Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Pawnee Indian's Morning Star Ritual

The Pawnee Indian's Morning Star Ritual was ceremonial human sacrifice usually carried out in the Spring. A young girl was always the victim, their offering. 

From the Celts, the Germans, and the Aztecs, to the Chinese and even Pacific Islanders like the Hawaiians, human sacrifice was commonplace among all cultures at one time or another in their histories. 

There are some who say that human sacrifice is learned somehow as if it were something passed down from one society to another in ancient times. But frankly, that theory is dismissed when looking at how Hawaiians practiced human sacrifice long before coming in contact with any other peoples.

Hawaiian Human Sacrifice
When I was growing up in Hawaii, I remember learning about the ancient Hawaiian luakini temple, or luakini heiau, which was a sacred place for Native Hawaiians. There were indeed human and animal sacrifices offered to local gods. 

Those sacrificed were usually the "Kauwa," the outcasts or slave class in Hawaiian culture. And yes, like other cultures, they were also war captives. Yes, prisoners of war, and even the descendants of those prisoners were used as sacrificial lambs to appease their gods.

As with most cultures that practiced human sacrifice, slaves and prisoners were not the only human sacrifices in Hawaii. In Hawaii both law-breakers of all castes and defeated political opponents, such as defeated Chiefs and warriors, were acceptable to serve up to local gods.

As in many cultures around the world, human sacrifice is intended to bring good fortune and to pacify their gods. Human sacrifice can also have the intention of winning the gods' favor in some way be it in war for a bountiful harvest. Victims were ritually killed in a manner that was supposed to please or appease their gods, spirits, or even the deceased. While that may have been the intention, I'm willing to bet that victims saw it differently.

As for Native American Indians, some tribes did and some tribes did not practice human sacrifice. There were even those who fought with other tribes over the practice in an effort to stop it. 

The Iroquois are said to have sacrificed a young girl to the "Great Spirit" occasionally, but preferred to sacrifice prisoners of war, aka "war captives". Yes, they saw it as deserving of captives of other tribes to die for them as sacrifices. 

Like many other Native American tribes, the Pawnee had a cosmology with elements of all of nature represented in it. They based many rituals in the four cardinal directions. Sacred bundles were created by medicine men and put together of materials, such as an ear of corn, with great symbolic value.

These were used in many religious ceremonies to maintain the balance of nature and the relationship with the gods and spirits. The Pawnee were not part of the Sun Dance tradition. They did participate in the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

Their deities are Atius Tirawa, which means "Father Above" in the Pawnee language. He is their "creator god".  He was believed to have taught the Pawnee people how to make fire, how to hunt, farm, gave them the ability to speak and make clothing. Their religious rituals included the use of tobacco, sacred bundles, and sacrifices. He was associated with most natural phenomena, including the stars and planets, the wind and rain, thunder and lightning. 

The wife of Tirawa was Atira, goddess of the Earth. Atira was associated with corn. The sun and moon deities were Shakuru and Pah, respectively. Four major stars were said to represent those gods and were part of their "creation story" in which the first human being was a girl. They believed the Morning Star and the Evening Star mated to create her.

The Pawnee believed that the Morning Star and Evening Star gave birth to the first Pawnee woman. The first Pawnee man was the offspring of the union of the Moon and the Sun.

The Pawnee Indians are said to have had a sophisticated understanding of the movement of stars, and they noted the movements of both the Morning Star (Mars) and the Evening Star (Venus). These deities were so important to the Pawnee centered all aspects of daily life on this celestial observation, including the time to hunt and the important cultivation cycle for sacred corn.

It's true. They believed that as descendants of the stars, the stars played an integral role in their daily and spiritual life. They planted their crops according to the position of the stars, which related to the appropriate time of season for planting. Like many tribal bands, they sacrificed maize and other crops to the stars.

Unlike the South Pawnee, the Skidi Pawnee practiced child sacrifice, specifically of captive girls from an enemy tribe, in the "Morning Star Ritual". And yes, they continued this practice regularly, the whole while believing that the longstanding rite ensured the fertility of the soil and success of the crops -- as well as renewal of all life in Spring.

The Morning Star Ritual

It a five-day ceremony which ended with a ritual sacrifice of a young girl. It was held in the spring and was said to be connected to their "creation story" in which the mating of the male Morning Star with the female Evening Star created the first human being -- a girl.

