Tim Giago: The great horse of the Pawnee Nation

There is a well-kept graveyard in the rolling, green hills on the outskirts of Pawnee, Oklahoma. There lie the graves of the fallen warriors and women of the Pawnee Nation. In one corner is the headstone of an Indian scout identical to the government issued headstones found in Indian cemeteries across America to honor the scouts who served the U. S. Army during the Indian wars of long ago.

On this beautiful June day fluffy white clouds float slowly over the graveyard and the afternoon sun reflects off of the large tombstone bearing the names of Mary and Charles George Shunatona. He was known as Chief Shunatona to the many friends he made in his 84 years on this earth.

On the back of the tombstone is the family name of the Shunatona clan. It reads, “Great Horse,” and there is a story behind the name. Told to me many years ago by Charles this is how the story goes:

“One day long ago while the warriors were away from camp hunting, only the women, children and a few elders remained in the camp. A young boy spotted enemy warriors approaching and he raced back to the camp to warn them. The only way to safety was to cross the river now swollen and crashing from the melting snow and spring rains. An elderly man told the boy who brought the news of the enemy to get the great horse that stood grazing at the edge of the camp. He then summoned all of the people together and they followed him as he led the horse to the edge of the raging river. In the Otoe language he told the horse to start across the river and he held out his hand to the boy who in turn held out his hand to a woman and so it went until all of the people in the camp were joined together with clasped hands. The elderly man then grasped the tail of the horse as it started to swim across the river and all of the people held hands tightly as the mighty horse pulled them all across the river to safety.”

The elderly Otoe man was the great grandfather of Chief Shunatona and so that is why the name “Great Horse” is etched on the gravestone at Pawnee.

More than 30 years ago I was about to begin hosting a weekly television show on KEVN-TV in Rapid City, S. D. I wanted the show to have an Indian theme song. I knew of only one man that could give me that song and his name was Charles Shunatona. Chief Shunatona was known all across Indian country for his mastery of the flute. I visited him one spring day in Wichita, Kansas. His wonderful daughter Gwen, then an assistant dean at Stanford University in California, was my hostess.

Charles asked me a few questions about my television show, about its format, and then he told me he would have a theme song ready for me by the end of the week. He was true to his word and a couple Sundays later, when my show made its debut, we had taken a Lakota pipe, hung it from the ceiling with black thread against a black background, filled it with tobacco and lit it, touched it gently so that it would appear to be floating in the air with smoke drifting from its bowl, and then came the beautiful tones of an Indian flute enriched by the deep voice of Chief Shunatona telling the story of the flute. In this way my new show, “The First Americans” was introduced to the people of Western South Dakota on December 15, 1976.

All of these memories came back to me as I looked at the headstone of Charles and Mary Shunatona last week. His daughter Gwen was once again my hostess and she delighted in showing me around the campus of the new Pawnee Nation College located on the grounds of the old Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.

I never cease to be amazed at the outrageous optimism of the Indian people. Through the eyes of Gwen Shunatona, George Howell, the president of the Pawnee Nation, Elizabeth Blackowl, Todd Fuller, president of the Pawnee Nation College, Deb Echo-Hawk, Les Hand, Roberta Gardipe, and Dawna and Charlie Hare, they see a beautiful college campus developing like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of a boarding school that has been closed for 40 years.

The old Pawnee Boarding School was built at the turn of the 20th Century to house and educate the Indian children of the Pawnee, Otoe-Missouria, Kaw, Ponca, Tonkawa and Shawnee. Not only would the children be educated, but they would also cease to be Indians. The BIA policy of “Kill the Indian; save the child” would see to that. The school eventually became known as “Gravy U” by the children in honor of the watery gravy that was served at every meal.

Through my eyes I saw buildings that were ancient and in disrepair. I saw that it would require millions of dollars to restore the buildings (You can see what the campus looks like today by Googling Pawnee Indian School). But I could not help but be uplifted by the unvarnished enthusiasm of Gwen, George Howell, Todd and the other school board members. Gwen returned to the land of her people to pursue this dream and George returned to his homeland from a life as an administrator for the Indian Health Service in order to help make the dreams of his people a reality.

Pawnee Nation College is a dream that, with the help of the American people, can come true. A couple of miles away, beneath a beautiful headstone with the words “Great Horse” carved upon it, Chief Shunatona and his wife Mary, wait, watch and share the optimism and enthusiasm of the people of Pawnee, Oklahoma and today I join them in their shared hopes and dreams that one day there will rise from the ashes of “Gravy U,” a college that will grab the tail of the “Great Horse” and be pulled along the path to safety and success.

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book “Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com.

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