This summer, on Saturday, July 29, the Fort Pitt Museum will host its third annual Women’s History Seminar. Last year’s seminar focused on women in American Indian tribes. Chief Glenna Wallace was one of the speakers, and she described the struggles of her tribe as well as the obstacles she faced as the first female chief of the Eastern Shawnee.
Wallace has always faced her challenges with grace and determination. While growing up, her family often moved from place to place, in search of seasonal work. Each day, she and her siblings were expected to meet a certain quota to contribute to the family income. The perseverance she exhibited at such a young age would stick with her, and she views her upbringing as life experience that has shaped her into the individual she is today. Not only did she become the first female in her family to graduate high school, but she was also the first to pursue two post-graduate degrees. For over 40 years, Wallace served as a college instructor and administrative leader. Finally, in 2006, she became the first female chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
Chief Glenna Wallace also goes by the Indian name Ni ni le wi pi mi, which stems from the Eagle or Chicken Clan and means “eagle watching over everyone.” Ni ni le wi pi mi reflects the role she fills in her tribe. She constantly watches over her tribe, works to reestablish traditions and expand new opportunities within the tribe. Moreover, she educates the public on her tribe’s history and traditions, which is what brought her to the Fort Pitt Museum last summer.
Chief Wallace began her presentation at last year’s Women’s History Seminar by speaking about the struggles her tribe faced when Europeans began to settle in America. She described the cultural climate:
“The Europeans did not have the same concept regarding land as we did. To us, the Creator made this world for all to use. Ownership was a foreign concept to us. It was impossible to say that a certain person owns a certain cloud or that particular stars are owned by particular people. We don’t own raindrops, rainbows, lighting bolts, nor did we own land. Land was created to be used by all, to be cared for by all.”
The Eastern Shawnee tribe faced more battles as time went on. They originally resided in 26 states as well as in Canada and Mexico. Over the course of the 19th century, Europeans flooded into their lands, the tribe was forced to move many times, and the land they had to live on was severely diminished. Then, even when promised their own 60,000 acres of land in Oklahoma in the late 1880s, they were presented with a mere 58.19 acres. At this point, the tribe had dwindled to just 69 enrolled members.
Due to being constantly relocated, and their traditions and stories being mostly oral, their culture became dormant in front of their own eyes. Generations of the Eastern Shawnee struggled to receive and understand information about their culture, which continues to this day. As Wallace noted, “We are relearning those traditions … every tribe has to do some adaptation because of changing times.” She recalled that even the elders failed to remember much of the traditions, because previously, they had experienced negative backlash for embracing it. Elders developed the understanding that assimilating to white culture would protect younger generations from this same backlash they experienced. This now presents another uphill battle in the Eastern Shawnee tribe’s effort to rediscover their culture.
As Chief Wallace revealed during the Women’s History Seminar, she is determined to uncover and reestablish tribal traditions that will help her tribe relearn their culture. The tribe hosts weekly language classes, as well as a cultural gathering each month. Cultural gatherings include activities from stomp dancing and cooking demonstrations, to making regalia pieces or moccasins. They also hold an annual pow-wow, a History Summit to discuss topics relevant to the Eastern Shawnee, and they are currently working on a children’s book about the history of their tribe.
Chief Wallace described her tribe as “small” and “progressive.” Not only do they strive to teach people about their past, but they also work to preserve and protect their current members. In the past 30 years, the tribe has expanded economically through a bingo hall, casino, and convention center. Additionally, their land has even grown from 58.19 to 2,500 acres. Tribal programs and services include a community wellness center, an early childhood learning center, and more. Through hard work and dedication, individuals like Wallace do their best to take care of the tribe and its people.
Though Wallace has proven to be a strong leader, she has also faced challenges. As the first female chief, she has had to reconsider certain traditions and in some cases make a compromise. For example, one such custom of passing an eagle feather at meetings threatened her ability to participate in meetings and fulfill her role as chief. Traditionally at meetings, an eagle feather is passed, and whomever holds the feather speaks without interruption. It is custom, however, that women are not allowed to touch eagle feathers. In Wallace’s case, she “had to make a choice to be silent or touch and hold the feather. Since I am elected to voice the opinion of my tribe,” she said, “I have chosen in those situations to touch the feather.”
Despite such challenges, Wallace has done an immense amount of work for her tribe and is now in her third term as chief. When asked about her most rewarding moment as chief, she stated that it was impossible to limit her answer to one thing. “We are trying to create identity, achieve unity, be a oneness,” she said. However broad these goals may sound, her actions reveal that she’s striving forward, doing everything she can for her tribe.
This year’s Women’s History Seminar at the Fort Pitt Museum will take place on Saturday, July 29. You can learn more and register online.
Lindsey Crawford was the volunteer intern at the Fort Pitt Museum in summer 2016.