Shawnee Strength During COVID-19


Shawnee Tribe Language Department



Community (affiliation):

Shawnee Tribe (saawanooki)

About this story: With fewer than twenty known speakers remaining in early 2020, the Shawnee Tribe declared an official state of emergency for the Shawnee language and committed the entire decade 2020-2030 to the language’s survival. Just weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything from daily routines to our communities and ceremonies.

The Tribe’s language department reluctantly implemented Zoom classes for the first time in what was meant to be a temporary solution for citizens craving cultural community in the era of social distancing. But the Tribe ended up reaching Shawnee people across the continent—citizens who had been disconnected from the culture and were hungry to reconnect with their ancestral language.

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While the Shawnee Tribe’s contemporary cultural hub is in northeastern Oklahoma, saawanooki (Shawnee people) live in all fifty states and even abroad. The language department’s pivot to virtual community-building reminded us that Shawnee diversity is not a mere byproduct of colonization. Rather, our diversity has historical roots and is a strength that will ensure our resilience.

COVID-19 separated us physically and disrupted Shawnee ceremonial lifeways. The pandemic also woke up a new community of Shawnee culture bearers. The Shawnee Tribe will not likely see the full impact of its community-building efforts until at least a couple of years down the line, but the anecdotal evidence gleaned from students’ personal stories so far points to a resurgence of Shawnee lifeways across the entire nation of citizens.