James H. Howard,
Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native American
Tribe & Its Cultural Background

(Ohio University Press, 1981)

The Shawnee are one of the least known of all the 500 Nations of Native Americans. Very few books have ever been written about them, and the ones that were written are often hard to find. A 1936 book is considered the most "modern account" on this tribe, and there has never been a book that went into great detail about Shawnee culture and ceremonialism. This makes Shawnee! a groundbreaker and a vital asset to the Native American studies programs throughout the country.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of in-depth study is the way the Shawnee kept getting kicked out of every place they settled. From Ohio to Savannah, Georgia to Pennsylvania and Texas to Indiana, they always managed to get the boot. They also always managed to get crossways with their neighbors, often openly declaring war.

Because of all this moving around, the greatest controversy pertaining to the Shawnee is over their original territory. Authorities cannot decide if they should be categorized as Northeastern, Midwestern, Southeastern or Central. This is just the first of many such controversies.

Another claim to fame for the Shawnee is that they were one of the most "conservative" of the Native Americans with their ceremonies. They believed in keeping it simple and lived the motto of "all things in moderation" (except fighting). Not surprising, since they got run out of every area before having extensive contact, their religion and cosmology beliefs have changed the least of all tribes and are relatively the same as pre-contact with the whites.

The greatest difference of all between the Shawnees and other Native Americans is they readily admit that their ancestors "crossed the seas." Although they do not know where their ancestors came from or when they first arrived in North America, they are certain they came from someplace else. The tribe traditionally held an annual sacrifice for their ancestors' safe arrival in this land, which has only recently been discontinued.

Since the Shawnees are so different, this book had to be different. Of all the Native American books I have read, this one is the most extensive. It is huge. There are 454 pages, but that number is misleading. When the author includes quotes or a transcription, for example the origin legend told by the Shawnee Prophet, he uses a tiny font, packing twice as many lines onto a page. This makes the quotations readily identifiable, but a bit hard on the eyes.

There is a knockout photo and illustration section at the back that includes 63 pages. The captions are often lengthy and highly detailed. The reference section is equally impressive. There is a Shawnee music appendix with sheet music and vocabels for 14 songs. James Howard has been exceptionally thorough! This is easily the most complete study of any tribe I have found. Of course, he had great material for originality when he selected the most controversial of the tribes.

This book reads more like fiction than a cultural study. There is action, drama, suspense, mystery, folklore, fantasy and even humor. I wish all anthropologists wrote like this. Learning would be so much fun.

review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

7 June 2008

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