“…The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided. We gave them forest-clad mountains and valleys full of game, and in return what did they give our warriors and our women? Rum, trinkets, and a grave.
Brothers — My people wish for peace; the red men all wish for peace; but where the white people are, there is no peace for them, except it be on the bosom of our mother.…I am Shawnee! I am a warrior! My forefathers were warriors. From them I took only my birth into this world. From my tribe I take nothing. I am the maker of my own destiny! “–Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation – August 11, 1810
The Shawnee people lived by their own tribal rules and ignored all outside influences. They were a mainly a peaceful people who tended to avoid confrontation unless threatened. They had a strong leader called Tecumseh, who even today holds influence with the Shawnee people.
As you read the history of the Shawnee you’ll discover that they, along with the other tribes that joined them played a major role in American history. You’ll also learn the meaning and significance of words from the Shawnee culture such as: wigwams, braves, Moneto, blueberry root tea salve, maize, owl and hawk feathers. You’ll read about the traditions from their past, and their lives today.
The origins of the Shawnee people are unclear, but it is known that by 1600, there were probably around 10,000 of them living in the Ohio River Valley (covering most of the current states of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania). Beginning about 1630, the Iroquois conquered all of the many tribes inhabiting the region and forced them all to leave. Surprisingly, the Iroquois never occupied the valley, but maintained it as a hunting ground. The Shawnee broke into four bands, which scattered to very different regions. Two bands moved south to eastern Tennessee and allied with the Cherokee, one moved east into south-central Pennsylvania, and one moved west into Illinois.
Because of this dispersal into relatively crowded areas, the Shawnee came into many conflicts both with other tribes, and with the growing American colonies. Eventually, many of the Shawnee (along with other tribes such as the Delaware) began drifting back into the Ohio Valley, and by 1758 almost all of the Shawnee were living back in the Ohio valley. Throughout this time, British and French trading and military forces attempted to make allies of the various tribes and develop trade with them. Various wars erupted between the British and French, which were really extensions of wars in Europe.
Both sides attempted to recruit tribes as allies in these battles, which eventually led to the French and Indian War of 1754-63 in which the Shawnee fought as allies of the French, and which was won by the British. A number of the tribes, including the Shawnee, continued to resist the British for a time, but increasingly came into conflict with the American colonists (including the famous Daniel Boone) who were steadily encroaching into the region. The conflicts burst into open warfare in 1774, and during the American Revolution (1776-1783), the Shawnee fought with the British against the colonist settlers in the Ohio Valley.
The end of the Revolutionary war did not end the conflict between the tribes and the colonists. Various treaties and agreements purported to set boundaries between the Indian areas and the colonists, but the Americans steadily spread out of their regions and encroached upon Indian lands. Numerous attacks and clashes occurred, and the British (still active in the non-colonial regions) encouraged the Shawnee and others in these conflicts, including supplying them with guns and gunpowder. However, a treaty between the tribes and the United States was signed in 1794 in which the Indians ceded all of Ohio to the colonists, and supposedly drew another line between the two.
Not all of the Shawnee were in favor of this agreement with the U. S. The great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was one of the few chiefs who did not sign the treaty in 1794, and he was determined to resist further encroachment by the colonists. Tecumseh struggled to build an alliance with many tribes to resist further American expansion. In the meantime, Tecumseh’s younger brother Tenskwautawa, also known as the “Shawnee prophet” began leading a spiritual revival of the traditional ways in 1805. This movement contributed significantly to the development of Tecumseh’s following. The purpose of the new religion was to revitalize the Indians’ own culture and stop the encroachment by whites upon Indian lands.
Tenskwautawa preached to the people that the Great Spirit had given him the power to find and expose anyone who did not follow the traditional ways, to cure all diseases, and had bestowed upon him the power to keep death away in sickness and on the battlefield!
Tecumseh continued his negotiations with the whites, and with the Indians from other tribes. In 1808, the British (in Canada) promised him support, and by the time the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States broke out, he had recruited over 1,000 warriors into Canada to fight with the British. Although the Shawnee and other Indian allies fought bravely and fiercely, the British commanders were less than competent, and after some initial successes, the war proceeded badly. Tecumseh was killed on October 6, 1813.
Many Shawnee had been moving to Missouri for over 30 years, and now a great many more followed. Those remaining were pressured, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 eventually forced all Shawnee out of Ohio into Missouri. But they were soon pressured to move further, and several large groups settled in Kansas.
