The History and Culture of the Shawnee Tribe

The Shawnee people of the Ohio River Valley have a rich history of medicine, politics, and activism.

All First Nations in North America have rich and storied histories; the Shawnee people are no different in that regard. The Shawnee nation was one of the most powerful nations on the continent with a long history including everything from herbal medicine to political delegation.

Their history was nearly lost to colonization, but thanks to the diligent work of modern Shawnee people, it has now been preserved and revived.

Procession Before War Dance by Earnest L. Spybuck.

The Geographical and Political History of the Shawnee Tribe

Historically, the Shawnee people lived in the central Ohio River Valley. They were members of the Algonquian-speaking nations of North America and shared close cultural relationships, language, and oral history with the Fox, Kickapoo, Suk, Seneca, and Delaware people. They were particularly close to the Wyandot people and referred to them as “uncles.” 

Originally, the nation was separated into five main divisions. These were further divided into clans of families tracked through the male bloodlines.

The leaders of each division and the overall leader of the nation were chiefs chosen usually by hereditary right or based on bravery, outstanding skill, or experience as a war chief. Leadership was typically centralized at the overall chief’s clan home, which was referred to as the Chillicothe clan.

The Shawnee were driven from the Ohio River Valley by the Iroquois in the 1600s. They settled in what is currently Illinois and the Cumberland Valley, though some moved further southeast.

But around 1725, the Shawnee moved back to Ohio. For the next century or so, they, along with many other first nations, dealt with the rapid expansion of the colonies and constant conflicts with European settlers.

The Splintering of the Shawnee Tribe

The Shawnee fought in and lost the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 to General Anthony Wayne. This led to the splintering of the nation into three branches – the Absentee, Easter, and Cherokee Shawnee – each of which took up residence in different parts of Oklahoma. 

This splinter was pushed by the efforts of Tenskwatawa – called The Prophet by many due to his claim to supernatural visitation and predictions – and Tecumseh, two Shawnee men who attempted to broker peace with the settlers in the area through trade and intermarriage. 

Unfortunately, the tribe’s defeat heavily discredited the brothers’ efforts and led to further disconnect and conflict between the native nations and the settlers.

In the 1800s, some Shawnee people were forcibly removed from the valley and resettled in the area between Hog Creek and Little River, as well as Little Axe in what is now Cleveland County, Oklahoma. These two bands – the Big Jim Band and White Turkey Band – eventually organized into the modern Absentee Shawnee people. 

Some Ohio Shawnee people were forced to move in 1831 and became what is now the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. The Shawnee in what is now Kansas, held territory until the 1850s, when the land was taken through violence by white settlers. 

The events of the Civil War eventually caused most of the Shawnee in this area to relocate to Oklahoma, sharing land with the Cherokee nation. The Shawnee nation was not officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States government until 2000.

The Culture and Lifestyle of the Shawnee Tribe

The Shawnee people, like many first nations, were semi-nomadic, living together in larger towns in the summers and spreading out into smaller family groups in the winters to cover more hunting grounds. Their main crops were maize and other vegetables, whose planting was often accompanied by important ceremonies that marked each phase of the cultivation process.

The towns’ structures generally consisted of bark-insulated houses and a larger central council house for religious and political use.

Shawnee people wore simple furs and hide in tunics, skirts, and loincloths, with additional layers in the winter. They, like many First Nations, valued the ability to use all parts of a hunted animal, as a sign of respect for its sacrifice for their survival. They were also well-known for creating fine clay pottery and flatware as well as woven baskets and blankets.

Warriors and bravery were highly valued in Shawnee culture. Men who went into battle and fought bravely often wore owl or hawk feathers as a symbol of fearlessness and prowess in war.

These acts of bravery and fierceness were one of only two ways to gain chieftainship in the nation, making them highly valued traits in a leader. The Shawnee were so well renowned for their prowess in battle that they were often called upon by other nations to act as protectors.

The Shawnee’s religious beliefs were largely centered around the deity Moneto, to whom the people of the nation offered reverence as a creator and ruler of the known universe.

Followers of this religion believed heavily in personal responsibility and believed that garnering favor with Moneto through good and just deeds in life meant you would be blessed, while cruel behavior would be met with sorrow.

Shawnee children were given names that were intended to bring good fortune and as young adults, would go on vision quests – periods of fasting and isolation designed to allow for spiritual guidance.

The Shawnee practiced herbal medicine, with the sick being effectively treated using natural medicines such as blueberry root tea and willow bark. The use of herbal salves was widely adopted and used to treat a range of conditions from pain to colds to colic in babies.

On top of being used for weaving, native grasses to the central American plains were also used as a food source and medicinal ingredient.

One of the most impressive treatments used by the Shawnee was the use of small blue flowers from Bachelor Button, corn, and orchids to minimize the effects of certain cancers including leukemia.

Chemical compounds from these flowers are still in use in anti-cancer research today. Another popular ingredient was the white trillium, now the state flower of Ohio, which has antiseptic and antispasmodic properties.

Shawnee culture and religion are, of course, preserved largely in the native Shawnee language, which is a part of the Algonquian language family. Specifically in the South Central language group which includes Illinois, Peoria, Miami, and Kickapoo, among others.

There are two distinct dialects – Southern and Eastern – which are spoken in the three tribal branches depending on their location.

Among the Absentee Shawnee, there is a saying that Shawnee people should “learn at least four words [of Shawnee] so the Creator can hear you and know we are still here.” The Shawnee language is currently considered endangered, though there are revival movements in place to help preserve it.

The Modern Shawnee Tribe

The modern Shawnee people are, according to their own words, experiencing a cultural revival. With the rise in First Nations advocacy and activism, the Shawnee people have established centers for educating their people about their culture and history as well as sharing that culture and history with others. Groups like the Shawnee Tribe Cultural Center are actively working to preserve Shawnee language and practices.

The Absentee Shawnee of Oklahoma is another active branch of the Shawnee nation, whose focus is on tradition and cultural preservation. As of December 2022, there are more than 4,600 members of this branch of the Shawnee nation according to information from the Shawnee tribal government.

The Shawnee people of Miami, Oklahoma, have a strong cultural revival movement in the modern day. They host cultural events for both tribe members and non-natives to learn and explore throughout the year. They offer business and community services for their members including help for small businesses, educational resources, and childcare.

Some Shawnee still practice traditional herbal medicine alongside modern medical treatments and offer the wisdom of their forefathers to advance modern medical science.

Journalist Rita Nader Heikenfeld offers information about traditional medical techniques and the usage of various native plants and herbs. Caty Crabb operates the Appalachian Ohio Herb Clinic, which gathers, creates, and distributes native remedies. Shawnee herbal medicine is recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a viable health initiative when practiced responsibly.

There is a push by modern Shawnee to plant and cultivate more native species of flora, not just for medicinal purposes, but in an effort toward environmental revitalization in the area and bringing balance to the local ecosystem. This includes advocating for certain bee-attracting flowers.

The Shawnee people today greatly value the work done by their ancestors to preserve and maintain their cultural history through countless trials and tribulations put onto them by colonization and attempted erasure. The fact that we know as much as we do now is thanks to their concerted efforts and intense bravery. It’s a marvel to see such long-lasting cultural traditions reaching through to the modern day.


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