"On Heathen Ground" (John Dunbar)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Presbyterian missionary, John Dunbar, travels light years from his sedate eastern world to live with the Pawnee

"On Heathen Ground"


Presbyterian missionary, John Dunbar, travels light years

from his sedate eastern world to live with the Pawnee


"Though the day was very cold," John Dunbar re­called, "The shameless being went about through the village the whole of the forenoon as naked as he was born." "In his left hand," he continued, "he held a bow and two arrows, in his right a stick about two foot long." The pitiful member of the Arikaras tribe spent all morning begging at the Pawnee village while he sang at the top of his lungs and beat time on the bow with his stick.

As he entered a Pawnee lodge, Dunbar wrote, the man stood singing until they either gave him something or told him to leave. The inhabitants of the very first lodge he called upon had handed him a piece of cloth to cover himself with. "But the brutish wretch, instead of wearing it," Dunbar declared, "carried it about with him 'till he went away." "The Pawnees," he reported, "called him a dog and not a man."

Later in the spring of the same year, 1835, John Dunbar, a refined eastern college graduate, witnessed an­other distinctly unrefined scene. The Grand Pawnees held a "great festival" to celebrate the end of their winter hunt. As young Dunbar sat in the lodge among his newfound neighbors, he watched as one of the elders laid out the con­tents of a bundle of sacred objects. Carefully, the old man arranged the items - a buffalo robe, various furs, an ear of corn, rods of arrows taken from their enemies, the stuffed skins of sacred birds and...clusters of human scalps.

Following the exhibition of the bundle's contents, the elder placed the cranium of a bull in a place of honor. One of the others then mixed a red powder with tallow and handed it to the "master of the feast." Taking the paint bowl, the feast's  host quickly set about painting his face, chest, arms and legs with the mixture. Every member of the group eventually followed suit. In fact, even the skull received its own coat of red paint.

"Five rods were now whittled and painted," Dunbar wrote in his evening's notes. "To these rods," he revealed, "pieces of scalps were attached..." Four of the five rods were taken outside the lodge and placed on all sides, repre­senting the four points of the compass. The fifth was set directly in front of the bull's skull. Next came the ceremonial smoking of the pipe - first puffing the smoke up and down, then in all four directions and finally onto the sacred objects and the skull.

Four buffalo tongues and hearts were then burned as offerings to their deity, Ter-ah-wah. During these cere­monies, several of the elders made speeches and later a prayer was offered. Then came the feasting. The partic­ipants gorged themselves on boiled corn and massive help­ings of buffalo meat. Not only did they feast, they set food in front of the bull's skull. "Though it was utterly senseless to place this for the dry bone to eat," Dunbar commented, "it was wiser, perhaps, than to place it before these stupid creatures, who had already eaten too much."

Despite his aversion to their gluttonous ceremony, John Dunbar had developed a fondness for the Pawnees in the lodge with him. His hope of changing their uncivilized behavior with his missionary efforts, however, was fading. He wrote that as he left the lodge, he was "perfectly disgusted" with their senseless ceremonies. "When shall these dark minds be enlightened by the bright beams of gospel light," he pleaded silently to his journal, "and serve God in sincerity and truth?"

Although his mission may not have brought the Pawnees "sincerity and truth," it provided John Dunbar with fascinating glimpses of the intimate lives of a culture bound for near extinction. Immediately after graduating from Williams College in 1832, he enrolled in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Auburn, New York. When he finished, he volunteered for an assignment with the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions.

He was selected for a mission assignment guided by established missionary, Samuel Parker. Dunbar and another novice, Samuel Allis, were to work with the Indians west of the Platte River if they could reach them during the traveling season. If not, they planned to stay with the Pawnees on the near side of the Platte. Due to delays in their journey, they soon decided that stopping in Pawnee territory would be more practical. Samuel Parker left Dunbar and Allis at the Indian agency in Council Bluffs and returned to guide more new missionaries the next season.

Several days after their arrival in early October, Dunbar wrote, the agent informed visiting Pawnee chiefs that "two white men had come, who were desirous to go out and live with them..." The chiefs were pleased, he reported, and the leader of the Pawnee Loups asked to have one of them live with his band. Although Dunbar and Allis had originally planned to stay together, Allis agreed to go with the Loups and Dunbar was asked to join the Grand Pawnee band. Following their separation, John Dunbar surveyed his newfound family, none of whom could speak the first word of English. "I was now alone," he would write in his October 19, 1834 journal entry, "with a strange people, in a strange land."

During the next few days, Dunbar and his hosts traveled south along the Missouri river toward the Grand Pawnee village. By about four in the afternoon, October 21, the weary little party arrived at their destination. As Dunbar looked around the village, he later wrote, "The sight of my eyes affected my heart. I felt solemn." The reality suddenly struck him that he had abandoned his familiar surroundings to enter a foreign world. "I now realized I was standing on heathen ground."

After a good night's rest, Dunbar awoke to en­counter the first of many feasts. "Soon after I had risen,' he wrote, "the bowl of buffalo meat was set before me, and the other dishes came much sooner than I could have wished." Before noon, he was invited to six other lodges to eat. The inhabitants of the village were excited that a la-chik-oots or white man had joined them, and were intent on making him feel welcome. Dunbar, not wanting to offend anyone, dug into each meal with vigor. By noon, he said, he was "stuffed with their food and kindness."

As Dunbar settled into his new surroundings, he witnessed the first of many remarkable incidents. A man from the village had been severely burned in a recent fire.  Early in the morning, two Pawnee medicine men called on him. First, Dunbar noted, they sat down to smoke. Then, one man puffed the smoke upward two or three times, then down for several more. He proceeded to blow puffs toward the east, west, north and south. When he was finished, he gave the pipe to his companion to do the same.