But the opening of Kansas to white settlement once again caused friction. Finally, after the end of the Civil War, the Shawnee (along with numerous other tribes) were settled in to their current locations in Oklahoma.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
1. Explain why the Shawnee divided up and moved into different areas of North America.
2. Discuss the reasons why the British and French forces tried to persuade the Shawnee and other tribes to become allies.
3. What prompted the conflict between the Shawnee and the American colonists?
4. Discuss why, during the American Revolutionary war, the Shawnee and other tribes fought on the British side.
5. Provide reasons why the British continued to encourage the Shawnee to fight the Americans after the Revolutionary war ended.
6. Discuss why Tecumseh refused to sign the treaty of 1794 with the American colonists.
Shawnee Culture Then
The Shawnee men were hunters and fierce warriors. They hunted deer, rabbit, wild turkey, raccoon and other small game. After a hunt, the men held a ritual meeting around a campfire and engaged in long friendly chats with each other. The women were responsible for growing the crops. They grew maize (corn), squash, pumpkins, and melons.
The homes they lived in were called wigwams, which were round and small. In addition to the wigwams they also built lodges that were rectangular in shape, and made from bark and sticks of wood , usually used for meetings. During the summer months the tribe would gather together in large villages. Each village had a council house for ceremonial meetings. When winter came the tribe would break up into smaller camp groups. The Shawnee men wore loincloths during the hot weather and leggings with fur caps and skins during the winter months. They also wore moccasins in the warm weather and snowshoes in the winter. The women wore long skirts, and also used furs for warmth.
Young Shawnee men who fought in battles and had proven their bravery were referred to as braves. They wore the feathers of an owl or hawk in their bandanas as a sign of their fearlessness. The Shawnee women wove baskets and made blankets. They also made vessels out of clay such as plates for eating, and cups for drinking. Another art form was the making of wampum, which consisted of beads crafted from shells. These were sewn on belts or other pieces of clothing. These belts were also used as currency to trade with other tribes.
The women were also responsible for taking care of the sick tribal members. They were skillful at mixing herbs, made from the abundance of plants available. They made herbal teas, and healing salves such as blueberry root tea, which was used for treating many types of illnesses such as cramps, colic, and even the hiccups! Willow bark was used to treat colds and asthma.
The women were also responsible for cooking, scraping and tanning the hides of animals, which were used for clothing and other items. This process required intelligence, physical strength, and an abundance of patience!
The Shawnee were a patrilineal organization. The children were considered as belonging to the clan of their father. The tribe was divided into twelve clans, which were represented by various animals such as the bear, deer, snake, and panther. Each member born into a clan had the rights and privileges of that particular clan. Each clan had a chief as the leader.
The position of chief was hereditary, and passed on from father to son. Sometimes the responsibility was passed from an uncle to a sister’s son. The Shawnee believed in a deity named Moneto, a supreme being who ruled the universe. They believed that each person was the in charge of their own behavior, and was held accountable for their actions. All the people that walked the good path earned Moneto’s favor and received blessings; those who did not received sorrow. Moneto was seen as a figure who was constantly weaving a giant net that would eventually be cast over the earth. The good people would be pulled to the heavens in the net. Those left behind would suffer as the earth was consumed in fire.
The religious ceremonies of the Shawnee were intertwined with the agricultural cycle. The Bread Dance celebrated spring and the planting season. The Green Corn Dance celebrated the ripening of the crops, and the Autumn Bread Dance was the celebration of the harvest. The one golden rule of the Shawnee was “Do not kill or injure your neighbor, because it is not him that you injure it is yourself. Do good to him and therefore add to his days of happiness and add to your own.”
Shawnee Culture Today
The Shawnee reside mainly in Oklahoma today. Hunting is permitted at certain times of the year. The people buy their food from grocery stores and supermarkets. Women still cook some of the old foods such as fry bread and hominy. Regalia is worn for ceremonial occasions, and regular clothes such as jeans are worn the rest of the time.
The tribe has a female chief Glenna J. Wallace and a second chief. A board of council members remains in place to help make decisions for the tribe. The Shawnee remain connected to their roots by holding festivals which include some of the traditional games and foods. In addition to this, the clan system is still somewhat in evidence, although the groups are not as clear as they once were in the past. Today, clans maintain their functions for ceremonial celebrations and other public purposes such as funerals.
The tribe owns and operates a casino which generates revenue and jobs for many of the people. Women and men are equals in the job market today. The Shawnee religion is complex and revolves around some of the old traditional beliefs.
