How did the Republican River get its name? Two Pawnee historians explain the basin's Indigenous roots
The Republican River begins in northeastern Colorado and flows through Kansas and Nebraska. Part one of KUNC’s series explored how water disappearing from the basin's streams and grounds affects farmers. Part two detailed a history of interstate dealings that got the basin to this point. Part three showed efforts to conserve more water and part four looked at a plan to get water flowing through the river’s South Fork again.
But a key question remains: how did the Republican River get its name?
According to History Nebraska, Nebraska’s Democratic Gov. Frank Morrison would jokingly ask Republican friends if the Republican River got its name “because it’s so shallow or so crooked?”
But the name has nothing to do with the modern political party or its predecessors. It’s a reference to a European settler nickname for a band of the Pawnee Nation.
“So they named it Republican and the band that they were referring to in Pawnee is called Kitkehahki,” said Matt Reed, tribal historic preservation officer for the Pawnee Nation. He’s visited parts of the river for archeological purposes and says early European settlers used to call the Kitkehahki band of the Pawnee tribe “republicans” because of “their democratic style of government.”
“(The name) refers to a very esoteric history that has to do with European thinking about governance philosophy and observing what's happening in Pawnee land during the 1760s, 1770s and saying to themselves ‘This looks like a republic,’” said Longmont-based Pawnee historian Roger Echo-Hawk, whose ancestors were Kitkehahki.
While the name was used to refer to all Kitkehahkis, Echo-Hawk said the form of governance Europeans observed was unlike the modern style of democracy people may think of now, and was limited to a subset of the Kitkehahki that chose leaders based on “personal achievement rather than hereditary rights.”
But what was the river’s name before? Matt Reed said he didn’t know. And Echo-Hawk isn’t 100% sure, as there aren’t many written records, but he says it was likely called the “Kiraaruta.”
The word has two parts which are somewhat up to interpretation, he said. The first “refers to a body of water” and the second “refers to intestines.”
The Pawnee would hunt the large herds of buffalo that roamed near the river, Echo-Hawk said, and would then wash the butchered intestines and other organs in the nearby stream.
“So you can translate this word in various ways. But I translate it as ‘Dirty Water River,’” he said. “In this case, ‘dirty water’ is not a negative. It's a positive.”
The word is a “joyous” one, he added, a reminder of what successful hunts entail. But the significance of this river to the Pawnee people goes deeper. The two historians’ answers to three questions about that significance are below.
Responses lightly edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel about the river being called the “Republican” by many today?
Echo-Hawk: I prefer to call this river the Dirty Water River. That's my preference. And I think matters of geography are always tangled issues. And so on the Republican River as a name — and I think it's interesting and it's more interesting if you know the history of how that name came about — but for me personally, I am looking at Pawnee geography and seeing how it's vanished under the later maps that arose. And I'm thinking to myself, I would like to keep in the forefront of my mind, Pawnee names of places and what they signified, even if it's only of meaning to the very small community of Pawnee land and our deep, deep roots in this part of the world.
Reed: That's just a pattern. Our old folks are probably just shaking their head like, "These people are crazy." But that's a consistent pattern of behavior in our history with the United States, is that we don't know what we're talking about and so they name it something else. Or, you know, like they stuck us in boarding school to teach us how to be farmers. Well, we've been farmers for thousands of years. And we were better at it because we lived on the Plains where we didn't have to have irrigation and things like that.
What significance does the river have to Pawnee peoples?
Reed: So we're really tied in with (many central plains) rivers archaeologically. But we're also tied through our religion and culture. Without knowing everything that's out there, undiscovered and discovered but just unknown to me, I would say that the Republican River probably holds the greatest number of Pawnee archeological sites compared to any other drainage on the plain. And it goes from there in Kansas all the way out into Colorado, and there are stretches along there where I have really good documentation of sites. It's phenomenal. I mean, I don't know how people build a fence without running into something that's Pawnee from, say, a thousand years ago and there are places that are older than that, too.
Echo-Hawk: Along the Republican River and the Solomon River and other streams in northern Kansas were special places that are identified as animal holy ground locations, where the mystical animals gather to hold their doings and occasionally a person will experience what goes on at these locations. And so there are a lot of Pawnee stories that have to do with these special locations scattered around the region. And in Pawnee tradition, they were very special places where mystical things happened, where special dreams were given to people and where interactions with the animals gave rise to bodies of esoteric knowledge and ceremonial ways and that sort of thing. And so the waterways were very valuable and precious in Pawnee land for that reason.
What lessons do you think could be taken away from the Pawnee history of this basin?
Echo-Hawk: For generations, the Pawnees lived there and they did not destroy this landscape. They did not destroy this world. Whatever their beliefs were, their practices, their spiritual ideas, the cities they built, the technologies they developed — when you go to Pawnee land and you look for the ruins, the trash heaps and everything else, they are hard to find. So the Pawnees did not leave great ecological disasters across this landscape from their generations of living there. And I don't know how to translate this into meaning today, but that always strikes me when I'm invited to visit a place where there was a Pawnee city and I look around and I see fields of corn and I see a waterway tumbling along. I see green hillsides. I see animals around, birds, and I don't see the ruins of a landscape that was devastated by the people that lived there. And so my hope is that, whatever happens nowadays, as the Pawnees are giving thought to how to extend our ties back to the ancient homeland, the realms that they're thinking about will have been cared for appropriately. And I don't know what's happened.
Reed: Us and every other tribe, we either get labeled as "nomadic" or "semi-nomadic." And, you know, our earthlodge villages were fairly permanent. I mean, these were like cities or towns. But you can only live in a place like that and not have a negative impact on your environment for so long and then you have to move. And so that's why when you look at a map and you're looking for earthlodge villages, you find them all over the place because they will exhaust the soil health. We got horses really early — when those horses exhausted the grazing around the place, you’d have to move to where there was more grazing or better grazing.
"If whatever activities that you're doing is draining a river, you might want to rethink what it is that you're doing."
And the same for water, if the closest spring wasn't potable or if there was something going on with the river that you couldn't rely on it, you'd have to move to get away, to find potable water, to find a place where thousands of people could actually live comfortably. So, I would think that that would be a good lesson. If whatever activities that you're doing is draining a river, you might want to rethink what it is that you're doing... That water should be there for the benefit of everybody, not just a few people or companies... It's become kind of a trope, you know, the protest at Standing Rock, where they talk about "water is life," but I've never heard a truer statement.
Hear what these Pawnee historians said about battles over the basin’s resources, the nation’s relocation to Oklahoma and more by listening to the story above.
This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.