ETHNONYMS: Chaouanons, Satana, Shawanah, Shawano, Shawanwa
The Shawnee are an Algonkian-speaking people whose component divisions have been reported as living in many areas of the eastern United States and who apparently were never united into a single society. At the time of contact in the seventeenth century they were living along the Savannah River on the Georgia-South Carolina border, along the Ohio River, in Illinois, and in Maryland. In the eighteenth century they were in eastern Pennsylvania and southern Ohio, and some were with the Creek in Alabama. Later they tended to cluster in southern Ohio where they were for a time a significant obstacle to European migration westward. Various groups then began to migrate westward, ultimately settling in Oklahoma in three major groupings. These are now known as the Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, based in Shawnee, Oklahoma, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, based in Quapaw, Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Shawnee, now apparently merged with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, based in Tahlequa, Oklahoma. Some Shawnee also live with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, based in Miami, Oklahoma. There are probably about four thousand of the descendants of the historic Shawnee now living in the state.
Aboriginally, the Shawnee were divided into two types of groups. One consisted of five divisions, each of which was a descent group in which membership was inherited patrilineally. Each was a territorial unit centering on a town—Chillicothe, Ohio, was named after one such division. The other type consisted of the geographically defined groups into which the tribe was split at various times in their history. These groups could merge or split at any time. In the late nineteenth century these became the three permanent groups now known as Absentee-Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, and Cherokee Shawnee noted above.
The record of aboriginal Shawnee culture is fragmentary, so that it cannot be described coherently at any specific time or place. Subsistence combined hunting and maize, squash, and bean horticulture with some gathering of wild foods. The economy was also strongly oriented toward the fur trade, with an emphasis on the trading of deerskins. They lived in semipermanent settlements (towns) consisting of bark-covered lodges or longhouses. Each settlement had as its center a wooden building used for council meetings, ritual, and ceremony.
The household seems to have consisted of the nuclear family, and there was a system of patrilineal clans. But notable changes occurred in the system in the nineteenth century, the clans no longer being patrilineal or exogamous. After 1859 the clans evolved into a system of six name-groups, which were not descent units. Political activity was divided between peace and war organizations. The former was apparently based on the five divisions, each with its own chief. There was a single tribal chief with overall authority. Each division also apparently had a war chief, with a single tribal war chief in charge. Both types of chiefs formed a tribal council. There also seems to have been a system of women chiefs operating on the town level.
The Shawnee recognized a supreme being, known as Our Grandmother, as well as a large number of other deities. There may, however, have been an earlier tradition of a male supreme being, the later idea perhaps having been borrowed from the Iroquois. Information on this is uncertain. The annual ceremonial dance cycle formed the main forum for communal worship. Another focus was the five sacred packs, one for each division, about which very little is known.
Callender, Charles (1978). "Shawnee." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 622-635. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Trowbridge, Charles C. (1939). Shawnee Traditions. Edited by Vernon Kinietz and Erminie W. Voegelin. University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, Occasional Contributions, no. 9. Ann Arbor.