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International Socialist Review Issue 39, January–February 2005

The Life of Tecumseh

A Native War of Independence


Pete Lamphere is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York City.

THE HISTORY of Native Americans is usually presented as a passive tale of victimization. After greeting the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving bounty at Plymouth, we are told, the original inhabitants of the Americas were helpless to resist the European onslaught. They were quickly wiped out by disease, a few short wars, and the superior technology of the settlers. In this scenario, Indians were always a "vanishing" people, destined by their "inferior" status to disappear off the face of the earth.

The most that many students heard of the great Native leader Tecumseh, for example, is usually the campaign slogan of his lifelong enemy President William Henry Harrison: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."1 Sociologist James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes that "historically, American Indians have been the most lied-about subset of our population," and goes on to point out that no major high school history text recognizes the role that Tecumseh and Native Americans played in the War of 1812.2

The real history of Native North America, however, shows how colonialism, oppression, and genocide were met with vigorous resistance–a resistance that, while most often ending in defeat, ensured that Native Americans continue to survive and to struggle today. There is a rich tradition of fighting back, stretching from the Great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 that expelled the Spanish from the Southwest for twelve years, to the struggle to free Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement (AIM) activist framed for murdering two FBI agents on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier still struggles from his jail cell in Leavenworth, Kansas, where U.S law enforcement officials are determined he remain, in spite of the lack of evidence against him.3

The uprising of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh (pronounced Tecumthé in Shawnee) along with his brother, Tenskwatawa, from 1805 to 1813 is a shining example of this resistance.4 They led a movement, first religious then political, to unify disparate tribes on the frontier of the new American state.

Read a Speech
by Tecumseh

Tecumseh was an unparalleled orator, who was compared by white observers to his contemporaries Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. In the words of Harrison, he was "one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would, perhaps, be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru."5

But Tecumseh was not an empire builder: He was simply looking to defend the land of his people from white encroachment. The expansion of the U.S. empire into the Northwest Territories at the beginning of the nineteenth century was only the first wave of America’s imperial reach. In face of this, Tecumseh and his brother led a rebellion in a bid for an independent Native American nation.

The roots of resistance

By the time of the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century, massive changes had taken place in the lives of the Native peoples of the region. The most staggering change was the impact of infectious diseases brought by Europeans. According to historian Henry Dobyns, serious epidemics broke out on average once every four years between first contact (late fifteenth century) and the beginning of the twentieth century. Many Indian communities on the Eastern seaboard lost three-quarters of their population to diseases such as typhus and smallpox within weeks of the first arrival of Europeans.6 Indians were further devastated by the skirmishes and wars to seize their land, and by their own armed responses to that encroachment, which usually became a justification for further massacres and land theft.

The motor force of a century and a half of European colonization in the northeastern U.S. was the fur trade, and its economic and political effects were as devastating as the impact of disease and slaughter. In competition with each other for quick profits, the major Old World empires rapidly expanded their rivalry into new territory, feeding the hunger for felt hats of the fashion markets of European capitals. The French claimed control of the St. Lawrence drainage up into the Great Lakes, while the British vied for the same territory using the Hudson River. The French sought to set up a series of forts west of the Appalachians that would prevent the British from moving in. Both sides cared nothing for the Native lives destroyed in the process, either as pawns in proxy wars or by disease.

The Marxist anthropologist Eric Wolf writes: "Wherever it went, the fur trade brought with it contagious illness and increased warfare. Many Native groups were destroyed, and disappeared entirely; others were decimated, broken up, or driven from their original habitats."7 Trade brought with it an increased dependence on European goods: linen clothing, steel pots, farming implements, and most of all, firearms.

For tribal groups that survived the onset of disease, competition for the newly scarce resources led to a new phenomenon to Native nations: wars of conquest and accumulation. The Iroquois confederacy, for example, obliterated the Huron nation to the west in 1648 in an attempt to replace them as the main go-betweens for the fur trade.8 The Shawnee, Tecumseh’s tribe, had been driven out of their traditional homeland to Kentucky by Iroquois expansion and the abuses of the fur trade.9 Tribes that were broken up regrouped and reformed, sometimes mingling with other remnants to form new tribes. On top of the fur trade, increasing colonial settlement forced different tribes westward and this also increased the chances of collision.

