The Absentee Shawnee Tribe

When in the early stages of planning Tecumseh!, one of the first things that local businessmen Herb Friedman and Albert Heierman did was to reach out to Arthur Rolette, Chief of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, and a direct descendant of Tecumseh.   They wanted the tribes blessing.  What they got was much more.  Chief Rolette became a key figure.  He provided traditional Shawnee sign language, pronunciation of Shawnee words and phrases, insights into dress, ceremonies and dances.  Perhaps most important and scared, Rolette was one of only three people alive at the time who knew the Wolf Chant, which you see on our stage every night.

Myrl Shoemaker & Arthur Rolette, opening night 1973.

Mr. Rolette was extremely proud to be considered a founder of our show.  He and his wife, Pearl, continued to support the show until their deaths.  At the end of the opening night performance, he said “The end of the show says Tecumseh will come again.  With this show, I believe he has!”

Rolette assembled approx. 12 direct descendants of Tecumseh to consult on the show.  All of them were there on the first opening night in 1973 to bless the stage and pray for the show.  Tecumseh’s story is their story, and we continue to consult with the tribe to this day, continuing a relationship for over half a century.

The Absentee Shawnee Tribe is known to have lived in the Eastern United States, and it has been documented that they traveled from Canada to Florida, from the Mississippi River to the East Coast before being removed to the area which they now occupy. Originally, the Shawnee Indians lived in the northeastern parts of the United States in areas now known as the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and neighboring states. Treaties in the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s established the Shawnee as having a large population and land holdings in the state of Ohio. They are considered a “Woodland Tribe” that speaks the Algonquian dialect as do others tribes such as the Ojibwe, Sac & Fox, and Kickapoo. Today, there are three federally-recognized tribes of the Shawnee People: the Absentee-Shawnee, the (Loyal) Shawnee, and the Eastern Shawnee.

In the late 1700’s, few Shawnee groups migrated westward into Missouri and Arkansas to avoid colonial encroachment. And by 1832, the United States Government removed remaining Shawnees in the Ohio River Valley and other surrounding areas into Kansas. The Absentee Shawnee Tribe gained their “absentee” distinction because their groups were not present at the signing of the 1854 treaty for a Kansas Reservation. Instead of settling on surplus lands in Kansas, these Absentee Shawnees had opted to migrate into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) or Mexico territory (Texas).

In the late 1800’s, after living a decade in areas between the Deep Fork River and the North Canadian River, a federal Indian Agent instigated military escort that removed these Absentee Shawnee groups to a new area near Hog Creek and Little River. Here, in what was called the Big Jim Settlement, modern day Absentee Shawnee families still remain today, and are collectively known as Big Jim Band. This settlement would later become known as the Little Axe area located in Cleveland County (east of Norman, Oklahoma.) Another band of Absentee Shawnee settled in Pottawatomie County (near Shawnee, Oklahoma); and is known as the White Turkey Band. The two bands were finally organized as one tribe under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare-Act of 1936. The Tribe shares this former reservation area with the Citizen Band of Potawatomi.  In 1964, approximately 33 acres of federal land was transferred to the tribe in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Today, the Absentee Shawnee people remain very traditional. Their cultural heritage continues to thrive through their ceremonies and dances, tribal rites, and continuous rejuvenation of the Shawnee language. The Absentee Shawnee tribal government is composed of a legislative/executive branch and a judicial branch. Their legislative/executive branch consists of five elected members appointed by the general tribal membership– Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary, Treasurer, and Representative.

The current membership is 4,638 as of June 30, 2023

More information on the tribe can be found HERE.

Producer Brandon Smith, Gov. Edwina Butler-Wolfe and Assoc. Producer Jeremiah Waggoner meeting in the Governor’s Office in Shawnee, OK, 2017.