The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America

The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America

The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America

The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America

Synopsis

In 1779, Shawnees from Chillicothe, a community in the Ohio country, told the British, "We have always been the frontier." Their statement challenges an oft-held belief that American Indians derive their unique identities from longstanding ties to native lands. By tracking Shawnee people and migrations from 1400 to 1754, Stephen Warren illustrates how Shawnees made a life for themselves at the crossroads of empires and competing tribes, embracing mobility and often moving willingly toward violent borderlands. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Shawnees ranged over the eastern half of North America and used their knowledge to foster notions of pan-Indian identity that shaped relations between Native Americans and settlers in the revolutionary era and beyond.
Warren's deft analysis makes clear that Shawnees were not anomalous among Native peoples east of the Mississippi. Through migration, they and their neighbors adapted to disease, warfare, and dislocation by interacting with colonizers as slavers, mercenaries, guides, and traders. These adaptations enabled them to preserve their cultural identities and resist coalescence without forsaking their linguistic and religious traditions.

Excerpt

Viola Dushane’s decaying homesite sits on a wooded rise above the Quapaw powwow grounds, near the Spring River, in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. Here the dense oak and hickory forests of the Ozark Mountain foothills descend to the river’s eastern banks. To the west of the allotment—a small parcel of family-owned land held in trust by the federal government after it dissolved the Quapaw reservation—wide-open spaces and vast herds of cattle dominate the landscape. This is where the Eastern Woodlands end and where two of the three distinct Shawnee tribes arrived after centuries of coexistence and conflict with colonizers and other Indian tribes. Some of them were willing travelers; others were forcibly removed to the unfamiliar tablelands of the West. What these Shawnees had in common was a long history of migration and adaptation. Shawnees had been moving along and reinventing themselves for so many generations that it became part of their collective consciousness. Their ability to survive and prosper while on the move perplexed observers during the colonial period and confuses scholars even today. But their ability to retain what it means to be Shawnee while becoming “the Greatest Travellers in America” became an essential aspect of their culture and the key to surviving and prospering against all odds.

I walked the land late one winter’s day with several Shawnee friends of mine, including Viola’s grandchildren, Joel and Ben Barnes. We were fortunate to be visiting the home place before pahkhahquayyah, the time of year when the forest canopy comes in and the woods become dark. the outlines of the Spring River Baptist Church, where Shawnees, Quapaws, Delawares, and other tribes worshipped a Christian God, at the site of the Quapaw Agency, were barely visible from the crumbling foundation of Viola’s home. It had been fifty years since Viola and her Shawnee, Delaware, and Quapaw relatives had actively kept the forest at bay.

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