Transcript of Giving Voice: Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.
For this installment of Giving Voice, I was lucky enough to speak with Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. If you haven’t listened to THH’s two-part series covering the life of Tenskwatawa, I’d suggest going back to do that now, as I do reference those episodes a few times throughout the discussion and they give some good context for understanding where our conversation picks up.
And now, Giving Voice.
Beckley: I’m here today with Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. I’m so happy that you had time to come on and talk with us today.
Barnes: Thank you very much, Lindsey. I appreciate the invite.
Beckley: Of course. We’re absolutely thrilled to have you on the show. So, I thought we would start off with a super basic question. I know we use the term tribe or tribal nation a lot and I’m not sure that people know exactly what that means, what all that entails, and what being a member of a tribe entails. If you could give us a little bit of insight into that, I would really appreciate it.
Barnes: It’s probably easiest to summarize it in the way the federal government defines it. The constitution of the United States states that there are three types of sovereigns. There is the federal government, there is the states, and there are the tribes. So tribal nations are separate inherent sovereigns within the United States similar in some ways to state governments. So, the constitution dictates that these three entities are sovereigns within each other in our nation. So, for a tribal nation such as the Shawnee Tribe, we are one of those sovereigns and we have been here since prior to the United States, identifying as Shawnee People. We’ve had numerous flags over portions of our area – Spain to the French to Canada to Britain and the Republic of Texas as well as the United States.
Beckley: And to be a part of the Shawnee Tribe or, I guess, any tribal nation, could you give us a little bit of insight into what it means to become a member and what it takes to become a member?
Barnes: If you’re a citizen of Italy, you know you’re a citizen of Italy. You were born, you met the standards of citizenship or Italy. It is much the same with tribal nations. You are a member of that nation. Your ancestors are a part of that community, you have citizenship within that nation. So the government of that tribe recognizes you as a citizen of that indigenous nation of peoples.
Beckley: So, to talk a little bit more about Shawnee history in Indiana, or in present-day Indiana – I think a lot of people think about Potawatomi and Miami maybe, if they think about Native history in Indiana, and they might not know much about the Shawnee connections here. Could you speak to that a little bit?
Barnes: I think you also have to define terms. You’re talking about Indiana. Indiana was much larger than in was at time of statehood. Indiana territory was also Illinois, so Indiana was a very large area. And even before that, Indiana was part of a larger western holding of colonial powers. So, inside what is the current state of Indiana, you have present-day Prophetstown, you have Shawnee villages along the White River. Fort Wayne is also known by other names – Kekionga by the Miami or Chillicothe amongst the Shawnee people. So, the old city of Chillicothe, which is the Shawnee town that was located at Fort Wayne. So, you have Prophetstown where Tenskwatawa the Prophet – he had a town that he lived in, and his brother. During the War of 1812, that was a stronghold for them and they even, prior to the War of 1812, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa lived along the White River, hatching their plan for pan-Indian resistance to colonialism.
Beckley: Yeah, and if folks have listened to our previous two episodes, they know a little bit more about that, so I’m glad that you touched on that a little bit. I know that you’re still active in the state and that you’re still coming here and doing some work every once in a while. Could you speak to the sort of causes you work for when you come here and how folks can learn more about that?
Barnes: There are federal and state laws that require tribal interactions with the other sovereigns, the federal and the state. And amongst those is a law called NAGPRA – Native American Protection and Repatriation Act. Because Shawnee’s lived in Indiana, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced eastern tribal nations to be relocated to western states like Oklahoma and elsewhere, those villages and the graves of those villages – there are people still buried there. So, as cities expand, as someone puts in a mini mall, as highways are built, occasionally graves are discovered. So, for the Shawnee and other tribes of historic Indiana, we engage in at the state and federal levels with those entities to make sure we’re doing what is best for those people there, and try to be as respectful to the people and make sure those remains are being treated as respectfully as possible, just like you would do with any other cemetery relocation. So, there are federal laws that mandate this for tribal nations and tribal cemeteries.
