Shawnee (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Shawneetmp2033_thumb, from Shawanwa, "southerner," their self-designation. These people acted in many ways as agents of cultural change and adaptation between the northeast Woodlands and the southeastern and prairie tribes. They were variously known to non-natives as Ouchaouanag, Chaouanons, Satanas, and Shawano. They were culturally related to the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo.

Location The Shawnee migrated often, but their territory in the late seventeenth century may have ranged from the Illinois River east to the Delaware, Susquehannah, and Savannah Rivers. Some scholars place them on the Cumberland River at or before that time. Shawnee villages have been located within an enormous area, ranging from the present states of New York and Illinois south to South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Their aboriginal home may have been around the south shore of Lake Erie, and they lived in southern Ohio during the second half of the eighteenth century. Today, most Shawnees live in Oklahoma. There is also a significant community in and around Ohio.

Population There may have been as many as 50,000 or more Shawnee in the sixteenth century. Their population dropped to about 3,000 in 1650. In the mid-1990s, there were about 600 in Ohio and almost 12,000 in Oklahoma.

Language Shawnees spoke an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History According to tradition, the Shawnee people were once united with the Lenape and the Nanticoke, perhaps in Labrador. They may have originated north of or in the Ohio Valley. They were probably associated with the Fort Ancient cultural complex (1000-1700), which was characterized by a mixed subsistence economy, including agriculture, with fortified villages having central courtyards. Many tools were made of bone, and the people also made pottery. Town populations may have ranged up to 1,000 people.

The Iroquois may have begun pushing scattered Shawnee bands south into Ohio as early as the sixteenth century. Iroquois attacks on Shawnees in Ohio lasted until the mid- to late eighteenth century, when the Iroquois forced the last Shawnees out of that area. Shawnees pushed into Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century, and a population center was established on the Savannah River by that time as well. In the early eighteenth century, bands began a general westward movement again, settling on the north bank of the Ohio River. By about 1750 most Shawnee had come to that location, with Iroquois permission. Some groups also joined the Creek Nation in Alabama about that time.

Heavy involvement in the fur trade from the early eighteenth century on soon left many Shawnee in the clutches of alcohol and debt. Most Shawnee bands were pro-French in the colonial wars, but some were steadfast British trade partners and military allies, especially those bands that came under the control of the Iroquois. Most Shawnees participated in Pontiac’s rebellion of 1763-1764. Under Chief Cornstalk, they also fought the British later in 1764 over the issue of land. Pressured by the colonies to cede land, the Shawnee joined the British cause in the American Revolution, hoping that the country that promulgated the Proclamation Line of 1763 would defend their interests against the rapacious colonials. The loss in that war and in Little Turtle’s war (1794) led to further land cessions in Ohio and Indiana. In the 1790s, a group of Shawnee and Lenape moved to Missouri to occupy a Spanish land grant.

In the early nineteenth century, two Shawnees— twins by birth—achieved renown as among the last great military defenders of Indian land in the entire region. The shaman Tenskwatawa, or Shawnee Prophet, encouraged his people to return to their traditions and eschew all non-native elements, particularly Christianity and alcohol. He also claimed to have special medicine that would help repulse the whites. His brother was Tecumseh, a brilliant orator and military strategist. Envisioning an Indian country from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, he encouraged pan-Indian solidarity and resistance to the domination of the United States. In particular, he believed that no single Native American had the moral right to sell or cede any Indian land.

Unlike many Indian military leaders, Tecumseh did not hate non-natives. He studied their history and admired aspects of their cultures. Furthermore, he insisted on fair treatment of prisoners of war. He traveled constantly throughout the Midwest and southeast in order to build his multitribal alliance. Slowly he began to win the support of even those groups whose strong feelings of tribal identity worked against pan-Indianism. Paradoxically, however, many Shawnee refused to join the coalition.

In 1812, Tenskwatawa foolishly moved against a non-native military expedition before the alliance was complete. The Indian forces were defeated, and Tenskwatawa’s power proved to be ineffective. This action fatally disrupted the alliance before it had a chance to coalesce. Tecumseh quickly joined the British cause in the War of 1812, hoping that what remained of his alliance, in conjunction with British forces, could defeat the Americans. Although as a general in the British Army he led many successful campaigns, many Indians refused to join the war. Tecumseh was fatally shot in October 1833.

