Posted: December 2nd, 2013
18th Century Shawnee Material Culture
Thousands of years before Christopher Columbus discovered America, the area was occupied by Native Americans. It is estimated that, by the advent of the 15th century, there were already 50 million people living in the region. These Native communities comprised of people from different tribes. Among the tribes were the Shawnee of North America. They are an autonomous Algonquian speaking group of Native Americans. They historically inhabited the regions of present day Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Western Maryland and Indiana. In the 18th Century, the Shawnee engaged in various events and activities that marked their culture and traditions. Their historical background was reflected through various materials that represented their culture.
The Shawnee used their culture to express various customs and traditions. Initially, they did not wear any clothes. However, over time and the onset of the 18th century they had already started adorning different attires. Attire was used to show the social differences among the Shawnee people. Men were distinguished form women through attire. In addition, social divisions were based on sex. Therefore, sex formed the basis for division of labor, social roles and attire. Traditionally, Shawnee men used to wear breechclouts (breechcloths) (Bial, 89). This rectangular part piece of cloth or hide was tucked over a belt so that flaps automatically fell down on the behind and front. Some also wore fur trousers and kilts. On the hand, women wore skirts coupled with leggings. The length and material of the skirt also varied. They did not wear long headdresses.
Attire was used as a form of distinction for the variations that existed among the Shawnee’s. The distinctions also included class as men and women who were from the upper class adorned different outfits from the commoners. For instance, they wore high quality clothing that was made from quality and valuable material. The designs were also made to suit their particular needs. The chief of the Shawnee was the supreme leader and ultimate decision maker. As a symbol of his authority, he wore a specific outfit that distinguished him within the community. He wore a distinct headdress that comprised of various elements. These included; animal skin particularly that of a deer with antlers, red ochre, eagle feathers and porcupine quills. These stylistic elements indicated the rich cultural aspect of the Shawnee in relation to birds and animals. Warriors also had their particular attire that consisted of special war shirts. Sometimes the warriors would also maintain their long hair or shave the Mohawk style. Both men and women wore Moccasins (Waldman, 79). They also wore ponchos during periods of cold weather.
Clothes were also dressed to suit the occasion. The division of labor system allowed men to carry out labor activities such as fishing, trapping, hunting and warfare. These activities were undertaken with different attires such as fur trousers. During warfare, the warriors had a designated outfit. The women were left at home to attend to domestic issues such as child rearing and cooking. Therefore, they wore simple outfits such as woven skirts. The Shawnees also marked major events through feast and occasions. These events were observed with specific attires. After war, the warriors were welcomed by traditional dancers dressed in special dancing skirts. They also adopted different styles of clothing as they migrated and interacted with other Indian communities.
The skirts were also painted to signify the importance of the occasion. Attires were also set aside for marriage and harvest ceremonies. The women of the community also tanned the leather that was used to make clothes for their husbands and sons. Painting different attires was used to express the customs related to the event. These events also allowed the Shawnees to paint designs onto their bodies. These designs were drawn to relate to the significant event. For instance, the warriors painted their faces when they were going to war. Feasts and celebratory activities allowed the people to express their patriotism through paintings of various designs. In addition, people also showed their loyalty by wearing tribal tattoos (Hightower-Langston, 154).
The Shawnee people lived as a group living in small circular dwellings. These houses were called Wikkums (also Wigwams). The Wikkums were used as centers for parents and elders to pass down their culture to the younger generation. The families occupied villages that included a bigger council house that was built form wood. In addition, they also had main houses, Seminoles and lodges. Lodges were small rectangular houses that were made of sticks, wood and bark. The villages were well protected with a round wall. This was to secure the community from wild animals and invasion form neighboring communities. This also signifies the warring culture that was dominant among the Native Indian Communities in the 18th century. Wigwams were also suitable as people settled in them during the farming season. However, during the winter season, family groups would reallocate to their hunting camps. Therefore, wigwams were built every year to set up hunting camps.
Food formed a symbolic aspect of the Shawnee culture. Because of their hunting culture, they primarily ate game meat. The men would leave their households to hunt game animals. These animals were elk, deer, raccoons, and turkeys. In addition, other animals were also hunted such as squirrels, beavers and several small game animals. Hunting was carried out throughout the year. The most significant source of food was considered the white-tailed deer. The meat was highly valued and could not miss a single social event or feast. Archeological evidence also shows that close to 89 percent of the inhabitant’s meat was deer meat. In addition, the deer antlers were placed in the paramount chief’s headdress. They also carried out fishing and gathered fresh water clams. The fish would correspond with the spring spawning runs. Seasonal variety was included to their diet with wild plant foods from the forest (Bragdon, 122).
Beadwork was one of the major cottage industries among the Shawnee. The beads signified their diversity and artistry. The beads were made form shells and other raw materials. Different colors of shells were used in order to enrich the jewelry. The main colors used in jewelry making were white and purple. These were the colors of the shells. This type of jewelry was called Wampum. These beads were an invaluable cultural material. They composed of unique designs and materials. The beads and jewelry were also incorporated in to items such as dresses and skirts. People especially women in the community wore the jewelry with their outfits during occasions such as weddings and other important feasts. Wampum belts also explained an individual’s story or were a representation of a person’s family. The sets of jewelry were also used as sources of finance during trade with external communities. They also made green soapstone smoking pipes and conch shell gorgets.
The Shawnees are also popularly known for their woodcarving and pottery. The Shawnee carved small figures such as animal, human and other supernatural shapes (Clark, 78). These objects served as symbols for the traditional myths and narratives. The Shawnee believed in a supreme being known as Moneto. Therefore, they were a spiritual community. Sculptors would make objects that would echo their spiritual inclination. The sculptors would creatively make objects from tree roots. Some of the most significant works of art among the Shawnee crafts are bowls and east carved staffs (Kuiper, 123). They also made elaborate masks from wood.
The masks would be used during a wide array of cultural celebrations in song and dance. This was fundamental as most feasts marked by the Shawnee people were done through song and dance. The masks would therefore be made to suit the occasion inclusive of religious ceremonies. The items made by the sculptors were also used to trade with other communities and white settlers. This allowed the Shawnee’s to share their culture. In addition, the masks were placed as symbols of divinity, customs and political authority and supremacy. Pottery was also undertaken by the women. The pots would also be composed of various drawings that were embedded in their culture.
The Shawnee also had objects that uniquely identified them and their culture. These objects include warfare objects and artistic drawings. The Shawnee similar to other Indian communities in the American region were continuously engaged in periods of warfare. Their culture manifested in the war implements they used. They made war clubs, scrimshawed power horns and dug outs. These implements made them achieve success during attacks. The artists also made simple drawings. Their drawings were an indication of their love and value for nature. These drawings constituted animals, birds, physical features and people.
In conclusion, the Shawnee are a community that is rich in tradition and culture. The culture is further manifested in the material aspect that connects them to their customs. Their 18th century culture has been carried forward to the contemporary world. However, the Shawnee people have adopted and incorporated other communities’ cultures because of numerous interactions. Currently, the Shawnee population is estimated at 14,000. However, their material culture can be found in various heritage sites and museums.
Bial, Raymond. The Shawnee. New York: Benchmark Books, 2004. Print.
Bragdon, Kathleen. The Columbia Guide to American Indians of the Northeast. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Print.
Clark, Jerry. The Shawnee. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. Print.
Hightower-Langston, Donna. The Native American World. Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley, 2003. Print.
Kuiper, Kathleen. Native American Culture. New York, N.Y: Britannica Educational Pub. /Rosen Educational Services, 2011. Print.
Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Checkmark Books, 2006. Print.
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