the speaker heard the old stories himself. U:ku, showing the habitual aspect, how the old people used to tell the stories over and over. And between these, a dense cluster of syllabic signification. Ur … ra:i:wati means to tell the story, but wati is a metaphoric, transitive verb, to dig. I think of how archaeology and oral history both sift the past, lifting the evidence free from the dust. Uks is a marker of aspect, indicating the completed quality of the verb. They used to tell, it hints, but not anymore. Those days are gone. My own grandparents are gone, and with them some of the hints and whispers of my bloodline’s native connection with the continent. Choctaw—late arrivals to the southern plains, some of my father’s people; they spoke Muskogean, a language of the southeast. And my mother’s people—well, their story’s been garbled through generations. Algonquin? Athabaskan? The answers had been lost before I knew the questions I’d like to have asked.
Pawnee “is primarily a language that is remembered,” the scholar laments. “In no family is it any longer used on a day to day basis.” And when I read this I think how he, too, seems unconsciously to have slipped into a kind of rhetorical formality, frontloading his sentence with the negative, arranging the verb and its adverbial modification so that the pacing is slow, almost stately, delaying the moment of silence at the sentence’s end. The grammar resembles a funeral procession, carrying the departed away across the page. My brother, pallbearer, carried my grandmother’s casket when the family gathered for her death. At my grandfather’s funeral, I followed my father in speaking of his father’s life—nearly a century lived in the Oklahoma shortgrass landscape. When my turn came, I read a poem aloud and then returned to my seat among the mourners, dressed again in silence.
If you could cinch the written page closed like a pouch, wrap up a bundle of language, a memory bag, what then? If you re-opened it slowly, could you imagine the language still there waiting for you, re-emerging like stars once the sun has gone down?
Rahurahki . That’s the Deer, a constellation I can make out even in my front yard, through the scrim of hackberry branches and the competing haze of small-city lights. They’re the stars that make up Orion’s Belt and they don’t look like the profile of an individual, nor the outlines of the animal’s antlers lifting in figurative form. The Skidi Pawnee said the stars would “follow one another up” in the east. To see what they saw, you have to imagine the hardly-glimpsed creatures picking their quiet way forward—a small group of deer, three or four, moving slowly as if through the oaks by the creek. Those stars might be their heads, raised and listening; they might be white tails poised before flight.
For the Pawnee, the Big and Little Dippers were raruka΄i:tu΄, stretchers used to carry the sick or the dead. The four corner stars are the litter bearers and a short line of stars seems to trail along, mourners or worried family members carrying the weight of mortality through timeless skies. The Milky Way is the road of the dead, ru-ha-rú-tu-ru-hut, the white path above, where spirits are driven by wind. But it has less lofty identities as well. It could be dust raised by the feet of innumerable bison; it could be a stream with foam pushed by the current. Raki:rarutu:ru:ta. I like the word, as I read it aloud. It sounds liquid, I think; it sounds like movement.
On a mild night you can lie awake, half hiding yourself in the lea of your sleeping bag, watching the lid of the sky until you’ve slipped into sleep, only to wake later and see how the stars have moved. East to west, the constellations travel the sun’s vacated pathway. Tree-less horizon, cloudless sky, you can try to glimpse the hints of form those stars imply. Among my favorites from Pawnee astronomy are the Snake and the Swimming Ducks. The Snake is part of Scorpius; the serpentine body points its head toward the Milky Way, as if it’s paused in the moment before it will twitch and slither, disappearing. The Swimming Ducks appear to float companionably together near the Snake’s tail. The celestial bird pair is migratory: at my latitude, the constellation appears heliacally in the sky in the spring and disappears in the autumn. That’s a good way to arrange your concept of the year, of course; it all begins anew in spring, crescendos through the months of summer, progressing toward senescence as autumn slides toward winter’s grip. That’s how the Pawnee perceived the order of time’s passing and they answered its movement with ceremonies that opened in spring and closed in fall. As James Murie explained just over a century ago, this was so because “all the animals are hibernating and the birds have gone south. Even the stars have changed their places.” In phenology’s rhythmic pulse, whole rafts of ducks move through the equinoctial skies of the central flyway, but I like the intimacy of those two small points of light, a pair who have made the trip together and are settled in to their own small niche of sky, like some small pothole lake left by the long-since melted age of ice, until once again it’s time to move on and together they depart.
