Dig Deep

          Circular depressions in the prairies were sometimes called "buffalo wallers" -- places where buffalo used to lay down to rub off shedding fur, fleas, and pests.  In the mid-thirties, when Dr. Linton Strong, a professor from University of Nebraska, dug in the center of a buffalo waller, he discovered and charcoal, as well as the remnants of a fire.   The circular areas was the outline of a prehistoric circular dwelling, one of many, that existed hundreds of years before the Whiteman came to America.   The homes were forty to sixty feet in diameter, made with a double row of wood posts, and insulated with sod and branches.   It was the site of a prehistoric Ponca Indian city, extending for almost two miles, along the south banks of the Niobrara River, in Nebraska.


F. Boaz
          After a few "depressions" were excavated, the Smithsonian and the University of Nebraska, decided that a properly organized archeological expedition should take over the excavation of the prehistoric Indian culture and cities that existed on the prairies.   The work would be financed by the University of Nebraska, the Smithsonian, and donations, and the government would pay for the WPA workers needed for the actual manual digging and labor.   I was a student of Dr. Franz Boaz at Columbia University at that time.   When Dr. Boaz died, there were some who had enough of a foreign born Jew running the department of anthropology.   They selected Dr. Linton Strong, who was not an anthropologist, as chairman of anthropology.   I transferred to New York University to continue my studies, when Alexia Ales Praus, and I, were chosen as supervisors of the archeological excavation of the prehistoric Ponca village, called by some, the Lost City.   Dr. Graham Bell, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, succeeded Dr. Linton Strong as chairman, and as director of the expedition.


A. Praus
          Alexis Praus and I spent two summers supervising and working on the expedition.   During that time, Dr. Bell visited us four times.   We were left to ourselves.   We picked Bob Walker, as our foreman, since he knew, and could relate to the ex-farmers that were now digging on the site, and paid by the Work Progress Administration.   I eventually abandoned my intentions of a career in the fields of anthropology and archeology, but I can recall many incidents worthy of recall, or that affected my life.

          There were occasions of humor evident among the Ponca Indians I met and lived with.   I learned that slapstick humor, like that of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, or the Keystone Cops, did not appeal to Bird Head or White Shirt.   They did not conceive of anything being humorous when someone was injured or in a precarious situation.   Some of their examples I recall with relish.   Bird Head told the story of Blue Coyote, a warrior, a member of the famed Mad Dog association.   The tribe had settled where a stream ran through the middle of the encampment.   There was to be party and gathering of warriors in the chief's tent that evening.   The meeting lodge was across the stream that divided the camp.   Blue Coyote's squaw, Yellow Maize, had made a fine pair of quill ornamented moccasins for her husband.   When Blue Coyote, dressed in his finery and new moccasins was leaving, Yellow Maize, cautioned him about getting the new moccasins wet.

          Blue Coyote told her that the stream was too wide to jump, hence he would have to get the new moccasins wet.   Yellow Maize advised him to take off a moccasin and hop across the stream to the other side.   Blue Coyote, took off his right moccasin, tucked it under his arm, and hopped across on his left foot.   This was a situation humor that appealed to my Indian friends.   That is one example of their concept of humor.

          I had an occasion to witness examples of Indian humor.   Margaret Mead, with some dignitaries, visited the excavation site and the Ponca Reservation.   An old chief, reputed to be over a hundred years old was being questioned by Margaret Mead, as to when the sex life of an Indian ends.   He answered her with his eyes twinkling, "You will have to ask an Indian that is older than me."

          We were seated about, watching Indian dancers perform.   Margaret Mead addressed the old Indian, Bird Head, "You have a reputation for honesty.   Tell me the truth."   Pointing to one of the pretty girl dancers, she asked   "If that girl and I were in a canoe, that you were paddling, and the canoe turned over.   Who would you save?"

          Without a moments hesitation, Bird Head said, "Mrs. Mead, you swim so well."

          Dr. Boaz was a physical anthropologist, and he advised me to pursue that area as a career.   He once said of archeology, they look for pottery, and when they find the broken pots, you can't even piss in them.   I differed inwardly, as felt that I wanted to be involved with both anthropology and archeology.   During my work with the prehistoric Ponca culture, I found that their legends and myths, as well as their pottery, were important in tracing their origin.   The old Ponca legend said that they came from the very far north, and for a few generations lived by the great sweet ocean, then they migrated east, to great forests, and there they lived for some time.   Then there was a dispute between the two brothers who were their chiefs.   One brother left with some of their followers and went north to return to the land from which they came, and were never heard from again.   The other brother led his followers out of the forest, to the great plains where they settled.

          Legends are sometimes substantiated and some aspects are verified as having occurred.   The ancient Ponca lived all year in substantial homes, and were primarily agriculturists, farming the land they lived on.   After 1520, with the spread of lost or abandoned horse of the Spaniard explorers, the sedentary, agricultural lifestyle of the Ponca, and many Plains Indians, changed into a hunting culture.   When the settlers came, the Ponca were living in movable wigwams, they did not have or make pottery, and hunting was their main food source

          Ancient Ponca pottery was very different from that of other ancient cultures.   The designs were remnants of past cultures.   They used bits of fresh water shells, which must have been obtained from long journeys of by bartering.   The shells fragments were typical of those found in the Great Lakes.   Their legend spoke of the great fresh water oceans they once lived near.   A certain design used was of a woodland pattern, used primarily by the Indian tribes of the forested northeast regions.   The legend spoke of their stay in the great forests, before the tribe broke into two divisions.   One division migrated until they came to the fertile lands, and established their village along the south bank of the Niobrara River.   The Ponca legend did not know where the other Ponca Indians disappeared to.

          In 1936, the postmaster from near the Ponca Reservation, was on vacation and traveling on a Canadian train, when he heard some passengers speaking in the Ponca tongue.   He thought he knew all the Indians on the reservation, but he did not recognize the two Indians speaking in a Ponca dialect.   He introduced himself, and told them that he did not know them as being on the Ponca reservation.   There was mass confusion.   They did not call themselves Ponca.   They were part of the Cree tribes, but they spoke in a dialog that they called the "old" language.   Their legend from the past said that they had come from the great cold north, migrating to the ocean of fresh water for a time, then moving east to live in the forests.   There an argument took place between the two chiefs.   One chief led his group west, and was never heard from again.   Their chief led them back to Canada, where they have lived ever since.   An unsuccessful attempt to reunite the two Ponca divisions was attempted in 1939.   There were no funds available to bring some representatives of the two diverse Ponca speaking groups together. &nsbp; No one except the archeologists seemed to care.   The legend that came true is barely recorded in American Indian archives.   Alexis Praus and I wrote it up for the University of Nebraska, where it may still be buried away in their archives.  

          Years later, as a member of the American Indian Council House and the American Indian Relief Council, I searched and could not find any record of the event.

          It is often difficult to ascertain when an individual changes direction to pursue or enter a career.   My choice for a career in anthropology and archeology changed when a professor told me that there would be very little likelihood of my getting a fellowship to continue my studies, or to be sponsored for any expedition or field work.   Those that held the power, and those that gave money that sponsored explorations and expeditions, did not want people of my background or ilk.  Sometimes, it is only possible to watch certain proceedings from the outside, instead of being able to participate in them.  My love for such work has never faded, but now I only pursue such interests as an avocation.

Turtle Foot  


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