The seasons were marked by annual ceremonies. The first of these occured usually in April and was called the Bread Dance or the New Fire. The Bread Dance was held when the first green corn shoots appeared. The dance itself was preceded by a ceremonial ball game played between the men and women, and the twenty kernels of corn used in scoring were planted by one of the women chiefs, after which all the corn could be planted.
The Green Corn Festival occurred in the fall. For the festival, chanting shamans and warriors circled a cooking fire, carrying corn stalks. These first ears were boiled, removed from the pot, and tied to four tepee-like poles above the fire, as a sacred offering to the Great Spirit. The first ashes were buried, then a large new fire was kindled, cooking corn for the entire village to share in the ensuing feast and dance.
No one of the Shawnee people was allowed to eat any corn, even from his own field, until the proper authority was given. When some corn was ready to be eaten, the one who had the authority announced the date for the Green Corn Ceremony and Dance.
On this occassion, great numbers of roasting ears were prepared, and all the people ate freely as they desired. After this feast, everyone could have what he wished from that particular field.
This was probably the most highly esteemed Peace Festival among the Shawnees and other corn-growing tribes. It is similar to the First Roots Festival and the First Berries Festival held annually by many tribes. The Green Corn Ceremony, probably borrowed from the Creek, was held by the Shawnee in August
Next to migration, nothing about the Shawnee is so obvious as their conservatism. The reasons for this conservatism are not entirely clear. The historian Clark Wissler argued the Shawnee never stayed in intimate contact with other tribal groups over sufficiently long periods of time for much diffusion to have taken place between them and their neighbors. Erminie Voegelin extends this, saying they became aloof to all of them. Perhaps their extensive contacts with other Indian groups and with Europeans did help to stabilize native customs. But aloof they were not, for they freely borrowed material items such as guns, metal cookware, and clothing from the Europeans. The variety of their music indicates that the Shawnee borrowed and exchanged musical material wherever they went. Their conservatism was expressed in the very basic aspects of their subsistence. Thus, Shawnee conservatism was demonstrated not in their material trappings, but in the less observable but more important features of their society that were basic to their way of life.
Writing in 1908, folklorist Joab Spencer said of them: "The Shawnee cling to their old customs, seemingly more reluctant to abandon their ancient rites than any other civilized tribe. They regard their religious ceremonies of much importance." Their resistance to the influence of Christian missionaries was remakable. The Moravians, who had such success with the Delaware, made few converts of the Shawnee. J. P. King, a Moravian missionary on the White River in Indiana, mentioned that "the few Shawnee who lived there were for the most part so carried away with their heathen teachers, that they did not want to hear anything [from the missionaries] of their [the heathen teachers'] foolish teaching." They also distrusted the Moravians' own religious teachings. Another missionary, David Jones, was driven put of Chillicothe in 1773 when he attempted to establish a mission among the Shawnee there. In an interesting account of a discussion between "the Count" (presumably the Moravian Count Zinzendorf ) and Kakowathekey, a Shawnee chief, the latter told the count that he believed in a God who had created the Indians as well as the Europeans, but, he said, the white man prayed with words, while the Shawnee prayed with their heart for which God respected the Indians; in fact, there was not much to the Europeans' prayer anyway - - they were for the most part bad people.
Even when the Shawnee allowed missions to be established, they were reluctant to accept Christianity. The Friends succeeded in building a mission at Wapakoneta, Ohio, largely because the Quakers supported the Shawnee in their struggle against white encroachment and fraudulent land claims. For this the Shawnee accepted the mission and certain trappings of "civilization." But the Quakers had little success in converting them to Christianity.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, Thomas Wildcat Alford, one of the first Shawnee educated in white schools, reflected on the difficulties he experienced. The people of his own village, including his parents, strongly opposed his going away to a "white man's school," for fear that he would adopt the white man's religion and ways. When he returned to establish a school, he was rejected and instead established a school among the Cherokee.
The Shawnee managed to withstand innovation in their religious ceremonies, and additions to their activities had little stability unless they fit into already established frames of reference. One aspect of their religion showing remarkable stablity was their burial practice. While some southeastern tribes borrowed several customs from the Shawnee, few southeastern burial practices were adopted by the Shawnee.
Economic organization and subsistence also reflect the conservatism of the Shawnee. Farming, although practiced and ceremonially important, was not as highly esteemed as hunting and did not dominate the economic and social organization in the way that hunting did. Seldom were enough corn and other garden products raised to supply the Shawnee year round. In the 1830's many Shawnee were still living as they had in the past, in groups that shifted seasonally from a summer village to a winter camp. Even after the Shawnee moved west of the Mississippi, hunting and trapping formed one of their major economic pursuits. Between 1835 and 1867 one group of Shawnee kept moving ahead of the frontier settlements into regions where trading posts were far apart and buckskins were available for moccasins, leggings, breech clouts, and hunting shirts. While other eastern tribes settled to agricultural pursuits, the Shawnee maintained their small, family hunting organization.
Joab Spencer said: "Of all the Indian languages I ever heard, that of the Shawnees was most expressive, stately, eloquent and beautiful. They have a folk-lore beauty and value." The retention of their language and folklore is remarkable, considering their dispersed locations and contacts with other languages and cultures. Even after extensive contact with the Creek Indians in Alabama, the Shawnee, unlike other tribes associated with the Creek confederacy, retained their own language and customs.
Given their penchant for conservatism, it is perhapes difficult to understand how the Shawnee were dependent upon other political and cultural groups for the maintenance of their cultural patterns. It would seem at first glance, that the Shawnee could have been completely self-sufficient and would have undoubtedly preferred such a situation. But they, like all other American Indians, grew increasingly dependent upon European trade. There are some important aspects of this dependency which are relevant to Shawnee culture and conservatism.
A major aspect of this trade dependency related to the survival of the Shawnee or any other tribe. With the introduction of more efficient weapons and the adoption (particularly by the Iroquois) of the European methods of warfare, wars of annihilation were possible. Lacking means of manufacture, the various tribes were dependent upon Europeans to supply these instruments, for without them the survival of the group was in serious jeopardy. The Shawnee were quick to see this and in fact were often in possession of weapons superior to those of their neighbors.
To procure these goods, pelts and skins were needed, and the latter could be more effectively obtained with guns and traps than with the traditional bow and arrow. This rationale fit neatly with the Shawnee emphasis on hunting but also created a cycle from which it was impossible to escape. Since hunting was the dominant and favored subsistence activity of the Shawnee, the increasing interest in skins, by other tribes as well as the Shawnee, tended to deplete sources of game and required a more efficient method of procuring game over greater distances. Thus to retain their village band hunting pattern the Shawnee relied even more on the guns and powder supplied by European traders.
Without a homeland to call their own the Shawnee were also dependent upon other tribes or political units to allow them to settle in a particular area and still keep their own conservative cultural patterns. This required permission to settle and hunt in a territory, and for this the Shawnee were often required to perform some service for the people upon whom they were dependent. As these requirements increased and began to threaten their way of life, the Shawnee moved to another locale where such pressures were felt to be less demanding. This was particularly true in regard to the relationships the Shawnee had with the Iroquois and the white government. Other groups such as the Creek, Delaware, and Miami made few demands, except for mutual defense, and posed little threat to the Shawnee culture.