Their power broken, many Ohio tribes, including the Shawnee, became refugees, drifting in scattered bands throughout Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Meanwhile, the Missouri Shawnee living on Spanish land were slowly joined by other Shawnee groups. Resulting tensions forced the groups apart once again. About 1845, groups of Shawnees gathered near Oklahoma’s Canadian River and later became known as the Absentee Shawnee (this tribe was composed mostly of the former divisions of Hathawekela, Kispokotha, and Piqua). Most members accepted allotments soon after the reservation was officially established in 1872, and by 1900 most had assimilated into the dominant society. Factionalism between "progressives" and "traditionals" kept the two sides apart throughout the early twentieth century.

In 1825 the United States established a reservation in Kansas for those Indians still living on the Spanish land grant. Shawnees still in Ohio moved there in the early to mid-1830s, although they were forced into Oklahoma, where the groups split up. One part joined the Cherokee (known thereafter as the Cherokee [or Loyal, from their Unionist stance during the Civil War] Shawnee), and the other joined the Absentee Shawnee.

In 1831, a group of Shawnees and Senecas who had been living in Ohio settled in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. When the groups separated in 1867, the Shawnee became known as the Eastern Shawnee.

Tecumseh, a brilliant orator and military strategist, joined the British cause in the War of 1812. Although he led many successful campaigns as a general in the British Army, many Indians refused to join the war. Tecumseh was fatally shot in October 1833, as depicted in this 1846 illustration.

Tecumseh, a brilliant orator and military strategist, joined the British cause in the War of 1812. Although he led many successful campaigns as a general in the British Army, many Indians refused to join the war. Tecumseh was fatally shot in October 1833, as depicted in this 1846 illustration.

They organized formally as the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma in 1937, when they officially broke apart from the Seneca. Despite their loyalty to the Union in the Civil War, most Shawnee were forced out of Kansas and into Oklahoma, where they merged with the Cherokee in 1869. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scattered Shawnee communities in Ohio and Indiana retained their Indian identity and some of their traditions. These communities came together politically in 1971 as the United Remnant Band.

Religion A supreme deity, possibly female identified, controlled a large number of other deities, which in turn all had their places in Shawnee mythology. The people recognized 12 fundamental laws with religious/mythological origins. The Piqua division of the tribe was in charge of religious ceremonies. Each division was conceived of as ritually discrete, and each held a sacred pack.

Important communal ceremonies included the Bread Dance, held at planting and harvest times and organized by women. The ceremony featured dancing and a feast of meat hunted by 12 men and cooked by 12 women. The people also celebrated the Green Corn Dance (a harvest/thanksgiving/renewal ceremony) and various other sacred ceremonies.

Prayer accompanied many life-cycle and cyclical events. Women might conduct ceremonies and often cured disease through their knowledge of medicinal plants. Young (less than age ten) boys and girls fasted to obtain spirit visions. Opposition in ceremonial activities, such as ball games, was based on gender.

Government The five Shawnee divisions were Chillikothe, Kispokotha, Piqua, Hathawekela, and Spitotha. They were linked through specific responsibilities, such as politics, ceremonialism, and war, and were associated both with specific territories and towns. Division membership was inherited patrilineally. This arrangement broke down with time.

Political functions fell under either the peace or war organization. Tribal, clan, and division chiefs were hereditary (clan chiefs may have been associated more with ritual than politics) prior to the nineteenth century, although the office of war chief also had a merit component. There was also a tribal council made up of the chiefs as well as elderly men. Town councils probably existed as well.

Women related to male leaders could be chiefs on the town level. Women were also associated with peace and war organizations. Among their prerogatives were the right to ask for the cancellation of a war party, the right to spare prisoners, and direction over feasts and planting crops.

Another type of tribal division was geographical in nature. These groups were fluid in number, size, and composition as the tribe shifted its territory. This system was eventually responsible for the three formal Shawnee divisions of the late nineteenth century.

Customs Up to 12 patrilineal clans controlled names; certain qualities associated with certain names also belonged to particular clans. Ritual and political appointments might follow from these qualities and were thus associated with clans. Women were in charge of the crops, of the game after it was killed, and of gathering wood and cooking. Murder could be redeemed by blood or by payment, with a women commanding more than twice the price of a man. The people enjoyed a number of social dances.

Birth occurred in a special, secluded hut, where mother and child remained for ten days, after which a naming ceremony was held. Marriage was probably arranged, at least in part, and was associated with gift giving. In a departure from tradition, divorce had become easy to obtain by the nineteenth century.

Only men buried Shawnee men, but both men and women buried women. The dead’s possessions were divided among relatives, except for some that went to reward friends who played a prominent role in the funeral. Corpses were buried in their best clothing and usually prone, with the head facing west. Tobacco was sprinkled over the body. The mourning period of 12 days was bracketed with two feasts (spouses mourned for up to a year). Diverse death customs might include a condolence ceremony and, if a husband died, a replacement ceremony, when the widow chose a new husband about a year after the death.

