The Pawnee Indians are members of the Caddoan linguistic family, which inhabited a large region in central North America stretching from South Dakota to Texas and Louisiana. The Pawnees occupied the northern portion of this domain, concentrated most heavily in the area of present-day Nebraska. Most of the Pawnee villages were scattered along the Loup, Platte, and Republican Rivers in the present state of Nebraska. The Pawnees regarded themselves as four separate tribes: the Skidis, who were the dominant tribe; the Chauis; the Kitkehahkis; and the Pitahauerats. They apparently migrated northward from their Caddoan homeland near the Red River prior to 1600. The Wichitas and the Pawnees migrated northward and settled in the vicinity of the Arkansas River in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma in the seventeenth century. When the French, with whom they were trading, abandoned the area after 1763, the Wichitas returned to the Red River, while the Pawnees continued northward to settle in Nebraska.
By the 1830s the Pawnees were well established in present-day Nebraska and numbered approximately 12,000. They had a very loose social-political organization. Chiefs had little power other than persuasion, and there was no overall chief. The Pawnees were divided into two major political groups, the Skidis and the southern bands. These groups were in turn divided into villages and households. Villages generally contained three to five hundred inhabitants and ten to fifteen households. Members of a village considered themselves kin. Therefore, chiefs were considered heads of extended families rather than as government officials. The Pawnee household consisted of thirty to fifty persons living in an earth lodge-a circular, dome-shaped structure roofed with earth. Generally two heads of households shared each lodge. One oversaw the northern sector and the other oversaw the southern sector. Each sector was further divided into three stations into which the women were divided. One station was for the mature women, who did most of the labor. A second station was for the young single women who were just learning their responsibilities. The third station housed the older women who cared for the small children and babies as well as other household matters.
The membership of each household was fluid. Twice a year the tribe went on their semi-annual buffalo hunt, at which time the household units broke down into smaller groups, each headed by an able hunter. Once the hunt was over and the tribe returned to the villages, they often did not necessarily settle into the same households as before. The internal structure remained the same; a northern and southern sector each with three sections into which young, mature, and older women could easily fit. Young men were more transient, congregating at different times at different households. Once a young man married, he moved in with his wife's family. Older men likewise moved freely from household to household. Despite "kin" relationship between members of each village, spouses usually belonged to the same village. Marriage to outsiders was considered a poor risk. Marriages of parents and children, brothers and sisters, and other close blood relatives were strictly prohibited. Females usually married after their fifteenth birthday, while males waited until they were eighteen. Both sexes generally married a mature spouse as their first partner. The inexperienced youths were considered incapable of performing their respective matrimonial duties adequately, thus the Pawnees felt it was desirable to have an experienced spouse from whom to learn.
The Pawnees depended heavily on two staples, the buffalo and corn. They grew other crops as well, but corn was considered a sacred gift and was called "mother." In fact, the Pawnee tied various religious ceremonies to its planting, hoeing, and harvesting. The Pawnee lifestyle alternated between hunting buffalo and planting or harvesting crops. After planting and hoeing their crops, they left their villages in mid-June for a buffalo hunt. They returned to harvest crops in September and, after storing their foodstuffs, left in late October for their winter buffalo hunt. They returned to their villages in early April to plant their crops and begin the cycle all over again.
During their hunts, the Pawnees lived in skin-covered tipis. While at their permanent villages, they lived in earth lodges. The villages became more centralized during the seventeenth century, when horse-riding Apache Indians began raiding the Pawnee settlements. The plains Apaches burned Pawnee villages, killed as many of the men as they could, and carried women and children into slavery, selling them to the Spanish and Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The slave trade became so brisk that the term "Pawnee" became synonymous with "slave."
The Pawnees, because of their geographic location, had little direct contact with Europeans until much later than most other tribes. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado probably visited Pawnee villages during his journey to Quivira in 1541. It was apparently a Pawnee force that defeated the expedition of Pedro de Villasur in 1720. Villasur led a force of forty Spaniards and seventy Pueblo Indian allies to the Pawnee villages in an effort to wean them away from the French traders and into the realm of Spanish influence. Instead, the Pawnees attacked his force, killing Villasur and most of his men. A few stragglers made it back to New Mexico. By this time, the Pawnees had begun to trade with the French in Louisiana, with whom they had allied themselves by 1750. With French guns and ammunition they were able to defend themselves from incessant Apache attacks. When the French were removed from Louisiana in the Treaty of Paris (1763), the Pawnees began suffering attacks from British-armed Sioux and Osage Indians. As a result, several groups of Pawnees migrated south to join their Wichita kin on the Red River. In 1771 approximately 300 northern Pawnees visited the Wichitas on the Red River to trade. Rather than returning home, they merged with the Wichitas and became known as the Asidahesh.
In February 1795 a group of Pawnees, along with Wichitas and Taovayas, visited San Antonio to report injuries that they had received at the hands of Americans and expressed interest in securing friendship with the Spanish. Although the Spanish were apparently interested and excited about the offer, little resulted from the meeting, and the Pawnees apparently did not renew their offer. Instead, in 1818, the Pawnees still living in Nebraska signed the first of several treaties with the United States. Despite pressure from American settlers, who settled on or near their lands, and constant pressure from the United States government to sign away their lands in treaties, the Pawnees never went to war with the United States. They did, on occasion, send raiding parties through Texas on their way to Mexico during the mid-nineteenth century. For the most part, however, they tried to work out their grievances within the system and many Pawnees served faithfully in the United States army as scouts, leading the American soldiers against their traditional Sioux enemies. The Pawnees probably served most famously in battalions under Frank J. and Luther North from 1865 to 1877. By the mid-1870s the Pawnees had ceded the last of their Nebraska lands and removed to Oklahoma. In 1892 they took their lands in severalty and became United States citizens. At that time the population had dropped to approximately 800. After reaching a low of 649 in 1906, the Pawnee population has been gradually increasing, exceeding 1,000 in 1940.