Much as I like the Swimming Ducks, I have no certainty about their Pawnee name. By the early twentieth century, when Murie, whose mother was Skidi, began collecting information about traditional Pawnee culture, he came up against loss after loss. He had no Caddoan word for the constellation, only its English translation. And other waterfowl figures complicate the question. Another scholar explains that two months of the year are named for avian constellationsbut I can’t find clarification of when such months might fall in our own calendar year. And here I find Little Duck, Kiwaksi, and Big Duck, Kiwaks-kutsu. It’s easy to hear the flappy-jowled chatter of ducks in both those names, close as they are to our own quaaack-quack-quack. Were the Swimming Ducks pictured individually, not collectively? Were they the same as another constellation called Ku:hat, the Loons? Loons do pass through this part of the continent in spring and fall migration—I’ve seen them once or twice—but they don’t stay to nest through the summer months. I’d imagine the birds’ travel would be tagged—call them the Flying Loons—if they were the chosen harbinger.
By now I want to know what part of the prairie’s rhythms were indexed in the Pawnee’s astral lexicon; I’d like to find any correspondence they saw between the worlds above and below. But the gaps in my own knowledge and the historical record move in like high cloud cover, obscuring the patterns I might have glimpsed. And after all, I live in town: the urban glow smears the sky above.
From the Lakota, the Kansa’s cousins, I learn Wakinyan. To me the constellation looks like a giant dragonfly with flat-tipped wings and narrow body; Polaris is near enough I can imagine that it’s an insect the dragonfly pursues. But this is the Thunderbird and I have to admit, it utterly commands the place where I first see it paused in flight just above the prairie hills. Across that astral landscape another animal moves through the autumn nights, named simply by the Lakota Tayamnipa, Animal. The Pleiades comprise its head; the bright tip of its tail is Sirius. In the middle of its body, the stars of Orion’s belt form its backbone, from which poke a few starry ribs. Is the creature a bison? Is it a bear? I consider both suggestions but prefer not to choose. This time I like the purely abstract quality of animal. With neither hoof nor paw, the creature presents just a hint of a body. If you consider perspective, it’s as if the earth has traded places with the sky and we gaze down on the formation from above.
In photographs I’ve seen stars arrayed on an oval of elk hide, four-pointed blazes inscribed on the pale leather in scatters and clusters you could hold in your lap. Called the Skidi Pawnee star chart, it’s a handsome thing, laid out lengthwise with a sense of symmetry. Like open pages from a velum album, the chart’s two halves meet in a vertical band of indistinct stars said to represent the Milky Way. East and West redden the oval’s far edges with traces of paint. Constellations bunch together, crowding one another in the chart’s open field. There are the Swimming Ducks and the Snake that’s painted near them. The Big Stretcher pauses in its presumed motion, the trail of mourners following in the four stars’ wake. But this chart offers no celestial verisimilitude, no navigational atlas for the world above. Astronomer Von Del Chamberlain suggests its role is to “capture star powers that could then be used by the Skidi in maintaining a secure life.” He notes that bits of leather lacings remain along the hide’s perimeter—it’s easy to picture the drawstring pulled closed, effectively bagging the facsimile sky inside the elk hide.
I’ve read accounts of how a Pawnee elder named Running Scout pointed out the various star images to his younger tribesman, James Murie. Murie was by then employed by the Field Museum collecting ethnographic materials—stories and artifacts—and Scout was willing to share his knowledge of the old ways with an interested listener. Murie explained to the museum ethnographers how he’d likely be able to procure the elk hide star chart and the other items from the tribe’s traditional bundles. One of the elders “was telling me the other day that he sees that the boys who he is trying to teach the old religion seem to have no interest in the ceremonies. […] It hurts the old man,” he reported, and the elder had decided to leave his artifacts “in your care.”
Scout’s words now rest in old wax cylinder recordings, notes written in both English and Pawnee, and quotations in scholarly texts. Fragments, handwritten by Murie, suggest the way Scout wanted to indicate the incompleteness of his knowledge; I imagine, if I could read the original Pawnee speech, there’d be linguistic evidentials hinting at what Murie casts as whole phrases of uncertainty. “Well brother the stories I lost—forgot—of what the old man used to tell about…” Scout, a survivor of the great dislocation when the tribe was removed from Nebraska and confined in Oklahoma, knew all about loss.
The transcriptions indicate that he must have been gesturing to the painted figures on the hide as he identified a star’s name and story. “Now brother, brother, that which I have given you, that which you now hold”—we can imagine the men sitting together, their hands moving over the heavens depicted on their laps. Scout pointed to Polaris, perhaps feeling the bitter contrast of the star’s constant station with the transience of people who watched it from below. “The old people who are now dead use to call it ‘the star that does not move.’” I thumb to the published table listing some Skidi names and their reported meanings: u:pirit karariwari, star that does not move; hó-pi-rit ka-wa-rí-wa-ri, star it does not move. “So brother,” he said to Murie, “… that’s what it is, the bundle that is now here… Now brother you see the heavens.”
