The Shawnee are easily the most unique of the peoples who inhabited the valley. Culturally, they are a total outlier. They diverge greatly from the shared common cultural practices outlined in the “Nations” introductory tab. 

Unlike the other nations associated with the Wyoming Valley, the Shawnee were a people that developed out of the Fort Ancient culture. Fort Ancient cultures were culturally connected individual tribes that existed in southern Indiana, southern Ohio, western West Virginia, and northern Kentucky between 1000 and 1700 CE. Fort Ancient cultures established maize agriculture in the region. In summers, they would rely on small scale farming in fixed villages, and in winter they would typically migrate into woodlands and rely on hunted game for subsistence. In the 15th century, Fort Ancient peoples started to settle in larger new settlements. As a result, clan systems developed in order to navigate their new socio-political environment. This clan system would carry over when the Shawnee emerged out of Fort Ancient society sometime in the 16th century. 

The term designating a clan in Shawnee society was m’shoma, translating as “name.” These clan names were patrilineal descent groups, meaning one’s heritage and family identity was passed down through the father. This is in contrast to most native peoples who had matrilineal societies. The Shawnee practiced exogamous marriage, meaning that you had to marry someone from outside your own clan. Thus, women would have to move to the clan of their husbands since heritage was determined by patrilineal descent. Each clan was thought to descend from a mythological ancestor, from which the m’shoma was derived. Further, the mythological ancestor of each m’shoma would have had a unique spiritual power that centered each clan. For example, if the clan’s m’shoma was derived from a mythological ancestor who was a skilled warrior, the clan would be known as leaders in war. Or, if the ancestor was a skilled diplomat, the clan would be leaders in diplomacy. The spiritual power of names did not end at clan names, however. One’s personal name would also endow them with spiritual gifts.

In addition to power from names, the Shawnee derived spiritual power from alliances – with other clans and with spirits. Alliances between clans had obvious spiritual benefits for the Shawnee. Combining the spiritual power of one m’shoma with the power of another would make it much easier to navigate the complexities and challenges of existence. Very simply, the more spiritual power, the better. 

The Shawnee believed that the world was full of manetowi, or spirits, and they sought to establish alliances with them. At around the time of puberty, young boys and girls would go on a hopawaaka, or vision quest, in which they would seek to find a guardian spirit that would bestow spiritual power upon the individual that would make them particularly skilled in a special area. One’s welfare and success in life relied heavily on one’s guardian spirit. Thus, the hopawaaka was a profoundly transformative experience that oriented one’s meaning and purpose in the world.

It is well established at this point that the Shawnee worldview was spiritually robust. However, there is one more element of their spiritual worldview that must be discussed. This element is that the Shawnee believed that their Creator spirit granted them the Ohio River Valley as their home. They did not merely settle it – it was gifted to them by God. Thus, their world was spiritually anchored. Their home took on deep meaning and spiritual significance. This leads to a very simple conclusion – things must have gotten so bad for the Shawnee to have left their homeland. And, that they did.

In order to understand the historical factors that led to the Shawnee abandoning their ancient homeland in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, an understanding of Shawnee political life must be understood.

Shawnee tribal leadership at the clan-level was held mainly by two positions known as hokima and neenawtooma. Hokimas can be understood as “peace chiefs.” They worked to establish positive alliances and political relationships with neighboring tribes and other clans. Neenawtoomas, on the other hand, can be understood as “war chiefs.” They were in charge of military affairs for the clan. For each male hokima and neenawtooma, there was a corresponding female. Despite these positions of authority in Shawnee society, the Shawnee made decisions communally and were an egalitarian society. It is within this context that their fateful decision to leave the Ohio River Valley must be understood.

When the Shawnee decided to leave the Ohio River Valley in the late 17th century, they spread far and wide. From the deep south to the Wyoming Valley. However, they maintained deep kinship networks, staying in contact with each other during their diaspora. Their decision to leave the Ohio River Valley was of course precipitated by the three major destabilizing factors – war, trade, and disease – but the decision was ultimately strategic. They decided that diaspora was the best means of survival in the changing world. Moving closer to trade networks and allies and taking advantage of the nation’s vast size gave them, they believed, the greatest chance of survival.

Those who came to the Wyoming Valley are a particularly interesting group. The Shawnee sought out Pennsylvania as a home, and were invited here on the recommendation of the Susquehannocks. They quickly established alliances with the other tribes in the Wyoming Valley, creating kinship networks and finding strength in numbers. One could imagine that their arrival was unique due to their sharp cultural differences and foreign language, but they quickly made themselves at home. The question that arises from their arrival is whether they somehow knew of the Wyoming Valley as a place of refuge. It seems that they might have. The Wyoming Valley at this point had a history of being a last refuge for peoples in tatters. Regardless, their arrival and settlement in the Wyoming Valley is tremendously important for it all but proves the hypothesis that the Wyoming Valley was a place of refuge.

Shawnee settlement of the Wyoming Valley was short lived. They would not submit to the will of the Iroquois, or anyone else for that matter. Eventually, the Shawnees would briefly return home to the Ohio River Valley. Thus, their stay in the Wyoming Valley was only 50 or so years at best (1680-1730). The Shawnee as a whole actually decided on a new strategy at this time. Rather than remaining dispersed, they now believed that reconvening in their traditional homeland was the best strategy for survival. And, for a while it was. The Shawnee returned home, bringing allies from the Wyoming Valley – particularly Delawares – with them. Interestingly, some of the most powerful Shawnee during this new period of unity were children and grandchildren of those who lived in the Wyoming Valley. For a couple decades they did fairly well back home, but it was not meant to last. By the 1830’s, the Shawnee and their allies were out west on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where many of the descendants of natives of not just the Shawnee, but also of the various other tribes, such as the Delawares, associated with the Wyoming Valley reside today.

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