The Skidi Pawnee sacrifice of a captive girl to the Morning Star has probably aroused more popular interest than any other purely tribal Indian ceremony except the Hopi Snake dance. The sacrifice was performed only in years when Mars was morning star and usually originated in a dream in which the Morning Star appeared to some man and directed him to capture a suitable victim. 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. As soon as a girl of suitable age was captured the attack ceased and the war 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 village.

the girl was purified with smoke, painted red, and dressed in a black costume

During the time preceding the sacrifice she was treated with kindness and respect, but it was forbidden to give her any article of clothing. Only the leader of the war party and the chief of the Morning Star village could touch her after her dedication. A man who broke this rule was thought to have offered himself in her place and if he died before the time of the sacrifice she would be released.

The ceremonies preceding the sacrifice occupied four days, the victim being killed on the morning of the fifth. The rites performed during the first three days are not fully known, but apparently consisted in the singing of songs relating the exploits of the Morning Star and in the offering of smoke and dried meat to the Morning Star bundle. At the origin of the skidi pawnee sacrifice beginning of the ceremony the girl was purified with smoke, painted red, and dressed in a black costume which was kept in the Morning Star bundle between sacrifices. Her captor was also dressed in a costume from this bundle and throughout the ceremony the two seem to have personified respectively the Evening and Morning Stars. A fire of four logs laid with their points together and their ends extending toward the four directions was kept burning during the four days. About sunset of the fourth day the spectators were excluded from the lodge while the officiating priest drew four circles on the floor, one for each of the four world quarters. They were then readmitted and the priests sang a song descriptive of the journey of the Morning Star in search of the Evening Star while one of the priests danced about the lodge with a war club and obliterated the circles. The priests then began to sing a long series of songs believed to have been given by the Evening Star. As each song was finished a tally stick, taken from a bunch kept in the Morning Star bundle, was laid down, Dr. G. A. Dorsey (6) concludes that the idea underlying this part of the ritual was that the girl at first belonged to the world of human affairs but that, as each song was sung, she became farther removed from it until, when the last tally was laid down, she had been won from the people like a stake in a game and belonged to the supernatural powers. When the songs were finished, one of the priests undressed the girl, painted the right half of her body red and the left half black, and redressed her. The whole assembly then set out for the place of sacrifice.

skidi pawnee tribe houseHouse of the Skidi Pawnee people.

At the place of sacrifice a scaffold had been erected on the afternoon of the fourth day, the selection of the site, cutting of the timber for the scaffold, etc., being attended by special ceremonies. The scaffold consisted of two uprights and five cross-pieces, four below and one above. The two uprights symbolized night and day, the four lower bars the four directions, and the upper bar the sky. Below the scaffold was a pit lined with white feathers which symbolized the Evening Star’s garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life. Two men led the girl from the lodge to the scaffold by thongs fastened around her wrists. She was kept in ignorance of her fate as long as possible and it was thought an especially good omen if she mounted the scaffold willingly. The men leading her removed her clothing and tied her hands to the upper bar and her feet to the highest of the four lower bars. 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 touched her lightly in the arm pits and groins. Four other men then touched her with war clubs. The man who had captured her then ran 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 dispersed. The priests remained. One of them pulled out the arrows and laid them in four piles about the scaffold. The body was taken down and laid on the ground with the head to the east, and the blood-soaked meat was burned under the scaffold as an offering to all the gods. Finally, songs were sung describing the eating of the body by various animals and its final turning into earth. Dorsey (4, p. 67) says: ‘‘There is reason to believe that an abbreviated form of the ceremony was held each winter in December, at which time the ritual only was sung and the smoke offering performed.’’

The earthly beings were primarily the guardians of the medicine-men while the heavenly beings were the guardians of the whole people.

