Written by Ross Shaw, Shawnee storyteller 

“But Daddy,” I said between sobs, “I wanted to be a cowboy!”

That’s how I greeted the news, at age four, that I was of Shawnee ancestry through my father’s family. Dad had decided that I should learn of our heritage differently than he had. His second-grade school teacher pulled him aside one afternoon and explained, “There is something special about you, but not everyone believes it is good. I’m afraid one of them will tell you.”

She then told him how her family, and many others in the small farming community in Muskingum County, Ohio where my parents grew up, helped the Shaws, the Wilsons, and the Stoneburners to pass themselves off as legal immigrants from Germany or England during the early 1800s in order to resist removal. These three families, all Shawnee, gave up all outward practices of their culture in order to remain in what had been their homeland for centuries.  

Dad was incredibly excited to learn this and ran home to talk to his parents about it. They acknowledged him; then ignored the topic for the next decade. When he was a teenager, he finally got them to talk about why they were keeping their Shawnee heritage hidden, they replied that it was too painful.

You see, my grandparents got married in the 1930s. My maternal great-grandfather was a Methodist minister. Someone in the community went to him and said, “You can’t let Belle marry Al. He’s an Indian!” Great Grandpa replied, “Half the people in Ohio are 'savages'!” and married them anyway.  

Dad thought that was silly and that no one was prejudice like that anymore. Still, the thought that his ancestry could cause anyone to look down on his parents bothered Dad. He also was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, the heyday of the television cowboy. Every week he was seeing "cowboys and Indians", with the Indians usually portrayed as the bad guys. But the worst of the worst was always the half-breed, the character who was part-white and part-Native. Just like Dad. He grew up an angry young man.

But, by the time I was born, Dad had made his peace. He got Grandpa to share all of the Shawnee culture and teachings that had been passed down through the family. He did research on his own into our history and cultural heritage. Dad was even beginning to share history and stories in public, making him the first Shaw since the end of the Revolutionary War to publicly acknowledge his Shawnee blood.

So when I came along, he began planning how he would pass this history, culture, and knowledge on to me. And when he finally did, I burst out crying! I was growing up on reruns of his old favorite cowboy shows and was afraid that I was going to miss out on my career choice! Dad calmed me down though. He explained that while he was growing up on the farm, he raised horses and worked with cows. He wore cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and his first ride was a pickup truck. Hearing all this, I wiped my nose and said, “Does that mean I get to be both?”

That’s been my reality, being both. There has been blood mixing for generations where Dad and Mom grew up, between Native families and immigrants. I’m often asked, “How much Indian are you?”  It would be easy to get offended, as the only animals judged by their bloodlines are dogs, horses, and Native Americans. But I give an honest answer instead: “I’m not sure.”  

Really, I’m a mix of Shawnee, Scots, Dutch-German, and English. My skin, eyes, and hair are lighter than people expect, though that was common amongst the Shawnee 200 years ago as well. People can’t look at me and say, “He’s an Indian.” But, I am still pained by the conditions of unemployment, addiction, and suicide on the reservations out west. I have not endured the jeers of biased individuals. But, the Native stereotypes I see in modern American culture are still hurtful. My ancestors never signed a treaty and managed to avoid being forced from Ohio during the Indian Removal Act, so the federal government has no record of us. But, I am angered by the way our modern government continues to treat Native people poorly, ignoring treaty rights and environmental concerns in favor of big business.

It would be easy to allow my heart to become hard, but my father has shown me a different path. That is to use education, respect, and love to show others that Native people are still here, that we still matter, that we have learned to live in two worlds.

We have learned much from the cultures that we have come into contact with, and they can learn much from us. With mutual love and respect we can open up understanding between groups, we can get communication flowing, we can find ways to address the problems that face us all in a way that benefits us all.

It can start with a child hearing an old Shawnee morality tale about how we all have something to contribute, who then goes on to be more inclusive with their peers in school. It can start with someone who grew up with hatred towards Natives finally meeting some in person and realizing the mistake they made and redirecting those energies towards good. It can start with an activist taking Shawnee lessons of being good stewards of the Earth and running with them. It can start with a young Shawnee man setting aside the anger in his heart and embracing a greater love that allows him to reach and touch others. Most importantly, we all must think, "It can start with me."

Please join Ross Shaw at the West End Branch Library from 4:30 p.m.- 5:30 p.m. Monday, November 18 where he will portray We-pi-thi Mowowa (Silver Wolf) through stories taught to him by his father, noted storyteller Fred Shaw. Silver Wolf is a storyteller of the Peckuwe sept and is of British-Shawnee mixed blood. He presents a modern-day interpretation of life as a Native person circa 1774-1814. Through his stories and drum playing, Silver Wolf tells of a way back to nature by exploring the relationship between earth, man, plants, and animals. No registration required. For more Native American Heritage Month resources, click here

Our Branch Libraries and Downtown Main Library stand on the traditional homelands of the Shawnee, Myaamia, and other Native nations. As one step towards honoring the truth and achieving healing and reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples who were affected most by the Doctrine of Discovery, broken treaties, and forced removal, we honor and acknowledge the original stewards of the land on which the city of Cincinnati was built. 

Fill out the form below to receive updates on new blog posts.