After they examined the injured man's burns, one of the men filled his mouth with water. Dunbar said he "groaned, grunted, beat his breast with his hands," and "crept backward and then forward on his hands and feet..." Then he picked up dust and rubbed it between his hands while he made many "horrible gestures." Finally, he spat the water out violently, then refilled his mouth and began the ritual again. He eventually began to blow small quan­tities of the water on the patient. At the end of the procedure, he sprinkled a brownish powder on the man's burns.

Unfortunately, although the two repeated their ritual twice daily, the man succumbed to his injuries after several days. Although Dunbar admired their concern, he was not particularly impressed with the medicine men's methods. "With all their fiend-like actions and unearthly noises," he asserted, "they appeared to be more like infernal spirits than human beings."

Shortly after this incident, the inhabitants of the village set out on their winter hunt. On the morning of October 27, they headed west to follow the Platte River. He said that traveling "Indian file," they stretched into a four-mile line. The women and boys led the horses while the men "straggled about everywhere." "They sometimes walk beside their wives, assisting them in managing the horses," Dunbar added, "but this is rare."

As soon as they reached their evening camp, the women were expected to unpack the horses, set up the tents and prepare the meal. Throughout his notes, he commented on the tremendous job duties heaped upon the Pawnee women - and the subsequent lack of work expected from the men. The only true "men's work," according to the Pawnee mandates, was that of hunting buffalo and making war. But Dunbar pointed out that they seldom fought anymore and despite the dangers involved in hunting, it was really considered more of a sport than a job. Speaking for the overburdened women, he stated, "I am inclined to think they perform more hard labor than any other women on this continent..."

As the procession trekked toward their winter hunting grounds, Dunbar slowly learned the rudiments of the Pawnee language. Near the end of November, an eclipse of the sun darkened the day. "Several Pawnees came into my lodge," he reported, "and said the sun was bad." They were distressed, and explained that many of their wives and children would die after the event and that the weather would turn extremely cold. Dunbar eased their fears a little by telling them the white man didn't believe this would happen. He then endeavored to explain the process of the eclipse to an old chief. "He listened very attentively, and I think understood something of what I told him," he re­ported, "for afterwards, I saw him show others what I had shown him."

On Christmas day, Dunbar witnessed his first Pawnee buffalo hunt. "The Indians get as near as they can," he noted, "without being seen by them. They then set off at full speed towards their prey..." Once they have caught up with the buffalo, he continued, the hunters "in the twinkling of an eye almost, shoot one, two, three or more arrows...into it." Sometimes, he reported, the buffalo was still alive and turned furiously on its pursuer. "It is a dangerous business," he wrote, "but the Pawnees are excellent horsemen, and often escape." To any other but an Indian, he observed, "there would appear but a forlorn hope."

Their survival skills were again called upon a few days later. Towering flames appeared on some of the high ridges near their camp as a raging fire swept across the prairie. "The old men passed back and forth through the village with haste," Dunbar wrote, "calling out at the top of their voices to the young men and boys..." They directed them to drive the horses into the camp and set backfires on the high grounds. Within an hour, they had accomplished their mission. As the fire advanced, the leading edge split neatly around the burned section, leaving the camp un­harmed. "Our village was illuminated all night," Dunbar wrote, "by the various fires around it."

"I am compelled to undergo another feasting," Dunbar wrote a few weeks later. It seemed the buffalo were numerous and roamed further south than they had for nearly twenty years. His Pawnee hosts attributed this to the fact that Dunbar had joined them. They told him that the buffalo had been absent from that area for some time, but, "now a man has come to live with them who loves Te-rah-wah, and he has sent back the buffalo."

Dunbar many not have loved Te-rah-wah, but he was growing closer to his Pawnee hosts. This affection, however, didn't prevent him from commenting on their shortcomings. In March of 1835, the same period when the naked Arikaras begged in the village, he again mentioned the hardships of the Pawnee women. "They are much de­graded," he noted. "They become as much slaves to their sons, when they arrive at manhood, as to their husbands."

This treatment, he concluded, influenced their be­havior. "They are exceedingly loquacious," he observed. "Several of them often talk at the same time. He decided they must either possess the ability to talk and hear sim­ultaneously or simply didn't care if anyone heard them. "They not only talk much," he added, "but often scold. Their ill treatment frequently renders them excessively ill-natured."

Despite his concerns with their culture, John Dunbar knew he had found his mission. He moved his fiancée, Esther, to the camp and they married and settled in among his Pawnee neighbors for twelve years. As they raised their four children and assisted with planting and building, they were accepted as valuable members of the community. Sadly, in the summer of 1846, during the Pawnee's summer hunt, warring Sioux burned their village and threatened to kill all white missionaries.

When the hunt was over, John Dunbar and his family reluctantly abandoned the mission. As he left, the images of his hosts painting themselves red, feeding dried skulls, chasing wild buffalo and all the rest flashed through his mind. Those images had taken him light years from his staid New England world. "We have hung around the Pawnees for a long time..." he wrote. "The idea of giving them up is painful to us; but their prospects are dark."

He had also long since realized that despite his  acceptance into the Pawnee culture, he would never change their "heathen ways" with his missionary zeal. "When I have told them how the white men lived, they have said it was good," he noted, "but have never manifested any anxiety to change..." They simply love their lifestyle, he reported. Then prophetically, he added that they have no intention of abandoning it until "they are compelled to do so, either by force or a prospect of starvation."

Submitted: August 17, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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