There is also an educational component that we work with as well. We have a great relationship with the Indiana University staff in various departments – folklore, anthropology, archaeology et cetera, we work very well with them. There’s an ethno-musicology archive of traditional music there at the campus in Bloomington. You know, we’ve known them for more than a decade. And early anthropologists called – a great many of them came out of Indiana University. A lot of that was because one of the early fathers of industry in Indiana, Eli Lilly, had an obsession with Indian artifacts and he hired teams of anthropologists, cartographers, linguists, et cetera to do research on tribal nations. He sent researchers out and one of the peoples that were rich in culture and language were the Shawnee, so Indiana University has known the Shawnee for a long time. And it’s been a pleasure for my tribe to become acquainted with them in the last ten or fifteen years and renew those relationships, but this time on our terms, rather than just having a bungee jumping anthropologist come into our communities, extract data for their own purposes, with no intention of reciprocity with that community.
Beckley: Yeah, we talked a little about that with Chris Newell. . . . about anthropologists coming into communities and using the knowledge of the people living there, and then creating a basis of work that is created out of the ancestral knowledge of these people. Basically, they’re building a career on the knowledge of others.
Barnes: That’s correct. Like, we can take an example- Eli Lilly hired a linguist, Charles Vogel [Voegelin], and [Voegelin] came into Shawnee communities and collected linguistic data, and the purpose of the linguistic data was not to preserve the language. It was not to make sure this language continued to be spoken in the Shawnee community. It was not to develop curriculum so that children could more easily learn the language of their ancestors as they were facing the pressures of assimilation. His goal was to bring that information back to Indiana, use it to create Masters and PhD’s and prove the richness of the university experience and part of the linguistics of Indiana. And so, untold careers were launched literally off the bones of our ancestors – the voices of our ancestors, with no thought for reciprocity towards the people that were contributing that knowledge. So that richness of these indigenous communities that lifted up these scholars, there was no reciprocity back to our communities to make sure that these cultures could benefit from the research that was going on. There has been a change in academia – largely because of pressure and interest from tribal nations wanting to engage with academics and journals and other academic publishing – to tell a truer story of early America. To make sure that Native voices are included in those narratives, that the context is not lost and that we can re-contextualize those old documents and put Shawnee voices back into them.
Beckley: Absolutely. We talk a little bit about that in our past two episodes. We’re using these colonized documents, but we have to find a way to contextualize them with Native voice and make sure that we’re telling as complete of a story as we can.
Barnes: That’s how it started for me . . . I initially got into tribal government, there was a couple of key issues and one of them was language preservation. So, quickly, when you do the work of language preservation, you come in contact with the archive. So, Indiana, there is this troika of institutions. The triad of institutions that hold the corpus of Shawnee language and one of them happens to be Indiana, and that’s because of Charles [Voegelin] and his time and tenure as a linguist in the employ of Eli Lilly.
Beckley: So, what sorts of things are you doing to promote the language, the Shawnee language? Are you doing curriculum? Is that something that you’re interested in? What kinds of things are you working towards?
Barnes: Curriculum and pedagogy methods. So, the world’s turned, and it’s changed and it’s becoming more digital and while we are able to, like, you and I are talking from a vast distance today, across a couple of computers. In prior generations, it was the telephone, and before that we had to send letters, so the method of teaching needs to adapt to become more like 2020 than 1920. And unfortunately, a lot of language teaching methods are still based in early-20th century teaching methodologies. Well, that doesn’t work in a diaspora community where people are spread across a continent. And so, we have to find new ways to deliver content and to deliver curriculum.
Beckley: I think that being here in a time when we are all separated by a distance and communicating through various methods – Zoom, Google Hangouts, and whatnot, I think that that has really opened our eyes to a few more opportunities as far as teaching methods and stuff like that. I know I’m taking an online baking class this weekend so it’s interesting to see how much people have kind of opened up different avenues for teaching different topics.
