The Tribal Seal – A Historical Perspective

By Glenna J. Wallace, Chief

The Seal and Symbols

Five simple objects—one circle, one panther, one spear, one swan and a collection of four feathers—comprise the elements depicted in The Great Seal of the Eastern Shawnee Nation.  The emblems are simplistic in nature but complex in meaning.  The vibrant blue circle is continuous, never-ending.  There is no beginning, no ending. It symbolizes one world, one universe, one tribe of people.  The round shape encircles and holds together all other objects, just as the tribe holds all members together as one.

The circle or universe is divided into two equal parts by a spear or lance with two feathers trailing downward near the tip.  That spear with its two feathers symbolizes the resolve of tribal members to protect our dual universe and citizenship in the United States of America and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.  That spear means we will fight to our death to defend this very universe that we hold as sacred.

A large elongated black panther dominates the top half of the seal.  This panther, seemingly stretched out in motion, represents strength, courage and prowess in battle.

Below the spear, in contrast to the powerful black panther above, rests a serene white swan.  The symbolism of the two animals contrasts as much as the black and white.  The swan with the signature curvature of its long neck looks down in tranquility, representative of grace and dignity.

Four hanging eagle feathers at the bottom of the circle or universe complete the logo.  Four is a number that frequently appears in Native American symbolism.  The four feathers bring to mind the four elements of the earth, the four winds, the four directions and the four corners of the earth.  The feathers are eagle feathers.  The eagle is the most highly revered species.  It is indicative of courage, spirit, strength and bravery.  Additionally, the eagle symbolizes power from a lofty position, legend has it that the eagle is the one closest to the Creator and has even seen His face.

The Rest of the Story

The above description is the explanation given today about the meaning of our logo or seal that appears on our tribal flag, artifacts, and buildings.  But, wait.  There’s more to this story that needs to be told. Just as the flag of the United States has changed throughout history, so has the great seal of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe.  Ask Robert Alexander, designer and creator of the original Eastern Shawnee seal.

Setting the Scene

As the nation prepared to celebrate a milestone— the 1976 Bicentennial of the United States of America, tribes sought to participate in the festivities.

An Inter-Tribal Council (ITC) comprised of Indian leaders from tribes within the boundaries of the Miami Agency was formed in 1967. Julian Bluejacket was Chief of the Eastern Shawnee from 1966-1970; he was one of the leaders in establishing the ITC.

The Eastern Shawnee, Quapaw, Seneca Cayuga, and Miami Tribes were all recognized by the Federal Government; therefore, they could vote at the ITC. For the Ottawas, Peorias, and Modocs recognition by the United States Federal Government had been terminated. The Wyandottes owned a historic cemetery in Kansas City, which resulted in only a partial termination.  Termination of federal recognition meant that these tribes could not participate in or be eligible for Federal programs.  Although the terminated and partially-terminated tribes could not vote in the ITC meetings, they could attend and participate in discussion.

Robert Alexander served as Business Manager of the four Ottawa County tribes seeking complete restoration of federal recognition.  In 1975, the discussion at ITC was obtaining an Indian Grant to design and construct tribal flags to participate in the Bicentennial Celebrations.  The grant was obtained and all the ITC tribe began the process of developing tribal flags.  Jim Greenfeather served as Eastern Shawnee Chief from 1974-1988.  He was very active in historical research and enlisted the aid of Robert Alexander for the design of the Eastern Shawnee tribal seal or logo.

Designing the Seal

The research conducted by Alexander and Greenfeather was also used as the basis of a play entitled The Panther and the Swan, written by Clark Frayser and George Phelps.  This play was first performed at the Quapaw Tribal Grounds in August of the Bicentennial Year 1976.  Alexander’s design mirrored the content of that play and the original logo design is the same used today with one exception:  initially there were five eagle feathers, not four.

Evolution of a Symbol

Why did Alexander choose five eagle feathers?  Why were the five feathers were reduced to four?   Alexander used five eagle feathers to depict Shawnee history, not Native American symbolism.  Prior to being two separate and then three separate and distinct federally recognized Shawnee tribes, prior to being relocated to Oklahoma, the Shawnee Nation was one nation with five septs.  Those septs were the Kispoko, Chalahgawtha, Thawegila, Mecoches, and Peckuwe (numerous variations of spellings).

The Eastern Shawnee seal had the five septs represented by five eagle feathers from 1976 until sometime in the early 1990’s.  In the world of easy duplication and the Xerox machine, one of the feathers disappeared.  Perhaps the history, pronunciations of words, and numerous spellings of the five septs were too complicated.  Perhaps the five feathers weren’t perfectly balanced.  Perhaps someone preferred the Native American symbolism of the number four.  Who knows? (Well at least one person knows.)  At any rate, sometime in the early 90’s, a Xerox thief covered up one of the feathers and forever changed the seal to four feathers. The change in the logo did not go unnoticed.

The Great Debates

Throughout the years, the seal has sparked several lively discussions.  Some say two fish, not two feathers, hang from the staff.  Other individuals maintain the black panther represents the evil of William Henry Harrison and the white swan embodies the purity of Tecumseh. Yet others state the panther refers to the night of Tecumseh’s birth when a shooting star streaked across the sky announcing to the Native World that a great leader was born.  Some individuals have even lobbied for returning the seal to its original five feathers.  By that time, however, the four feather version of the seal had found its way onto folding chairs, stationery, stained glass replicas, shirts, cups and other numerous items Because those numerous replicas were in existence and because the design was less than 20 years old (as opposed to 200 or 300 years in age), the decision was made to leave the seal with four feathers.

Reflections

Knowing all these details, reflecting upon the various interpretations does not diminish the significance of the great seal of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.  Instead, the stories add richness to our understanding.  Much like the addition of stars and stripes throughout the history of the United States flag, telling the evolving story our tribal seal preserves the richness of our diverse tribal history.  As it has been said, “We carry the burden of stories that need to be told.”

(Research for this article comes from a 2009 interview with Robert Alexander and personal knowledge.)