Not too long ago, members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma thought their history was lost to them. After a visit to Ohio this summer, the tribe is gaining confidence that some traditions can be reclaimed.
Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and several members of the tribe traveled to the Newark Earthworks Center at the Ohio State University in Newark at the end of July. Comprised of six youth and four adults, the group performed native dances at the center. They also learned more about the land their ancestors once called home.
The Eastern Shawnee are one of three Shawnee tribes recognized by the federal, including the Shawnee Tribe in Miami, Okla., and the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma in Shawnee. The groups became distinct from one another following decades of white encroachment on Shawnee lands, Wallace said.
By the time the U.S. passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, three bands of Shawnee had split under pressures of white settlement across a territory stretching from Pennsylvania westward to Ohio. Members of what would become the Absentee Shawnee pushed on to Missouri while the Shawnee Tribe ancestors were relocated to Kansas. A smaller band began traveling and living among the Seneca, and together, they were forced into Indian Territory in 1832 around the Grand Lake region. The rest of the Shawnee would soon follow.
It was in the Ohio River Valley, where Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, made a stand in 1812 with his Indian confederacy and vision of a separate nation against the U.S. government for the right to remain in the tribe’s increasingly shrinking territory. As it was in his time, the Newark Earthworks are still visible, constructed with precision by a mound building people known as the Hopewell culture more than 2,000 years ago. Today, the intricate complex of earthworks structures is now home to an education center of the Ohio State University of Newark for the preservation of ancient American Indian architectural sites.
At first, Newark seemed like a long way from the Eastern Shawnee Tribe’s present-day offices on the Oklahoma-Missouri border and in Wyandotte – both literally and metaphorically.
“We have, without question, lost more of our culture, more of our language – 99 percent,” Wallace said. “We have no ceremonials. When we assimilated into the white man’s world, we assimilated into the white man’s world.”
The loss of unity with the other Shawnees left the Eastern Shawnee afloat in a different culture without an anchor. By the 1870s, there were but 69 people enrolled in the tribe.
“Many of us can go no further back than our great-grandfathers to know names, to know where they were born, where they died, when they died, if they were buried and where they were buried,” Wallace said.
Today, it has close to 3,000 citizens.
According to the tribe’s website, the Eastern Shawnee own approximately 1,000 acres, and the tribe has more than 600 employees working among tribal enterprises that include a travel center, a restaurant and two casinos – the Bordertown Outpost Casino in Wyandotte and the new $85 million Indigo Sky Casino that opened last week near West Seneca.
As the tribe works to regain economic autonomy, it continues its search for its heritage. Wallace said the Eastern Shawnee have rediscovered their language in classes and learned some ceremonial traditions from members of the other Shawnee tribes. Youth and adults are actively involved.
A few years ago, the tribe came in contact with the Newark Earthworks Center. The Shawnee were eager to visit the ancestors’ lands, and the center researchers wanted to know the tribe’s perspective of the earthworks.
“There’s no doubt (that) every part of our work is enriched by communication with the historic tribes of Ohio,” said Marti L. Chaatsmith, the center’s associate director.
There are no federally-recognized tribes based in Ohio today. The center wants input from tribes with historic ties to the state about how to best and properly preserve the sites, many of which are ceremonial in nature. There is also the matter of artifacts found in the area.
“The more we have a connection with the historic tribes, the more we feel that, when listening to what they want, we feel we’re following the right path to caring and preserving the earthworks,” Chaatsmith, Comanche and Choctaw, said.
In recent years, the Eastern Shawnee have brought two busloads of tribe members to Ohio to take in the homeland experience, but for the July trip, a small delegation brought a new experience to the Newark community and Ohio Historical Society. The youth performed several powwow, social and stomp dances for an audience. It was a vital reminder to the Newark residents of their state’s indigenous past, Chaatsmith said.
The summer program was part of a National Endowment for Humanities-funded project called the Ancient Ohio Trail (www.ancientohiotrail.org). The Newark earthworks site is a stop on Ohio’s map of heritage tourism.
“It was a wonderful exchange, a wonderful experience,” Wallace said.
Plans are in the works to bus another group of tribe members to visit Newark next summer.
Members of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma recently visited ancient earthworks sites in Newark, Ohio, where the youth showed residents powwow, social and ceremonial stomp dances. The Shawnee group got to see where their ancestor's homelands before removal to Indian Territory. Pictured are Talon Silverhorn (from left), Taryn Frantz, Mary Barnes, Steve Daugherty, Faithlyn King, Maliah Silverhorn, Brett Barnes and Chance Wallace.
Photo by Timothy E. Black and courtesy of the Newark Earthworks Center.