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Shawnee Tribe

By Wendy Weitzel

When an Indiana landowner encountered human remains after breaking ground for his home expansion, he called the coroner’s office. When the coroner determined the remains to be ancient, he called the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. When the historic preservation office got news of the burial site, they called researchers at the University of Indiana.      

No one called the Shawnee.

The tribe discovered it six years later when findings from the site, which came to be known as the Meyer Site, were published online by the Indiana Archaeology Journal.

Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, first became familiar with the Meyer Site case after he was called in to help with Native American Graves and Repatriation Act consultations over its proceedings. He remembered many similar cases from his days of working in tribal historic preservation.

But this one, he said, had a particular impact on him.

“In one of the graves was a young lady, and she had some sort of syphilitic condition that caused a terrible bone disfigurement, so she wouldn't have been able to collect her own food or do anything for herself,” he said. “But when they did the osteology, they found out that she had this nearly perfect nutrition.”

“People were feeding her. They loved her. And here she was in testament, able to tell us about the community that she came from.”

The young woman’s grave exhibited religious markers still present in traditional Shawnee burials.

It was estimated to be 5,300 years old.

Barnes confessed to being conflicted about the discovery. On the one hand, things had been done to this ancestor without the tribe’s knowledge. But here was evidence that the love and the culture he associated with his community had survived for millenia.

While the Shawnee tribe is now headquartered in northeast Oklahoma, their ancestral homelands spanned more than 20 Eastern states. Barnes said it was no single pressure that brought the tribe to Oklahoma, but a series of intrusions, removals, allotments and divisions that should have made cultural preservation difficult.

The Shawnee Tribe’s website cites white encroachment as what initially pushed their ancestors westward into Ohio. From there, Spanish land grants pulled some Shawnee to what would become Missouri, then to Texas. Those who did remain in Ohio were removed to Kansas in 1830, or directly to Oklahoma in 1831.

The Shawnee came to Oklahoma from Kansas to become citizens of the Cherokee Nation following hostilities they faced during the Civil War. They would not gain their federal recognition as an independent tribe until 2000.

Though all the Shawnee groups would eventually end up in Oklahoma, the divisions the process sponsored became permanent.

There are three federally recognized Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma: the Eastern Shawnee, the Absentee Shawnee and, now, the Shawnee.

In recent decades, Barnes said, the three federally recognized Shawnee tribes have been developing a collaborative relationship with scholars, dignitaries and institutions in their ancestral homelands. Their goal has been to ensure that discoveries such as the Meyer Site Woman can continue to be made, but are made respectfully.

“The one thing that has come to my mind now that I find myself in a place where I can actually do something about it has been in recognizing the inherent human rights that indigenous people have, not just for ourselves, but for our ancestral remains that still lie in the ground and for our sacred places,” Barnes said.

“There's an inherent human right for us to be able to engage in those processes and to make sure that our voices and concerns are heard.”

Wendy Weitzel is a reporter with Gaylord News, a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.