Barnes: Yeah, there’s a little irony for me . . . you know, we’re talking about these bungee jumping anthropologists that would jump into our communities and take data, you know, and they were observing our communities. Well, now, we find that the coin is flipped and we’re watching you guys in the glass bubble of academic institutions and seeing how you’re going to handle campuses that are closed. How are you going to be able to deliver curriculum? Universities have been loathe to move to an online learning model – they’re stuck in the Oxford method of teaching people. One person stands in front of a class and teaches forty or fifty people. Well, how are you going to accomplish that now with social distancing? So, it’s interesting and ironic to me. Now we’re watching you, instead of, a century ago, you were watching us.
Beckley: Hopefully we’ll be able to navigate it a little bit better than – I think we’ve pivoted a bit. It took a little bit, but it seems like people are slowly but surely figuring it out. Speaking of COVID-19 and the social distancing, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to how the pandemic has hit your people and just Native populations in general.
Barnes: I suspect it’s much like other states. We’ve been watching other states and other locals deal with this and I see Kentucky responding differently than Tennessee, or I see this county respond differently than that county or this city compared to this city. So, each one has its own type of leadership. And it’s much the same in Indian country. One county’s more progressive in its measures, you know, they put in more restrictive methods. We have another county that wants to have the economic – has more economic concerns. They may have a tax issue in their city and there’s a real cash need to make sure that things go back to normal as quick as possible, seeing how those things are balanced. So, we’re watching those things.
But, at least with the Shawnee tribe, within our government itself, we find ourselves in an advantageous position that we are equipped financially to ride this out and keep our people employed. We’ve been lucky to secure food, and for Shawnee citizens, we have ShawneeRelief.org, where we’re providing food for the elderly to keep them indoors as much as possible. We try to keep everyone up to date. Language curriculum is now being delivered in an online – it’s forced us to move to an online format sooner than we wanted. We had a project that was in the planning process for 2020, to be deployed in 2021, to deliver online language classrooms to our citizens. Well, we’re finding ourselves having to do that now and we’re not even halfway through the year.
Beckley: It sounds like you guys are, along with all of us, pivoting well. I’m glad to hear that.
Barnes: We’ve been really lucky. We’ve found that some of our best resources have been our tribal citizens. I found a epidemiologist that is a tribal citizen and she lives in Norman [Oklahoma] and works at the University of Oklahoma, and she’s an epidemiologist. So, actually being able to have someone who is able to interpret some of the details that I just don’t understand, I don’t have the education to interpret. . . . And to be able to draft policy at a governmental level, send it to an epidemiologist, and have them give me professional advice on what that should look like and on what areas we can do better, what steps are unnecessary – that is invaluable. So, we are very fortunate that we have the citizens that have the skill sets to be able to contribute to their tribal nation in this difficult time of social distancing.
Beckley: I think that is about all the time we have, but I was hoping you could tell the folks at home how they can learn more about your work, and about the Shawnee Nation and about Shawnee history – is there any online resources for them that you would suggest?
Barnes: Online resources are always dodgy when it comes to indigenous peoples because you always have to question the source – who wrote it, what was the context of it? The three Shawnee Tribes are the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Shawnee Tribe. Each of us have our own corresponding website. Those are the three Shawnee tribes. There has been a body of work that has been written by scholars. The best is a guy named Stephen Warren. Stephen Warren’s written a couple of books on Shawnee people. There’s others that have written on treaties like Collin Calloway, he’s written on Shawnee people. So, I would start with a couple of those books and look at the references at the back of the book – who did they cite, who did they read, who did they research? Because those are two top notch scholars.
Beckley: We’ll put a link to those things in our show notes which are found at blog.history.in.gov. Ben, I want to thank you so much for coming on today. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you.
Barnes: Thank you for the invite. We appreciate it.
Beckley: Once again, I want to thank Chief Barnes for taking the time to talk with me for this episode. As mentioned at the end of that discussion, check out the show notes for useful links for resources to learn about the Shawnee Tribe. We’ll be back on June 10 with a new episode! In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!