The bag full of stars, the bundle of memories. I like to look at the photograph here on my desk, and then go out to look at the night sky, trying to see the patterns there. One writer says the chart is three hundred years old, but I can’t find substantiation for his claim. The stories themselves, however, are clearly very old, seeming to reach to some time in the Pawnee’s past before they settled in Nebraska and Kansas to build their lodges of timber and earth, doorways aligned to usher in the equinoctial sunrise, smokeholes overhead in place to see the Star that Does Not Move above. Chamberlain says that some of the stars clearly defined in Scout’s stories cannot be seen from mid-continent latitudes; their capture into the mythic imagination of the Pawnee may date to a time when they were people of the southern plains.
Of course, I go poking. By now the both the Swimming Ducks and the Deer have caught me and I’m looking back at them, the way last week I watched a group of does move through the oak woods along Kings Creek. The animals lifted their heads to let me feel the bright intensity of their sentience as they watched me, until they decided to move away, beyond my sight. I keep thinking about them both, the living mammals, breath steaming a little in the chill, and the imagined and mnemonic creatures of the sky. Did anyone date the leather? (Evidently not.) And where is the artifact now?
The curatorial staff at the Field Museum tells me the chart is still in the collection but has been “re-bundled” with the other materials and “by agreement it is not to be opened.” Not on display; not available for scholarly study. So now the images are isolated, bound firmly out of sight. When did the re-bundling take place, I ask. Are there any written accounts where I could read about it? No, the curator replies, there isn’t any record. It was twelve or thirteen years ago—he isn’t sure of the exact date and he doesn’t seem to want to say much to me. “This is the result of a complex dialogue that I’m afraid I cannot share,” he concludes.
We know the stars are not truly timeless, but the temporal scale by which their presence can be measured dwarfs our own existence. The Swimming Ducks we see take centuries to reach us: one star lies seven hundred light years away; the other is five hundred nineteen. But to us they appear as a matched pair, traveling the skies together through the months ungripped by winter’s ice. Another pair of stars Chamberlain identifies with Pawnee names are also travelers of a sort: Hikusu΄, breath; hutu:ru΄, wind. Are these words onomatopes? Each opens with a whoosh; each whistles exhalation past the husks of its consonants. In Pawnee cosmology they’re both associated with the direction of the setting sun. Along with thunder and rain, wind comes to the prairies most often from the west, from somewhere beyond the distant, perhaps even never-glimpsed mountains. The distance of the stars themselves, known in Western astronomy as Alpha and Beta Persei, has been calculated by the brightness and color of their light. While Wind lies ninety-three light years away, Breath, hutu:ru΄, is nearly six hundred light-years distant. How far Breath travels before its kinetic presence can touch our skin.
I’m mingling traditions, now, of course. I’m collecting stories that I’ve read or heard, laying them out to watch for unexpected patterns to emerge. The Pawnee elder, Scout, said that the Star that Does Not Move was sometimes represented by a feather-covered spear. A hukawiskiria, he called it, which translates literally as a living-covered lance. The wooden pole “had all kinds of birds flocking around it,” he explained. I like to imagine the star as the lance’s tip, viewed head-on while the inspirited stars might wheel and flock like birds around that stationary point of light. I remember in childhood trying to imagine the “poles” of the earth, seeking synthesis between the metal “axis” (“axle,” I thought it must mean) around which the globe revolved and the notion of magnetic poles toward which a compass arrow would always point. I tried to combine the candy-cane poles in Santa’s snowy yard from the Christmas cartoon we watched on television with the flag the European explorers sought to plant into the snowy crust—surely somewhere between the two lay the real pole, even though I’d never seen it pictured.
Look up: Polaris is the prey the Thunderbird pursues but cannot catch.
“Language tricks people into believing that rises and hollows, wind and rivers, are all in some sense alive,” writes cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. He’s interested in the ways that human beings pursue what he calls escapism: escape from nature into culture’s roof and walls; escape from culture to the wilder world beyond the pale. I see his point, but I don’t want to follow him into the scorched-grass circle where he’s ringed himself inside his claim. “[B]ecause human beings and human speech are co-eval, there never was a time when speech did not generate this useful and reassuring illusion. Language animates” he declares; “that and human bonding are two of its most primitive and potent effects.” He means here intra-human bonding, bi-pedal “I” with “thou” wrapped tight in the cape of our mutual fear of death and a need for one another. Yes, I think, but…
It’s not a trick to speak of the life-breath in the wind that drives before it rain, or fire, or animals of the hunt. It’s not a trick to see Kings Creek’s clean water as a kind of health or to know that light and water can engender life. Sometimes the blade-tip of attention’s lance brings metaphoric plumage to enliven thought; how reductive, I think, to see this richness as outright deception. The question is how reductively one wields the figures of our language; whether we recognize the nuance of their connotations or insist that symbolism is a kind of algebraic process, rendering out each variable’s singular worth. And I’ve always been a poor student of math.