The Shawnee still revere their great leader Tecumseh. To this day his words are remembered by the Shawnee people. The following is one of the favorite speeches given by Tecumseh to his people.
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” —Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation—
A Shawnee Myth: Red Hawk’s Unselfish Gift
There once was a great Shawnee hunter and warrior by the name of Red Hawk. From the time he was a small child, his elders taught him the wonders of the land. He was told to always remember to show reverence to the land and all the gifts it provided to its people. This he did, and though he became a master hunter, the animals were never sacrificed in vain. Red Hawk became a revered hunter and warrior, but with each compliment he received, his head swelled and his self-importance grew and grew.
One bright morning, Red Hawk was hunting in the woods, and heard a curious sound. He ran toward the sound, and as he approached, he realized the sound was actually chanting, coming from the voices of women.
He brushed away some leaves, and saw seven maidens, dressed in shabby clothes chanting and dancing in unison, playing instruments made of rocks and twigs. Red Hawk’s eyes settled on one of the maidens as she stood out from the others. She was the youngest and smallest, and had unusual yet striking features. Upon her face, she had an expression of joy and peace, and was playing her self-made instrument with wild abandon. Red Hawk fell in love with her instantly, and felt determination rise in his soul – he would make her love him in return.
Brimming with his usual bravery and confidence, Red Hawk ran to the group of maidens, and greeted them eloquently. Red Hawk was shocked to find that they did not acknowledge him at all. He repeated himself to no avail. He then stepped into the circle of women as they danced and sang, but it was as if he were transparent. Confused, he left the maidens to their ritual.
Later that day, Red Hawk sprinted up a great hill to speak to the oldest member of his tribe. He asked him, “Grandfather, I have seen maidens chanting in the woods, but they do not notice me. To them I have no presence. I have fallen in love with the most unusual one, but I can not get her to love me if she doesn’t know I exist.”
The elder told him, “These maidens have long been entrancing men, but most men can not see beyond their own pride, and give up trying to win their love. You must figure a way to deserve their attention, then you may get your wish.”
Red Hawk spent the night recalling the maidens in his mind. What could he do impress them? He saw them in his mind blissfully singing and dancing, with no concern for him at all. Then he recalled their crude instruments.
They did keep a beat, but perhaps they would like some real instruments. Red Hawk spent the next day hunting, and returned to his village with deer and buffalo. His family prepared for a feast, while Red Hawk created drums of many sizes with the animal skins. He then carved and polished some bones with which to hit the drums. Early the next day, he laid the instruments outside of the maiden’s circle, waiting for them to pick them up and relish in his generosity. To his surprise, they did not notice them.
Red Hawk left, even more confused.
Again that night, he wondered what he could give them to get in their good graces. He decided that he would give them gifts of food. At dawn, he began collecting vegetables, nuts, fruits and berries for the maidens. He laid out the food outside of their circle, along with the untouched drums. Again, the maidens ignored the gifts, and Red Hawk left in shocked disbelief.
That night, Red Hawk gave up hope. He had not a clue as to what the maidens wanted. First he felt anger, “How can these maidens not acknowledge me? How could they not thank me for drums I made by my own hands, and then not thank me for the food I gathered with my own hands?” Red Hawk then cried out of frustration, because the beautiful and unusual maiden would never be his.
The next morning, Red Hawk returned to his spot, looked upon his unused gifts, and simply sat back in anger and shook his head. He then raised his head and simply watched the harmonious singing and carefree dancing. After many hours, Red Hawk stood and turned to walk back to his village. It occurred to him how much he had enjoyed the music, and without thinking, removed seven long, red feathers from his headdress. He placed them among the unused gifts as an offering of thanks, and turned again toward his village.
“Don’t go, Red Hawk,” said a quiet and comforting voice. Red Hawk turned toward the maidens, and saw that it was the voice of the unusual maiden. “We want to thank you for the gifts. We liked the drums and food, Red Hawk, but you only gave us those gifts to impress us and get in our good favor.
The feathers you gave us were unselfish and kind gifts of thanks. We now know that you no longer want from us, and we can trust you now. Come join us in our festival, and eat and sing with us!” Red Hawk spent many days with the maidens, experiencing freedom, joy and friendship. Over the course of the days, Red Hawk and his love, Morning Star, grew very close.
Red Hawk and Morning Star gradually fell in love, lived a joyous life, and raised many children. Red Hawk had learned the importance of giving unselfishly, just as the earth does for its people.