Member of an American Indian people who inhabited the lower Mississippi River Valley until the 17th–18th centuries when they moved to Nebraska on the Platte River after acquiring horses. Their language belongs to the Caddoan family. They adopted the buffalo-hunting lifestyle of the Plains Indian for part of the year, but maintained their traditional agricultural settlements. Their society was hierarchical, and astronomical observations dictated practical events. They fought the Dakota Sioux and worked as scouts for European settlers. The Pawnee now live on a reservation in Oklahoma and number about 2,000 (1990). Many are cattle farmers and most are Christian.
Prior to European contact the Pawnee lived in the lower Mississippi River valley in villages of large, dome-shaped, earth-covered lodges that housed extended families. They grew maize (corn), squash, and beans, and made pottery. In Nebraska they maintained this culture, but used hide-covered tepees in the hunting season. Men shaved their heads and wore a distinctive scalp-lock, shaped to look like a horn. The tribe was composed of independent bands divided into villages. Pawnee society was hierarchical, with chiefs, priests, and shamans who were responsible, respectively, for keeping the sacred bundle, treating illness, warding off enemy raids, and performing rituals and sacred songs.
Pawnee religious practice was unlike that of the other Plains peoples. They used astronomical observations to determine practical events, such as when to plant corn, and believed the stars to be gods to whom they performed rituals. Each year they sacrificed a young captive girl to the morning-star deity. Corn was seen as the symbolic mother to whom the sun god bestowed his blessing. Shamanistic, hunt, and military groupings were also an integral part of Pawnee society. Today most Pawnee are Methodists, although some are members of the Native American Church, which uses the hallucinogenic peyote cactus as part of its rituals.
The Pawnee maintained peaceful relations with the settlers and served as scouts for the US army in trying to control the Sioux, Comanche, and Osage. Between 1833 and 1857 the Pawnee ceded all of their lands to the USA except for a small area in Nebraska. In about 1800 a smallpox epidemic reduced them to a single village, and in the 1830s nearly 5,000 died from the disease. Raids by Sioux and other tribes further reduced their numbers and by 1893 there were only 821 left. In that year they were moved to a reservation in Oklahoma. Soon after, their lands were allotted to individuals. In 1962 the Pawnees were awarded $7 million by the US government for lands illegally taken.