David Wishart

David Wishart

The calendar is about to flip, and Midlanders are preparing their New Year’s celebrations. For centuries before European settlement in the Great Plains, native peoples marked the start of the new year not by looking to a calendar but by checking the signals from nature.

For the Pawnee, whose villages once spread across much of Nebraska, the new year arrived with the first thunderclap of spring.

Native peoples saw time as part of a series of sweeping connections made up of cycles involving seasons, stars, plants and animals.

The month that modern residents call October, the Otoes in southern Nebraska centuries ago called “the mating of the deer.”

Here is how David Wishart, a professor of geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explains how the Pawnees knew when the time had come to end their summer buffalo hunts in what’s now north-central Kansas and return north to their villages in Nebraska:

“In late August, when the prairie goldenrod bloomed on the western plains and the south star, Canopus, appeared in the sky, the Pawnees knew that it was time to return home for the harvest.”

Plants, stars: These were among the elements Indians looked to in understanding the universe and shaping their lives accordingly.

Wishart — editor of both the “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains” and the “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians” — vividly explores Native Americans’ traditional way of life in “Great Plains Indians,” a new book from the University of Nebraska Press.

It’s a slender volume — the paperback is only 147 pages, including the index — but it’s packed with worthwhile information and observations on Indian life during the centuries before European settlement and up to present times.

Wishart notes that Native American experiences in the Plains region stretch across 13,000 years.

“The visible evidence may well be scant,” he writes, “but right under our wheat fields and city streets, just below our feet, lie the bones of hundreds of generations of Plains Indians, slowly turning into soil, then geology, still belonging to the place.”

Climate fluctuations and cycles over thousands of years have brought big change, he notes. Glaciers dissipated, leaving enormous effects on the region’s topography. Long-grass prairie at times extended much farther west than currently seen — only to recede eastward centuries later as rainfall grew scarce, with tribes relocating as a result.

Among the fascinating topics Wishart explains:

» Plains Indian women had heavy work duties, but they also had a degree of power. “Indian women owned the earth lodge and tipi, and an abusive husband might be expelled, taking only his weapons with him.”

» Intertribal trade in goods was a longstanding practice, and differences in native languages didn’t get in the way because of “the elaborate system of more than 80 hand gestures that constituted Plains Indian sign language.”

» Perfumes were a part of life. “Among the Omahas, men used the crushed fruits of the prickly ash shrub as a perfume, and women applied dried lady’s bouquet as a scent.”

This new book is another noteworthy contribution to Great Plains knowledge by this respected Nebraska scholar.

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