There is a tale about a Pawnee warrior who died on the banks of the Loup River sometime in the 1830s. From the blood-and-mud of history, the story soars into the world of myth. Out hunting beaver, he was killed by a party of several Sioux and his body was left unburied, scalped and broken. After his slaying, the Nahurac, a group of unspecified, magical animals, came to restore him—all but the top of his head, which they had to replace with feathers. His allegiance, though, was still firmly rooted in the mortal world; he wished to help his tribesmen and “Ready-to-give” was now his name. He could restore his mother’s blind sight if she would wash grief from her eyes; with his own clairvoyance he would help the tribe defeat their enemies.
“I am in everything,” he said. But he was all too human in his need for recognition.“You must never get tired of me,” he told his brother, but of course that kind of constant attention was too much to ask of even a devoted sibling. One night the brother didn’t rise from his bed to keep his appointment with Ready-to-give, and that was the end of the warrior’s aid.
There’s some confusion as I read about the warrior. The constellation that represents him in the sky is called Pahukatawa, Knee Prints on the Stream’s Bank. But the two stars said to constitute those knee prints don’t lie next to one another; labeled Alpha and Beta Persei in Western star charts, they seem insignificant, mixed in with stellar scatter. Individually, they’re those two star-powers the Pawnee associated with the West, Wind and Breath. I’ve studied planispheres and the sky itself, trying to glimpse something about those two simple star-points that could suggest the shallow mark of human weight on the grass-softened banks, but I can’t. Whatever conjunction of history and metaphor is caught by those two stars, it’s lost to me.
In autumn, the upper Kings Creek watershed is tawny-golden, the hue of an animal warming itself in the late-season sun. “Leonine,” someone once told me and I think it’s true; today my trail threads through a cougar-pelt hillside, grass rippling like muscles along the cat’s resting flank. Pakstitkukek, the mountain lion, was a Pawnee constellation associated with Capella, known as the Yellow Star and mythically associated with the mountain lion, lightning, and the West. But this associative thinking goes only so far before I reach an impasse; the Yellow Star claimed the spring of the year, not the fall, as her season of influence.
I walk the dry creekbed, my boots clinking loose flint rocks and limestone, rustling dry oak leaves in the autumn air. Just below a spring seeping across soft ground, a pool of clean water rests, isolate, although most of the streambed is now bone dry. I look closer: a tiny frond of watercress, its crisp stem linking each photosynthetic leaflet, a pattern almost like the shape I’ve memorized of Swimming Ducks and the Snake.
Several yards farther along, the land rises sharply, a high cutbank dangling grass roots like vines from the dried canopy above. Here I’m scuffing my way through loose flint pebbles and sandy loam until I round a curve and am drawn up short by my own caught breath. A buck carcass lies just in front, its head wrenched sideways so the antlers are positioned like an open trap poised to slam shut. Drawing closer, I can see there’s still a reddish trace of flesh along the ribcage; like anklet socks, a bit of hair still clings to the bones above each hoof. Was the animal shot some distance away, then traveled as far as he could through the whispering tallgrass until he tumbled down that cliff of dirt? Was he sick, stumbling along in a search for water?
The air’s so cold there’s hardly any smell. I crouch down for a moment for a better look but hesitate to touch the antlers, though I count each tine: a ten-point buck. How slender the legbones seem, in comparison to their length. How narrow the hips, how large the gristmill of the jaws. Have I ever seen a living ten-point buck along this watershed? I don’t think so. Now his bones will lie here for months before spring rains will finally lift them in the creek’s high current and carry them away.
Rahurahki, the deer stars. I know I will look in the night sky to see whether the cluster of stars I’ve known as Orion recall the shape of those antlers, suspended low above the horizontal streambed and the fallen buck.
It’s a scramble up the lower bank, back into the wind. Sorghastrum nutans, Indian Grass, still lifts its light-catching spikelets like feather fronds, bright in the southern-sky sun. When I turn so the tallgrass is backlit, each seed incandesces, impossibly fragile and bright. Throughout the growing season, stalks lift bits of silica skyward, then spill their mineral cargo back to earth when at last the plant degrades to soil. And what is silica? Minute ejecta from exploded stars, exhaled to the universe to fetch up in sand grains in a prairie streambed or in dead grass left standing after summer’s passed. Hikusu΄, breath; hutu:ru΄, wind. Stand very still, I tell myself. Listen. Listen.