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The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600â?"1870
By Sami Lakomäki
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
"The Greatest Travellers in America"
The Shawnee Diaspora, 1600–1725
"They are Stout, Bold, Cunning, and the greatest Travellers in America."
Thus Edmond Atkin, a seasoned British Indian trader and the future superintendent of Indian affairs, described Shawnees in 1754. Like other colonists, Atkin was baffled by the Shawnees. Since the late seventeenth century, seemingly countless bands of these people had crisscrossed the eastern third of North America, turning up now on the lower Mississippi River, next in Charles Town, Carolina, then on the streets of Albany, New York. Equally baffled by such mobility and dispersal, generations of subsequent scholars condemned the "sudden appearances and disappearances" of the Shawnees as "very obscure." More recently, historians have come to understand that the Shawnees' fragmentation and mobility were emblematic of a whole world set in motion by the immense demographic, political, and economic changes that shook North America during the seventeenth century. Scholars now conceptualize the dispersal of the Shawnees as a diaspora, a forced scattering of a people from ancestral homelands. In the seventeenth century epidemic disease, slave raiding, and globalizing economic networks spread across eastern North America with European explorers, traders, and settlers. These upheavals transformed the region into a "shatter zone," a violent and unstable territory characterized by warfare, depopulation, displacement, and community fragmentation. The diaspora of the Shawnees was a strategy for survival in this chaos, for escaping violence and exploiting new trading opportunities. It was based on Shawnee ideas and networks of alliance, kinship, and community, but the diaspora also transformed those ideas and networks. By the 1720s some Shawnees had learned to regard a mobile life within multiethnic networks of kin and allies as the normal way of life. Others concluded that dispersal was dangerous and began seeking unity and permanent homelands.
It all began, the Shawnee elders always knew, in the Upper World above the Sky.
According to Shawnee oral histories recorded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Creator, Meteelemelakwe, made the ancestors of twelve Shawnee divisions in the Upper World, a place of great spiritual power and sacred harmony. Meteelemelakwe then lowered these first people down to the Earth in a basket and taught each division a set of sacred songs that gave the group unique spiritual power and a distinct identity. Once these Shawnee ancestors were on the Earth, the Creator instructed them "to go to Shawnee river, which was the centre of this Island." Thus began a series of epic migrations. Setting out in "a northern direction," the diverse Shawnee divisions crossed oceans and rivers and fought Underworld monsters and hostile peoples. Along the way they allied with one another and gradually formed a powerful confederacy that pushed human and nonhuman enemies out of its way. When they finally reached their promised land at the center of the island Earth, Meteelemelakwe visited them and declared that "they should thenceforth be called Shauwonoa." A new people had been born.
While Shawnees have always known their own origins, historians and archaeologists have remained more puzzled. In general, archaeological and documentary evidence, like oral histories, points to the importance of migrations and alliances in the emergence of the people called Shawnees. By the eighteenth century the Shawnee people consisted of five "divisions": the Chalaakaathas, Mekoches, Pekowis, Kishpokos, and Thawikilas. These groups spoke closely related dialects of the same language and shared largely similar culture, yet they were often scattered geographically and divided politically. Most scholars assume that the divisions were originally separate groups that had joined together into a confederacy and acquired a collective identity as Shawnees. But exactly when, where, and why this happened remains poorly understood. The difficulty in answering these questions is rooted in the nature of the archaeological and documentary materials at our disposal. Although scholars commonly speak of "archaeological cultures," the term refers merely to roughly contemporaneous archaeological sites that share a similar assemblage of material remains, consisting of, for example, potsherds, discarded tools, and abandoned dwelling structures. What such similarities in material culture may have meant in terms of ethnicity, politics, or language is often difficult to say. Connecting postcontact Native ethnicities to precontact archaeological cultures is therefore always challenging. The widespread diaspora of the Shawnees in the late seventeenth century compounds this problem. Because few Europeans met Shawnees before the 1670s, colonial texts and maps offer no detailed information on their exact locations before they were already scattering throughout the East from wherever their homes had been.
