What is the Absentee Shawnee Tribe?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2019
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The Absentee Shawnee Tribe is one of three officially recognized Shawnee tribes located in Oklahoma. The Shawnee tribes originated in the northeastern region of what is now the United States, where they played a significant role in U.S. history. The tribes were split and relocated to Oklahoma during the 19th century. The Absentee Shawnee Tribe, now based in Shawnee, Oklahoma, took its present name in 1936.

The Shawnee tribes originated in present-day Ohio and neighboring areas, extending as far east as Virginia and Maryland in the years before European colonization. They first encountered foreign settlers in the late 1600s. During the following century, the tribes became caught up in the conflict between English and French colonists, aligning themselves with one side or the other. Some tribes voluntarily migrated west after the American Revolution, and others joined the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in rebellion against the new republic. “Tecumseh’s War” was a significant part of the Sixty Years War and the War of 1812, and his defeat meant the end of Native American power in the northeast.


During the following decades, the Shawnee were relocated to reservations in present-day Kansas. This was not the infamous “Trail of Tears,” which involved the Cherokee tribe, but part of the tragedy shared by all relocated peoples throughout history. A portion of the Shawnee tribe split off and left for Oklahoma; this act of “absenting” themselves from Kansas earned the Absentee Shawnee their name. The remaining Shawnee tribes were forcibly transplanted to Oklahoma after Kansas achieved U.S. statehood in 1861.

The Absentee Shawnee Tribe acquired the rights to its present territory by an act of Congress in 1872. They were federally recognized in 1936 as part of the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. The tribe, however, states that its “inherent right of self-government precedes the United States Constitution.” It is governed by a five-member executive committee elected by the Absentee Shawnee tribespeople.

The tribe’s business and cultural activities have included a casino, a shopping mall and classes in the Shawnee language. As of 2008, there were fewer than 200 native speakers of the Shawnee language. There were a little more than 3,000 members of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe that year.


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