Shawnee culture made many changes once they were introduced to european influence. Here is an overview of early Shawnee tribal customs and how they were changed by exposure to europeans.
Shawnee doctors had an excellent reputation and were reported to have performed feats that seemed almost magical. John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary, noted that a Shawnee woman in half an hour cured his injured finger that white doctors had been unable to remedy. He also said that missionary women often sought Shawnee women doctors to cure complaints “peculiar to their sex.”
Their surgeons excelled in the curing of external wounds that were beyond the skill of white practitioners. The uses of curative roots and herbs were known by virtually all the Shawnee. The Creek Indians had an almost mystical faith in Shawnee doctors and attributed to them powers only a little less than devine.
A belief in witches and the practice of withcraft were also part of Shawnee life. Incurable illnesses were often blamed on witches, and persons suspected of practicing witchcraft were put to death. Incisions were made in the one who was bewitched so as to extract the matter the witch had thrown into him.
Shawnee burial and funeral practices
Shawnee funeral services were usually lenghty vigils that included songs, ceremonial dances, and speeches recollecting and honoring the deceased’s life. Bodies of tribe members were always buried uncremated, most commonly in an east-west orientation, and great efforts were made to retrieve the corpses of warriors after battles, as it was considered highly disrespectful to leave a body unburied.
Shawnee burial practices changed very little throughout their history. Certain practices changed over time and varied among their divisions, but in many details Shawnee mortuary practices remained the same.
The body of the deceased was kept covered inside the dwelling for half a day after death; then it was prepared for burial by the blood kin.
The kin chose a funeral leader and two or three corpse handlers who also served as gravediggers. None of the gravediggers could be related to the deceased nor be of the same name group. The funeral rites lasted four days and included purification rites, burial addresses, feasts, vigils, and condolence ceremonies.
Graves were dug about four feet deep and had an east-west orientation. The interior of the grave was sometimes lined with stone slabs, but most references indicate that wood and bark were used. The body was wrapped in a skin or covered with bark. Poles were laid across the top of the grave, bark was laid over the poles, and the earth taken from the grave was piled over the bark covering. A grave house made of logs or bark was erected over the grave. No cemeteries existed prior to 1830; most graves were dug near the dwellings.
Shawnee dances and music
Shawnee music and dance were greatly influenced by the Cherokee and Creek. Most songs were sung as an accompaniment to a wide variety of social and ceremonial dances. The singing was largely a male activity and was comprised of steady rhythmic chanting at various tempos depending on the nature of the dance. Many of the dances are couples’ dances, but they begin with the men dancing in a circle and the women gradually entering, choosing a partner as they do. The women’s dance and the war dance are restricted to women and men respectively.
The war dance includes a series of solo performances with each dancer recounting his own exploits in song.
Songs and dances are accompanied by skin drums, gourd rattles, or both, depending on the dance. There are accounts of the use of reed flutes among the Shawnee, but apparently these were not used for the group songs and dances.
The seasons were marked by annual ceremonies. The first of these occured usually in April and was called the Bread Dance or the New Fire. The Bread Dance was held when the first green corn shoots appeared. The dance itself was preceded by a ceremonial ball game played between the men and women, and the twenty kernels of corn used in scoring were planted by one of the women chiefs, after which all the corn could be planted.
The Green Corn Festival occurred in the fall. For the festival, chanting shamans and warriors circled a cooking fire, carrying corn stalks. These first ears were boiled, removed from the pot, and tied to four tepee-like poles above the fire, as a sacred offering to the Great Spirit. The first ashes were buried, then a large new fire was kindled, cooking corn for the entire village to share in the ensuing feast and dance.
None of the Shawnee people were allowed to eat any corn, even from his own field, until the proper authority was given. When some corn was ready to be eaten, the one who had the authority announced the date for the Green Corn Ceremony and Dance.
On this occassion, great numbers of roasting ears were prepared, and all the people ate freely as they desired. After this feast, everyone could have what he wished from that particular field.
This was probably the most highly esteemed Peace Festival among the Shawnees and other corn-growing tribes. It is similar to the First Roots Festival and the First Berries Festival held annually by many tribes. The Green Corn Ceremony, probably borrowed from the Creek, was held by the Shawnee in August.