Shawnee Legends

The Shawnee legends have a creation myth similar to other Algonquin creation myths in maintaining that the people who are now the Shawnees originated from a different world- an island balanced on the back of a giant turtle-and traveled to this one.

According to Shawnee myth, when the first people were on the island, they could see nothing but water, which they did not know how to cross. They prayed for aid and were miraculously transported across the water.

The Shawnees are the only Algonguin tribe whose creation story includes the passage of their ancestors over the sea, and for many years they held an annual sacrifice in thanks of the safe arrival of their ancestors to this country.

Shawnee legends are also unigue among the Alonquin peoples in believing their creator was a woman, who they called Inumsi Ilafewanu or “Kokumthena“, which means “Our Grandmother.” Kokumthena” is usually depicted as an anthropomorophic female with gray hair whose size ranges from gigantic to very small.

Anthropomorphic deities exhibit human qualities such as beauty, wisdom, and power, and sometimes human weaknesses such as greed, hatred, jealousy, and uncontrollable anger.

According to Shawnee legends, the idea of creation came from the “Supreme Being”, who is called “Moneto“, but the actual work of creation was performed by Kokumthena the “Great Spirit”, and she is the most important figure in Shawnee religion.

The Supreme Being of all things is Moneto, who rules Yalakuquakumigigi [the universe] and dispenses His blessings and favors to those who earn His good will, just as He brings unspeakable sorrow to those whose conduct merits His displeasure.

Monteo” is not to be mistaken for the “Great Spririt“, the ruler of destinies, who is subordinate to Him.

The “Great Spirit” lives in a home in the sky and, in addition to Shawnee and other Native American languages, she speaks her own non-shawnee language that can only be understood by children under age four- who begin to forget it as soon as they begin to learn Shawnee.

In addition to creating the world, Kokumthena will end it. Prophets who travel to the afterworld find her weaving a blanket called a skeemotah, but she has a wolf who unravels what she has done. Someday, however, she will complete her blanket, scoop up the virtuous to come live with her, and punish and destroy the wicked.

This belief in a female creator/destroyer probably surfaced in or after 1824, although it may have existed earlier, and there are mixed opinions among historians about the reasons behind the emergence of this belief.

Some believe that Kokumthena was inspired by a female diety of the Iroquis named Ataentsic, while another theory holds that the story of the Virgin Mary influenced the Shawnee myth.

In any case, the existing versions of the Kokumthena myth also contain warnings of a Great White Spirit who will try to change the creator’s designs and shorten the years of the Shawnees and warnings of a Great Serpent who will come from the seas and destroy the Shawnees.

According to Shawnee oral tradition, when the Shawnee first saw European ships, they recognized the forked ends of the Europeans’ pennants as symbols of the tongue of the serpent.

The Great Horned Serpent, which is always portrayed in cartoon style drawings, is a creature which is shared with other eastern tribes. The serpent lived in a lake. One day he wrapped himself around a large buck deer and took its head which he wore as a mask to fool his prey. This event was witnessed by two ravens.

Another variation of this Shawnee legend is that the creator was busy at work making the earth when he let a thought about himself escape. In doing this he gave the serpent an opportunity to harness this power and instill it into himself, making him very powerful.

When the creator realized this had happened he reached out toward the serpent and tried to recover this missing power.

In doing so he only managed to capture the head of the serpent and separate it from his body. The headless body managed to slither away and return to the lake.

Once there the serpent took the head of the deer to replace what he had lost. Shawnee elders say the serpent was killed and some of his flesh was carved off and is kept in the bundles of the five divisions. The flesh is still fresh and contains some energy stolen from the creator.

Shawnee legends also warned to stay away from hollow logs and holes in the ground because the spirit of the serpent may lurk there.

Another creature in Shawnee legends is the Misignwa. This spirit lives in the forest and protects the animals around it. Some northern tribes claim the spirit is what people call Big Foot. The Misignwa watches all hunters and if they are disrespectful or wasteful he will cause them to have an accident as punishment.

During the Bread Dance, the Shawnee have a man who dresses in a suit of bearskin, wearing a wooden mask and carrying a cane and turtle shell rattle to impersonate Misignwa. This impersonator will seek out children who are disruptive and frighten them, hence teaching them a valuable lesson.

Misignwa carvings were found on poles in the village plaza’s, in council houses and carved into pipes until the 19th century.

Shawnee tradition has three figures that control weather. Each of these was created by the Grandmother Spirit and was instucted not to cause harm to the Shawnee.

One of these is Cyclone Person, a female face with braids of hair that cause tornadoes. She is given great respect by the Shawnee for not harming them. The Shawnee are not afraid of these storms.

The second weather spirit which is actually four separate spirits is called the Four Winds. The Four Winds are often called upon to witness prayers, and they have colors associated with them.

The winds were told by Grandmother Spirit to respect all women and not to stare at them. Shawnee women will pull their skirts up to their waist to embarass the winds, thus causing clouds to retreat.

The third spirit and most well known are the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds cause storms when they fight with the Great Horned Serpent and other evil creatures. Lightening is caused by blinking their eyes.

The Shawnee believe that the Thunderbirds guard the entrance to heaven, and are honored by Kispoko during the war dance as the patrons of war.
Tales of the origin of the various divisions also exist.

The Piqua, whose name means “a man coming out of the ashes,” tell of an ancient fire that after burning out yielded a great puffing and blowing from which a man rose from the ashes.

Mequachake signifies the perfect man of the Great Spirit’s creation, and this is one reason for believing that the division was responsible for the priesthood.

The most important object in Shawnee religion was the sacred bundle, called ‘mishaami.’ Each tribe had its own bundle, which was believed to contain the welfare of not only the tribe but the entire universe.

People sometimes had their own personnal sacred bundles that protected them and enabled them to cast spells. The rituals, contents and history of the mishaami are considered sacred mysteries and are kept in secrecy even to this day.

According to Shawnee legend, all the mishaami were given to the Shawnees by “Kokumthena,” who can still control them and will inform a chosen prophet if she desires a change in either the contents of a bundle or a ritual surrounding a bundle.

A custodain – always a man. and one of very high moral character – was assigned to the mishaami by the chief.

The mishaami were consulted by the custodian whenever the tribe was considering a major move, and they were opened and their contents moved around before events such as battles in order to protect their outcome.

“The sun is my father; the earth my mother, who nourishes me, and on her bosom I will recline.”  ~Tecumseh, August 1810