Wissler and Spinden (7) have pointed out that the Morning Star sacrifice has a number of features in common with the human sacrifices of the Aztec and suggest that its presence among the Pawnee may be due to diffusion from Mexico. The principal resemblances to the Mexican practices lie in the association of the sacrifice with a worship of the heavenly bodies, the impersonation of a deity by the victim, and in parts of the actual procedure. An analysis of the Pawnee ceremony shows that although some of its features were probably of foreign origin its underlying concepts and most of its ritual were in perfect accord with the general body of Skidi beliefs and practices. The Pawnee recognized a great number of both heavenly and earthly beings. The attributes and powers of these beings were more clearly defined than was usually the case among the Plains tribes and the most important of them deserve to be classed as gods. The earthly beings were primarily the guardians of the medicine-men while the heavenly beings were the guardians of the whole people and the rivers of most of the village and tribal sacred bundles. Nearly all the heavenly beings were identified with stars. Although our data on the other Caddoan tribes are rather scanty, stars figure largely in the mythology of all those for which we have information and it seems probable that a worship of the heavenly bodies was common to all the peoples of this origin of the skidi pawnee sacrifice  stock. It was such a basic feature of Pawnee religion that if its presence was due to diffusion from Mexico this diffusion must have occurred at a very ancient time. The impersonation of a diety by the victim in the Morning Star ceremony is suggestive of one of the Mexican practices, but the resemblance is not very close. In the Mexican rites cited by Wissler and Spinden (7, p. 54) the victims were sacrificed to the deities whom they had impersonated. In the Pawnee rite there was a double impersonation, the captor taking the part of the Morning Star and the girl of the Evening Star. The victim was not offered to the deity whom she had impersonated but to another being who had conquered that deity. Impersonations of deities occurred in other Pawnee ceremonies as well. Dorsey (6) says: ‘‘A man who has offered seven eagles to the heavenly deities may furnish a robe and other accessories used in a certain ceremony when one of the greatest of the heavenly beings, Paruxti, becomes represented in the bundles. He then becomes the earthly representative of that deity for the season. During all this season he neither cuts his hair nor his nails; he wears only a buffalo robe; in short, conducts himself as Paruxti did when he visited the earth.’’ The Morning Star ceremony was plainly a re-enactment of the conquest of the Evening Star by the Morning Star and, as such, was quite in agreement with the general pattern of Skidi ceremonies.

skidi pawnee calendar
A Skidi Pawnee "winter count" calendar made on buffalo hide, tracking winters from 1800/1801 to 1870/1871.

Dorsey (op. cit.) says: ‘‘In theory the Skidi Pawnee ceremonies all have as their object the performance either through drama or through ritual of the acts which were performed in the mythologic age. The ritual is a formal method restating the acts of the supernatural beings in early times, and by this recitation of a ritual the deities of the heavens have their attention redirected toward the people on the one hand; on the other hand, people are reminded of the deeds which were done for them by the heavenly beings. The relationship between man and the supernatural world is renewed with the result that the supernatural beings, being pleased at the attention, which is usually in the form of sacrifical rites, bestowed upon them, continue their protection over the people.’’

The idea of sacrifice entered into practically all the Pawnee bundle ceremonies and the offering of sacrifices to the heavenly beings was one of the surest roads to the spiritual and social advancement of an individual. Dorsey (op. cit.) says: ‘‘The Morning Star told the people that he gave them bows and arrows with which to kill animals, telling them to get on the right side to shoot so that the arrow would go through the heart. As he had given them fire sticks the animal should be placed on the fire so that the smoke might ascend to the beings in the heavens. In these sacrifices by fire the blaze and smoke carry the prayers to the above, thus the smoke is the prayer bearer. This form of sacrifice was graded, the value ranging all the way from the sacrifice of the first bird shot by a boy with a toy bow to the sacrific of a human maiden to the Morning Star. When about to make such a sacrifice to the heavens, it was customary before using the bow, the instrument of death, to pronounce the name of the Morning Star. This pronounced upon an animal or human being is the dooming to death, or it may be compared to a curse. Apart from the human being who was sacrificed to the Morning Star certain animals were especially sought after for sacrifice. These were various birds, culminating in the eagles, except the white eagle, which was never sacrificed, and certain animals such as the deer, antelope, wild-cat, otter and buffalo, culminating in the sacrifice of a human scalp or human maiden.’’

the offering of sacrifices to the heavenly beings was one of the surest roads to the spiritual and social advancement of an individual

It is plain that no foreign origin need be sought for such features of the Morning Star ceremony as its association with a star cult, the impersonation of a deity by the victim, or the underlying idea of sacrifice. The killing of the victim with a single arrow through the heart was also in accordance with the tribal pattern, for animal victims were supposed to be killed in this way. There are, however, other features of the ceremony which seem at variance with the pattern. Thus, although human sacrifice was only the highest of a long series of graded offerings among the Skidi, there is no proof of its existence, except in the form of scalp sacrifice, among any of the other Pawnee. Animal offerings were brought in dead and offered through fire. The human sacrifice had to be taken alive and was not burned. Moreover, the use of a scaffold, the touching of the living victim with flaming brands and clubs, the opening of the thoracic cavity and offering of blood, and the final shooting with arrows by all the men present find no parallel in the other tribal ceremonies.


Extract from The Origin of the Skidi Pawnee Sacrifice to the Morning Star by Ralph Linton, American Anthropologist, vol. 28, 457–466, published in 1926.