On the basis of studies of ceramic styles, linguistic connections, oral histories, and seventeenth-century documents, most archaeologists nevertheless believe that the majority of the postcontact Shawnees descended from some of the numerous precontact communities in the central Ohio Valley known as Fort Ancient cultures. The connection between Shawnees and Fort Ancient peoples is complex. "Fort Ancient cultures" is a scholarly shorthand for dozens of diverse farming societies that flourished in the region stretching from southern Indiana to West Virginia between 1000 and 1700 CE. While the people living in this area shared some similarities in pottery styles, architecture, and clothing, many regional and temporal differences in their material cultures suggest that several different ethnic and linguistic groups lived in the Fort Ancient territory. Therefore, it is likely that the descendants of the Fort Ancient peoples included many historically known Native groups in addition to the Shawnees. These probably included some Central Algonquian speakers related to the Shawnees, as well as unrelated Siouans and Iroquoians. Furthermore, some Shawnees may have originated elsewhere. The dialects of the five postcontact Shawnee divisions were so closely related that these groups must have shared a common background of considerable time depth. Other cultural differences, for example in ritual cycles, nevertheless suggest that all divisions may not have shared the same origins. Seventeenth-century French documents often place some Shawnee communities on the lower Ohio and the Cumberland River, known as the Shawnee River well into the eighteenth century. Quite likely, the postcontact Shawnees represented a coalition of various precontact populations from the central and lower Ohio and the Cumberland.
In order to understand how these diverse peoples coalesced together it is essential to explore the development of the Late Fort Ancient communities after 1400 CE. Although all Shawnees did not necessarily descend from Fort Ancient populations, it was the complex political and social processes in these communities that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Shawnee people, the politics in early Shawnee towns, and the strategies the Shawnees espoused when the Columbian encounter transformed eastern North America into a hotbed of violence, migration, and population decline. The Fort Ancient cultures first emerged around 1000 CE, when small hunter-gatherer-farmer communities throughout the central Ohio Valley added maize agriculture to their traditional livelihoods. Taking full advantage of a warm climatic period known as the Medieval Warm Period, they developed an efficient, if precarious, economic system that combined several subsistence pursuits. During summers the Fort Ancient peoples lived in small villages in river valleys where women farmed maize, squash, and beans; during winters the villagers dispersed in small family and kin groups to upland woods where men hunted deer and other game. For much of the year gathering and fishing supplemented the diet.
The fifteenth century witnessed the beginnings of several social, political, and ecological transformations in the Fort Ancient territory that gradually led to the emergence of the Shawnee people over the following two centuries. Most importantly, population distribution and settlement patterns underwent a radical transformation. Before about 1400, dozens of small Fort Ancient communities had been scattered evenly over a wide area extending up to sixty miles from the Ohio on both sides of the river. During the fifteenth century, however, the population concentrated on a drastically circumscribed region that lay within a radius of a mere twelve miles from the Ohio. In the process the numerous small villages amalgamated into a handful of larger towns, with populations varying from one hundred to five hundred people. The causes behind these changes are not clear. The transformation may have been prompted by the onset of cooler and moister climatic conditions, known as the Little Ice Age, which forced people to concentrate on prime agricultural lands close to the Ohio River. The reconfiguration of the Fort Ancient settlements was also almost certainly connected to similar demographic and social changes across eastern North America. Throughout the East communities that previously had been distributed evenly across the landscape concentrated now into smaller, densely populated centers separated by large uninhabited areas. It is possible that deteriorating climatic conditions over the entire region sparked conflicts over land and resources, forcing small villages to band together for security. The palisades around some Late Fort Ancient towns and many contemporary settlements elsewhere in eastern North America point to this direction. However, archaeological records also offer abundant evidence of increasing peaceful exchange between the population centers across the East. Large communities established close to important trade routes, such as the Ohio River, were certainly better positioned to benefit from this exchange than scattered villages. The consolidation of the Fort Ancient populations and communities was, then, intimately connected to major transformations in broader regional networks of warfare, diplomacy, and trade.