Dwellings The Shawnee created various house styles, depending on period and location. Typical summer dwellings were bark-covered extended lodges. Town organization by division included ceremonial aspects as well, on the southeast "town" model. Each Shawnee town had a large, wooden council house used for a number of purposes, including sacred and secular group functions and ritual seclusion for warriors after fighting. In the eighteenth century such houses occasionally served as forts. Towns varied in size according to time and location, but the largest consisted of hundreds of houses and over 1,000 people.

Diet Women grew several varieties of corn. Household fields were grouped together. They also gathered a number of foods, including berries, cherries, and persimmon, and they tapped maple trees for their sap. Men hunted deer, bear, buffalo, and turkey. They also trapped a number of smaller mammals. The people left their summer towns in fall to establish winter camps. From there, able-bodied men and women left on months-long hunting trips. There was also a summer deer hunt. The Shawnee diet also included fish.

Key Technology Musical instruments included drums and deer-hoof rattles. Pottery vessels held water and served other functions.

Trade Shawnees had many trade partners throughout their various locations. They exported items such as pottery, corn, and other foods and manufactured goods from plants and animals; they imported feathers and minerals. In the historical period they also traded in horses.

Notable Arts The wandering Shawnee did not develop much of an artistic tradition, with the exception of some pottery, carved wood containers, and quill-decorated clothing.

Transportation Although Shawnees did most of their traveling overland, they built dugout canoes to navigate local waterways.

Dress The people generally adopted the clothing of their neighbors, incorporating some styles of their former environs as well. In general, they wore little clothing. Items included buckskin breechclouts, aprons, and moccasins. Body painting and tattooing were extensively practiced. Personal ornamentation varied according to location.

War and Weapons Tribal and divisional war chiefs were selected by merit within certain clans and divisions. War chiefs announced the decision of the tribal council for war, subject to the possible review by a female chief. Female chiefs also had the power to spare prisoners.

War parties usually included a shaman/curer. The group held a dance before departing. There were also a feast and a dance upon arrival home, after which the warriors remained secluded for four days. Prisoners were either killed or distributed as slaves or for adoption. Generally, Shawnee enemies included the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Catawba, and Iroquois. Allies included the Lenape from the late seventeenth century on and the Cherokee from the nineteenth century on. There was also an ancient association with the Creek.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Absentee Shawnee are located near Shawnee, Oklahoma. They are governed under a constitution that calls for an executive committee headed by a governor. Tribal membership was about 2,000 in the mid-1990s. The land base is roughly 13,500 acres.

The Eastern Shawnee live in West Seneca, Ottawa County, Oklahoma. The people adopted a constitution and by-laws in 1937. They are governed by a business committee. There were about 1,500 members in the mid-1990s. The tribe owns almost 100 acres of land on their reservation of almost 800 acres.

The Cherokee (or Loyal) Shawnee are located mainly in Whiteoak, Oklahoma, although members live throughout the United States. They are enrolled Cherokee citizens, although they maintain distinct rolls for their tribal membership of about 8,000. The tribe maintains a business committee consisting of officers and members. There is also a general council that passes judgment on membership eligibility.

The Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band (URB) live in and around Ohio. In the early 1990s, the tribe owned 117 acres of land at Shawandasse and another 63 acres at Chillicothe. The tribe recognizes a chief.

Economy The Absentee Shawnee gain income through farming, ranching, taxes on oil and gas contracts, small businesses, bingo, and tax-free sales. Among the Eastern Shawnee, some jobs are available with the tribe, in the bingo facility, and among the general population.

Legal Status The Absentee Shawnee and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe are federally recognized tribal entities. The Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band is recognized by the state of Ohio and has petitioned for federal recognition. The Piqua Sect of Ohio Shawnee Indians has petitioned for federal recognition. The Loyal Shawnee have received state recognition.

Daily Life The URB continues to purchase more land. Their main holdings now serve not as a residence but as a ceremonial and cultural center, where the tribe conducts powwows, youth programs, and ceremonies. Most are well integrated into the surrounding non-native population. The Absentee Shawnee maintain a police force, a tribal court system, and a clinic. Most of the people are Christians, especially Baptists and Quakers. The native language is still spoken. The more traditional Big Jim Band holds quasi-traditional dances every year.

Facilities of the Eastern Shawnee include a tribal headquarters, a recreational park, and an eye clinic. The tribe also runs a nutrition clinic for the elderly, provides most of its own health care, and publishes a newsletter. Few speak their native language. The Loyal Shawnee maintain a cultural center and several traditions, such as the bread, green corn, and buffalo dances. The native language among these people is practically defunct.

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