The ceremony was not held in full every year, but only when a man of the village dreamed that the Morning Star had come to him and told him to perform the ceremony. He then consulted with the Morning Star priest, who has been reading the sky.

Together they determined whether the Morning Star was demanding only the more common yearly symbolic ceremony, or requiring that the ceremony be carried out in full. 

When the Pawnee priests would identify certain celestial bodies on the horizon, they would know that the Morning Star needed to be appeased with the sacrifice of a young girl. It is said that the Pawnee only preformed child sacrifice in years when Mars was the morning star.

In autumn it usually originated in a warrior's dream in which the Morning Star appeared and directed him to capture a suitable child victim. Supposedly the dreamer went to the keeper of the Morning Star bundle and received from him the warrior’s costume kept in it. He then set out, accompanied by volunteers, and made a night attack upon an enemy village. Yes, their sacrifice was a child, a young girl, from an enemy tribe.

As soon as a girl of suitable age was captured the attack ceased and the party returned. The girl was dedicated to the Morning Star at the moment of her capture and was given into the care of the leader of the party who, on its return, turned her over to the chief of the Morning Star.

Once returned to the village, the people kept her isolated from the rest of the camp. If it was spring and time for the sacrifice, she was ritually cleansed. Once that took place, a four-day ceremony was begun around her.

The Morning Star priest would sing songs and the girl was "symbolically" transformed from human being of flesh and blood to that which is suitable to be among the celestial bodies. Yes, she became the ritual representation of the Evening Star. Understand that they did not see her as someone impersonating the deity, but instead as someone who had actually become an earthly embodiment of their goddess Atira the Evening Star. 

On the final day of the ceremony, it is said that a huge procession of men, boys and even women carrying male infants accompanied the girl outside the village to where the men had raised a scaffold to restrain her. Supposedly they used sacred woods and skins, and the scaffold represented the "Evening Star's garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life." 

The priests removed her clothing and the procession was timed so that she would be left alone on the scaffold at the moment the Morning Star rose. When the Morning Star appeared, two men came from the east with flaming brands and branded her in the arm pits and groin. 

Four other men then hit her with war clubs. And then, the man who had captured her would run forward with the bow from the Skull bundle and a sacred arrow and shot her through the heart while another man struck her on the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle. 

The officiating priest then opened her breast with a flint knife and smeared his face with the blood while her captor caught the falling blood on dried meat. All the male members of the tribe then pressed forward and shot arrows into the body. They then circled the scaffold four times and then left.

Believe it or not, it wasn't over yet. The Pawnee believed that to fulfill the "creation of life" ceremony, the men of the village would take on the role of the Morning Star. In that two men would come from the East with flaming brands, representing the sun. The men acted out the violence which had allowed the Morning Star to mate with the Evening Star. They did this "by breaking her vaginal teeth" in their creation story with a "meteor stone."

Yes, this was not simply some stabbing of a sacrificial lamb here. This was the captive being shot in the heart and a man would strike her on the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle. Then by having all the men in the village shoot arrows into her body, supposedly it was believed that the village men were thought to be symbolically mating with the Morning Star. 

Her blood would drip down from the scaffolding and onto the ground which had been made to represent the Evening Star’s garden of all plant and animal life.

Now one might think that they would now wrap the girl's body in some sacred cloth and raise her high onto a scaffold.

Actually no, after the sacrificial ritual, they simply took her body and lay the girl face down on the prairie. It was their belief that her blood would enter the earth and fertilize the ground. Supposedly the spirit of the Evening Star would be released and the men ensured the success of the crops, all life on the Plains, and the perpetuation of the Universe.

As horrible as it sounds, the Skidi Pawnee practiced the Morning Star Ritual regularly in the early 1800s. And yes, the news of the sacrifices reached the East Coast in the 1820s.  It is believed to have alarm with American settlers heading West. 

Pawnee chief Knife Chief is said to have ransomed at least two captives before sacrifice, but trying to change a practice tied so closely to belief in renewal of life for the tribe was difficult. Though that was the case, Indian agents sought to convince Pawnee chiefs, such as Knife Chief, to change their practices which was being objected to by the increasing number of American settlers on the Plains at the time. 

As far as getting the practice stopped, well as far as anyone knows, the last known Morning Star Ritual of human sacrifice was of a 14-year-old child, a Oglala Lakota girl named Haxti on April 22nd, 1838.

