“Our grandmother”, Kokomthema, is the Shawnee creative woman. In their book The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report that Kokomthema is:
“The female deity of the Shawnee people who gave them a code of laws and most of their major religious ceremonies.”
Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin also report:
“Kokomthema is believed to occasionally appear on earth to observe the performance of Shawnee religious ceremonies.”
Hunting was a vital part of Shawnee subsistence and religious rituals were an important part of hunting. In his book The Shawnees and the War for America, Colin Calloway writes:
“In the Shawnee world, humans and animals communicated, hunters dreamed where their prey was and offered prayers to animal spirits who gave their bodies so people could live.”
In order to maintain harmony between humans and animals, and between humans and plants, it was necessary to conduct certain rituals to maintain balance in the world.
Among the Shawnee, boys would go out into the woods to fast and seek a helping spirit at the age of 12-13. According to James Howard, in his book Shawnee! The ceremonialism of a Native American tribe and its cultural context:
“The spiritual helper gave the fastest one direction in one area, which was usually healing, and also promised help in years to come if the fastest invoked it in the proper way.”
The Shawnee were originally given their packages by Our Grandmother at the time of creation. Since that time, items have been added to the bundles. According to James Howard:
“Each of the sacred bundles is entrusted to the care of an appointed guardian, who is always a man and a person of high moral character.”
The bundle is kept in a separate structure from the goalkeeper’s home. James Howard also writes:
“Packages are treated like human beings, and it is believed that they can become cramped by resting too much in one position.”
Consequently, the position of the beams is regularly shifted.
The Bread Dance (Dakwanekawalisten)) is an important Shawnee ceremony that traditionally takes place in the spring and fall. It is the main event of the ceremonial year. The ceremony was given to the Shawnee by Our Grandmother who sometimes appears on earth to observe the ceremony and participate in the singing. According Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin:
“The ceremony usually consists of eight dance episodes, including a female Kokeki, or cluster dance, and a Wapikonekawe, or pumpkin dance, performed by both men and women.”
In spring, the role of women in the ceremony is predominant and this ceremony requires fertility and good harvests. In the fall, the men lead the dance and their role as hunters is highlighted. The spring dance asks for a bountiful harvest while the autumn dance expresses thanksgiving and asks for abundant game. Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:
“Twelve male hunters provide squirrels or other game while 12 female cooks prepare Shawnee cornbread. Food is displayed until the end of the ceremony where it is exchanged by men and women.
The Green Corn Dance took place in August and marked the first corn harvest. Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:
“Vegetables and other produce, along with a pot of corn soup, are displayed in the middle of the dance arena. As in the Bread Dance, 12 female dancers and 12 male dancers are selected to participate.
The women begin to dance after a prayer from the keeper of the deck and six sets of dances are performed alternately by women alone and by men and women dancing together. Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:
“After a final prayer, the exposed food is distributed. Social dances, considered an important part of the ceremonies because they please the Creator, take place during the night.
In his chapter on the Shawnee in the Handbook of the Indians of North America, Charles Callender reports:
“On this occasion, the people were absolved of wrongdoing, and all injuries, except murder, were forgiven.”
The green corn dance lasts from 4 to 12 days.
The Buffalo Dance was traditionally held in late August or early September. The dance was originally given to Tecumseh by the Buffalo, his guardian spirit. Two kettles of corn porridge were prepared for the dance as this dish was preferred by the buffalo. The ceremony included body painting and eight sets of dances performed by both men and women. The final element of the dance was a mock battle for mush, which was then eaten. Social dances often followed the ceremony.
The buffalo dance was conducted outside the ceremonial grounds used for other ceremonies because it did not come from Our grandmother.
The Ride-In and War Dance take place in August. This ceremony was born with Our Grandmother. It includes a ceremonial parade on horseback and a war dance. A sacred bundle is opened at a distance from the camp and is followed by an early morning parade on horseback around the camp. The ceremony includes songs, dances, ceremonial feasts and the recitation of battle honours.
The Shawnee Ritual Football Game is a sacred ritual consisting of a match played by men against women. It is a ritual that pleases Our Grandmother and the Thunderbirds. It also brings rain and fertile crops. In the game, males can move the buckskin ball stuffed with deer hair only with their feet, while females are allowed to carry it in their hands.
Among the prehistoric peoples of Fort Ancient, ancestors of the Shawnee and others, the dead were buried in tombs lined with stone slabs. Bodies were usually fully extended, but some were buried with knees bent. Graves were placed under the floors of houses or under mounds of earth. Mounds usually contain alternating layers of earth and bodies. In historic times, the Shawnees often buried the dead in a similar manner using stone slab graves.
Among the Shawnee, funeral rites generally lasted four days. The body was buried on its back in a prone position with its head facing west. Before the burial, friends and relatives dressed and painted the body. Before the grave was filled, friends and relatives sprinkled small amounts of tobacco on the body and asked the soul not to look back or think of those left behind.
The Shawnee also held an annual death party to honor the spirits of the deceased. This ceremony was not a public performance but a family ritual held at home. Food would be prepared and laid out on a table. A person would then be chosen to speak to the spirits. Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin report:
“In addition to telling them that they are fondly remembered and that food has been prepared in their honor, the speaker may request that they not disturb the living.”
The feast then remains on the table in a darkened room for several hours to allow the spirits to consume the spiritual essence of the food. When the family returns to the room, they can eat the food.
Learn more about the Native American religions in this series:
Indians 101: A Brief Overview of Pawnee Spirituality
Indians 201: A very brief overview of the Kiowa religion
Indians 101: The Southern Plains Vision Quest
Indians 101: Spirituality and Jimsonweed among California Indians
Indians 201: Wobziwob’s Ghost Dance
Indians 201: Peyote and the Native American Church
Indians 101: A Brief Introduction to Tribal Religious Traditions
Indians 101: A Very Brief Overview of Inuit Religions