Ladies on the War Path

The Warrior Herdsmen

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Knopf, 254 pp., $5.95

The spectrum of anthropology is very wide and these two books are at either end of it; apart from the sex of the authors they have hardly anything in common. Yet some reflection on the contrast of manner may be rewarding.

Dr. Weltfish’s book is a full-scale ethnography of the buffalo-hunting Pawnee Indians of Nebraska. It is a reasonable inference from recent archaeological studies that people resembling the Pawnee in their general cultural attributes were located in central Nebraska from about the thirteenth century onwards but by the mid-nineteenth century their traditional mode of life had become a hopeless anachronism. In 1830 they may have numbered 12,000 but by 1859, as a consequence of combined attacks by Sioux raiders and White Man’s diseases, they had dwindled to 3400. In the 1870s a shattered people migrated south into Oklahoma, where they joined up with the remnants of another Indian group of similar language, the Wichita. By 1910 there were only 633 Pawnee left alive and by the time that Dr. Weltfish began her studies in 1928 the number of individuals who had had any firsthand experience of the traditional Nebraska life, even in its attenuated nineteenth-century form, must have been negligibly small. Her tale therefore is a reconstructed history pieced together out of linguistic texts recorded in 1928, the evidence of archaeology, the evidence of nineteenth-century travelers, miscellaneous ethnographic records by other authors, hearsay, and straight imagination.

The notes and bibliography (pp. 462-491) give an indication of sources but the list is far from complete and the author makes no serious attempt to discriminate between documented fact and fiction; and the fiction in this case is richly loaded with sentiment. The Pawnee are presented as Noble Savages whose splended community-focused way of life provides an object lesson for twentieth-century Americans caught up in the rat race of automated individualism. The book is quite sensibly arranged. After the first sixty pages, which provide essential background facts about the history and general culture, the rest consists of a series of brief episodic chapters which lead the reader through an imaginary Pawnee year of cultivation, camp routines, hunting, ceremonials, technical activities and so on. Informative certainly but it is an hurrah book rather than a work of science. The ordinary reader who wants to get a “feel” of what it was like to be a Plains Indian will find what he is looking for but the professional is constantly provoked into saying: How do you know that? For example in Chapter 3 the author faithfully records most of the things that are known and the other things which have been inferred about Pawnee kinship organization, but she does not reveal how conjectural this is and she fails to mention two key references—a paper by Alexander Lesser in Man (1930) and another by Floyd Lounsbury in Language (1956). And surely it is rather important that the reader should appreciate that the Pawnee seem to have engaged in various kinds of polygamous, polyandrous and wife-sharing practices?…

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