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The Great Gods Of The Plains

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



On the plains there is a majestic completeness of almost every view of earth and sky. There are no valley walls to narrow the horizon; there are no forests to house men from the heavens. The circle of the horizon is complete and whole, and the dome of the sky, where the rainbow forms frequently in perfect arc, is vast and undiminished. To men accustomed to the broad spaces and simple lines of such vision, the brilliant blue of predominantly sunny skies, the green of the summer prairies, the sparkling white of the winter plains, the world seemed at once colossal and intelligible. Its plan was the plan of their own lodges: a flat and circular base over which was hung the tent of the skies, with door to the east, the direction of the rising sun. "If you go on a high hill," said a Pawnee priest, "and look around, you will see the sky touching the earth on every side, and within this circular enclosure the people dwell." The lodges of men were made on the same plan, to "represent the circle which Father Heaven has made for the dwelling-place of all the people"; and, in many tribes, the camp form was also circular, the tipis being ranged in a great ring, within which each clan had its assigned position.

The great gods of men in such a world form a natural, in-deed an inevitable, hierarchy. Supreme over all is Father Heaven, whose abode is the highest circle of the visible universe. Tirawa-atius is his Pawnee name. All the powers in heaven and on earth are derived from him; he is father of all things visible and invisible, and father of all the people, perpetuating the life of mankind through the gift of children. The Pawnee symbols of Tirawa are white featherdown, typifying the fleecy clouds of the upper heavens and hence the cloud-bearing winds and the breath of life and, in face-painting, a blue line drawn arch-like from cheek to cheek over the brow, with a straight line down the nose which symbolizes the path by which life descends from above. Yet the Pawnee are not anthropomorphic in their ideas. "The white man speaks of a Heavenly Father; we say Tirawa-atius, the Father above, but we do not think of Tirawa as a person. We think of Tirawa as in everything, as the Power which has arranged and thrown down from above everything that man needs. What the power above, Tirawa-atius, is like, no one knows; no one has been there."

The priest who made this remark also said: "At the creation of the world it was arranged that there should be lesser powers. Tirawa-atius, the mighty power, could not come near to man, therefore lesser powers were permitted. They were to mediate between man and Tirawa." The Sun Father and Earth Mother were the two foremost of these lesser powers, whose union brings forth all the moving pageantry of life. The Morning Star, the herald of the Sun, is scarcely less important. The Winds from the four quarters of the world, the life-giving Vegetation, Water, the Hearth-Fire all these are powers calling for veneration. In the intermediate heavens, below Sun and Moon, yet above man's reach, are the bird messengers, with the Eagle at their head, each with its special wisdom and guidance. Here, too, dwell the Visions which descend to the dreamer, giving him revelations direct from the higher powers; and here the dread Thunder wings his stormy course.

With little variation, these deities Heaven, Earth, Sun, Moon, Morning Star, Wind, Fire, Thunder form the common pantheon of the Plains tribes. The agricultural tribes, as the Pawnee and Mandan Indians, give the Corn Mother a prominent place. Animal-gods, the Elders of the animal kinds, are important according to the value of the animal as game or as a symbol of natural prowess. The Eagle is supreme among birds; the Bear, the Buffalo, the Elk, among quadrupeds; while the Coyote appears in place of the Rabbit as the arch-trickster. The animals, however, are not gods in any true sense, for they belong to that lesser realm of creation which, with man, shares in the universal life of the world.



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