When previously separate peoples gather together to form new settlements, they face the daunting task of transforming a collection of strangers into a viable community. They must construct new social ties and symbols to bind them together, rethink their loyalties and relations of authority, and create shared identities. When the Fort Ancient villagers gathered into the new, big towns in the fifteenth century, they accomplished many of these tasks through the creative use of one important traditional social institution: the clan system. Anthropologists define a clan as a kin group whose members believe that they descend from a common ancestor, even though they may not know the exact genealogical relations between all clan members. Clan membership is inherited either through the father (patrilineally) or through the mother (matrilineally). Anthropological studies of clan societies across the globe demonstrate that clans constitute an efficient way of organizing large numbers of people and regulating their interaction.
Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that some Fort Ancient villagers and even their ancestors had been organized into clans or similar kin groups long before the fifteenth century. When Fort Ancient villages amalgamated into larger towns, clans took a more prominent role in structuring social, political, and economic life in the new communities. This can be seen most powerfully in the changes in the Fort Ancient household architecture. After the fifteenth century small, single-family dwellings common in earlier Fort Ancient villages were replaced by much larger, rectangular longhouses. With floor spaces varying from approximately 680 to 2,100 square feet, these dwellings housed an estimated thirteen to thirty-three people. Such a group probably formed a clan segment or an extended family. Houses in a town were often grouped in distinct clusters, suggesting that related families, possibly belonging to the same clan, settled near one another. The strength of kinship and clan identities were also demonstrated through mortuary ritual. In some settlements the deceased were buried under or near the house where their relatives continued to live. Other towns had communal cemeteries that were divided into distinct, probably clan-based sections. Clans further solidified their importance by adopting a new food storage system, as people living in the same household began digging deep storage pits under their homes. Large amounts of corn could be preserved in these pits for long periods, which strengthened the self-sufficiency and independence of households and, by extension, clans.
It is always risky to extend information on postcontact Native cultural patterns back into precontact times. Nevertheless, the picture of the Late Fort Ancient clans that emerges from archaeology bears a close resemblance to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Shawnee and other Central Algonquian clans. In the eighteenth century the social life of Shawnees and other Central Algonquians revolved around clans. Known as m'shoma, or "name," in Shawnee, these were patrilineal and exogamous descent groups; that is, an individual always belonged to her or his father's clan and had to marry a person from a different clan. Each Shawnee m'shoma was believed to descend from a mythical ancestor who had given the group its name. From the ancestor a clan derived unique spiritual power, also called m'shoma, that gave the clan special potency in a specific field of life. The Turkey and Turtle clans, for example, were believed to possess power over the fertility of the earth. Individual members of a clan received a share of their group's m'shoma power through their personal names, which were connected to the clan eponym.
Clan membership greatly shaped both social life and individual identity among the postcontact Shawnees. In 1753 one Shawnee explained: "We are distributed by different names, the Cow, the Bear, the Buffaloe. There are also Wolf Shavanahs and other Names given us." The postcontact clans were political as well as spiritual units. According to one early-nineteenth-century Native description, each m'shoma had its own leadership and various political officials. Every clan had a hokima, a male civil or peace chief, who represented his kin group to outsiders in communal and international affairs and fostered good relations between his m'shoma and other people. Most clans also had a neenawtooma, a male war leader, whose duty was to defend his kinspeople against threatening outsiders. Side by side with these male officials worked corresponding female ones, the Peace Woman and the War Woman. Known as hokima wiikwes, or "chief women," these influential women oversaw the agricultural work of their m'shoma, organized planting and harvest rituals, and participated in decision-making concerning war and peace. Well into the nineteenth century Shawnee leaders stressed that their authority was embedded in kinship relations and portrayed themselves as m'shoma leaders. Typically, a hokima or a neenawtooma, for example, signed a treaty with Europeans with the picture of his clan eponym. This suggests that leaders conceptualized themselves first and foremost as spokespeople of their clan members. We cannot know how far such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century information is applicable to the Fort Ancient clans. In all likelihood the postcontact Shawnee m'shomas had deep precontact roots, and the Fort Ancient clans were at least roughly similar spiritual and political units.
Excerpted from Gathering Together by Sami Lakomäki. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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