Yes, to anyone's knowledge, it was only in the late 1830s that the Skidi Pawnee stopped the practice of abducting girl children from an enemy tribe and using them in human sacrifice rituals. 

As for what made them stop? Who really knows. But frankly, while trying to change a religious practice tied so closely to their belief in renewal of life was difficult, it had to change for the better. And yes, I'm sure that the pressures applied from others who saw these acts as vile would have sooner or later forced the Pawnee to stop.

Whether they saw the errors of their ways, or they simply realized that their gods didn't need blood and the toll of human sacrifices, that episode of Pawnee Indian history does show us that even the worse of religious rituals can be done away with and replaced with something good.

Tom Correa 


  1. Hi Im confused as to what the Muslim religion has to do with an ancient native american religious ceremony?

    1. Hello Maria, The correlation is that the tribe once practiced human sacrifices, a barbaric practice as part of its religious rituals. Muslims practice stoning, female mutilation, and other horrible barbaric practices condoned because of their religious beliefs. The lesson that the Muslims can learn is that ending such practices can be done to become more civilized, the same as that tribe learned after seizing their horrid religious acts. Thanks for visiting my blog. And by the way, Happy New Year. Tom

  2. I hope you dont hate Muslims due to certain things, I am a Muslim and I love cowboys and this blog.

    1. Hello Daniel, I don't hate Muslims. I hate terrorist of all stripes. Just as I'm sure you do as well. I was not trying to offend anyone when I ended this post by talking about "barbaric Muslim religious practices." In fact, when I closed with that comment, I was actually thinking about the bloodletting ceremonies at the Muslim Ashura Festival where even children are cut open with knives. I really believe that cutting a child's head open with a knife is a barbaric practice, the same as stoning, and female mutilation. Of course such barbaric behavior is not exclusive to some Muslims. As I'm sure you know many religions have groups that do horrible things. In fact, as insane as it sounds, there is a barbaric act done by a small group of so-called Christians who consciously handle snakes supposedly to prove they have the Holy Spirit within them. Some have been bitten by snakes and died as a result of this craziness. While I did use Muslims to depict such barbarism, my point was not aimed solely at Muslims. And since my point about such behavior was lost and not needed in reference to the ancient Pawnee Indian practice, I eliminated those two sentences. Thanks for visiting my blog. Tom

    2. I can see your point Tom, and I appreciate your action. While it is true some punishment to this date are still very harsh to criminals, but they work as reminder to the people who'll attempt to sin or break the law. As for the Ashura festival you had mentioned, I would like to clarify that Islam is strictly against self harming or harming the innocent, the group of worshiper that celebrates the festival in brutal ways are another small sect of Muslims in certain region, they are just like the small group of Christian you mentioned, majority of us do not condone such act

    3. Hello Daniel, I couldn't agree with you more. Sadly, it's those small sects that get the attention. Again, thanks for visiting my blog. I appreciate that you like it. Best Regards, Tom

    4. This is a fascinating article. Are there other resources available? BTW, I have a well founde didea what happened to the Pawnee, besides small pox. The Jesuit missionaries into the US and the west (Fr. Pierre DeSmet, etc) were not only effective in converting most of the tribes to Christianity, a certain Native prophet Shining Shirt prophesied of “pale men in black robes” who would come to them and teach the true religion pleasing to God. Similarly to the southwest tribes, but with a more miraculous conversion, via St. Maria Agreda.


  3. The Native Americans had a different way of worshipping religion. They called their God, "The Great Spirit". And he was supposed to bring the buffalo back. And to make sure that he would keep his word, the tribes wore ghost shirts and performed what was called the Ghost Dance. Unfortunately, it did NOT stop the white man's bullets as they had hoped. And don't even get me started on Wounded Knee. But it IS interesting to know that Native Americans had a very unique way of worshipping God. I thought I would write a little poem about the Great Spirit and the religion of Native Americans. It's called, "Ghost Dance" Here in the land of the buffalo. We worship you and this you know. The clouds that form without the sky. Remind us all of days gone by. Our minds are heavy and our hearts are full. As we remember Sitting Bull. Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph too. It seems they too have worshipped you. As we dance we sing your praise. And long for better, brighter days. For to the Spirit World we go. To live with you and the buffalo. Oh Great Spirit call us home. And nevermore should our people roam. For we all worship this you know. Here in the land of the buffalo.

  4. Oops! In the poem I wrote, I meant to say "The clouds that form WITHIN the sky". Stupid laptop! Oh well.


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