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Massacre Canyon saga is just one story in a rich Native American history in Nebraska
by Pat Underwood

Massacre Canyon MonumentThe first federally-funded historical monument to be erected in Nebraska was a memorial honoring Pawnee and Sioux warriors, who in 1873 fought the last major battle between Native American tribes in the country. The monument now sits on the south side of Highway 34 three miles east of Trenton.

The Massacre Canyon Monument is an impressive 35 feet tall, weighs 91 tons, and is made of pink granite. It has carvings of the faces of the noted Sioux John Grass and Pawnee Chief Ruling His Son, who is said to have lost his wife and three children in the battle. A nearby visitor center supplies a wealth of information on Native American and frontier history, stocks a nice collection of scholarly books, and in summer months serves as a retail outlet for jewelry by South Dakota artist Joann Winter Chaser.

The story of the massacre

Massacre Canyon MonumentCurrent caretakers of the monument and visitor center, Don and Angie Keller, explain that the 1873 battle in what is now known as Massacre Canyon occurred when several tribes were off their reservations at the same time to engage in their annual summer buffalo hunts. The Pawnee, accompanied by a U.S. government agent, had been told they would have troop protection against any hostile actions from their historical enemies, but the protection was not provided.

The Sioux tribe attacked the Pawnee hunting party at the northwest head of the canyon, and the running battle raged over several miles to the southeast until the Pawnee were trapped in the lower section of the canyon near the Republican River. An estimated 69 Pawnee men, women, and children were killed in the battle, with others dying later of injuries sustained in the fight. The Sioux are said to have lost six warriors in the battle.

A rich native American history

Massacre Canyon MonumentLike this story, the Native American history of the Republican Valley in Nebraska is rich, thought-compelling, and worth further exploration. Many local museums, libraries, and county historical societies throughout the area work to keep the history alive, and it is always worth stopping to chat with diligent local historians about the sometimes-forgotten knowledge of the past.

Former Nebraska Governor and Congressional Representative from this district, A.C. Shallenberger, who obtained the funding for the Massacre Canyon Monument, recognized the importance of this history and the value of remembering it, even back in the early 1900's. The monument was erected in 1931.

"We need these memorials to the past, and in the name of the historical past and the two great nations we honor today, we dedicate this monument," Shallenberger said at the unveiling ceremony. "Not conceived as a monument to hostility or hate, or as a trophy to war...but as a commemoration of time-healed hatreds, there now arises on the plains of southwestern Nebraska a granite shaft marking the scene of the last battle in this country between Native Indian Tribes," he said.

A renewing interest

Massacre Canyon MonumentIt has been stated by some historians and is even indicated on a sign at the monument site that this massacre broke the spirit of the Pawnee and caused them to move from Nebraska to a small Oklahoma reservation, but Don Keller explains that this is not the case. According to Keller, Pawnee scholars and historians — including James Riding In, a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University who wrote a brief history of the site for the visitor center — have pointed out it was actually federal policy at the time that resulted in the forced relocation of the Pawnee Nation to Oklahoma in 1873-75.

Native American reunions and powwows were held at the Massacre Canyon memorial site in the 1930's through 1956, and again for a time in the 1980's-90's, but not since. However, in a potentially positive sign of a reemerging interest in the Native American history of our area, a Pawnee Nation "homecoming" powwow was held in 2009 at the Archway Monument in Kearney, and another is planned for the coming year.

Native Americans were once the only human inhabitants of Nebraska and their history is a story from which many lessons can be learned. The saga of Massacre Canyon is just one of countless fascinating tales.

Pat Underwood is a resident of Alma, Nebraska, where she does grant writing, fundraising, and other development work for non-profit organizations and serves part time as Harlan County Tourism Director. She is a former resident of California, Hawaii, Guam, and Florida and can be reached at 308-928-8992 or underwoodpat@ymail.com

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