Kentucky offered little refuge for the Shawnee, however, as white settlers began to pour into the region. Most know Daniel Boone as a heroic frontiersman leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap, but his political fortunes were made by his ferocity as an Indian fighter. From 1774 to 1782, five invasions of Kentucky settlers pushed the Shawnee back from their local farmland and hunting grounds all the way to the tip of Lake Erie near Detroit.10 The early years of Tecumseh’s childhood were spent watching village after village be burned by settlers.

But the Indians were by no means powerless. The Iroquois confederacy were able for some time to maintain, and even extend their power over various tribes, by playing Britain and France off each other, while leaning toward the British, who depended on help from the Iroquois (especially the Mohawks) to defeat the French.

The conflict between France and Britain culminated in the "French and Indian War" that broke out in 1754–a war that was really an extension of the Seven Years War in Europe. The British were only able to maintain their shaky alliance with the Iroquois–then angered by various maneuvers by white business interests to steal their land–by promising to return to the Iroquois land taken by the French and by making promises against any further European settlement on their lands. After the French defeat, Indians in the Ohio region were stunned to discover in 1763 that the French had ceded all of their territorial claims on the region to Great Britain. To discipline the tribes, British commander-in-chief General Jeffrey Amherst imposed trade restrictions to prevent Indians from obtaining firearms and powder. Under the leadership of an Ottawa Indian named Pontiac, as well as Seneca and Delaware war leaders, a confederation of tribes rose up in rebellion against the British. The movement ended in defeat, in part as a result of Amherst’s biological warfare against the Indians–sending them blankets infested with smallpox. These conflicts left smoldering resentments among Indians, but also an example, if only briefly, of Indian unity that had a strong impact on the Shawnee.

In exchange for Indian acceptance of military and trading forts, the British issued a royal proclamation reserving land beyond the Appalachians for Indian hunting grounds, off limits to new colonial settlers. In practice, this decree was completely ignored, and new settlers continued to pour into the areas west of the Appalachian range, encouraged by private interests who schemed to cheat various tribes out of their land. The defeat of the British in the American Revolution increased westward migration. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance–the new government’s attempts to legally guarantee tribal lands in the Ohio valley–was ignored as much as its British predecessor.

Tecumseh’s rise

By all accounts, Tecumseh established himself in his youth as an excellent hunter and later as a warrior well respected for his bravery and skill. He was also generous–Tecumseh gave away his acquired wealth freely–and had an aversion to the mistreatment of defenseless captives. As a teenager, Tecumseh participated in attacks on settlers moving down the Ohio River in flatboats. A white captive, John Ruddel, who had grown up with Tecumseh, says that Tecumseh publicly "expressed great abhorrence" to a group of older warriors after watching them burn a captive, and that "it was concluded among them not to burn any more prisoners that should afterwards be taken, which was ever after strictly adhered to."11

Tecumseh became a leader of his own band of warriors in the 1780s. As settlers poured into the Ohio valley, the U.S. Army sent General Josiah Harmar to protect the settlements in 1790. Tecumseh participated in a series of battles fought under the leadership of Miami Chief Little Turtle that forced Harmar’s troops to withdraw. At the age of twenty-three, Tecumseh acted as a scout for Little Turtle’s forces when they fell upon and completely destroyed the army of General Arthur St. Clair near the headwaters of the Wabash River in 1791. It was one of the most devastating U.S. military defeats in history. But the victory was short-lived. Young Tecumseh and his future archenemy, William Henry Harrison, then an aide-de-camp, fought their first battle at the Fallen Timbers in 1794, a defeat for the Native nations that resulted in the robbery of most of Ohio and further economic and cultural decline.

U.S. officials were increasingly putting pressure on the Ohio tribes to settle and adopt a farming lifestyle. One prominent Shawnee leader, Black Hoof, led a large section of the tribe to a missionary settlement at Wapakoneta, Ohio. For the remainder of the tribe who chose not to settle, alcoholism destroyed entire villages as traders cheated hunters out of increasingly scarce pelts in exchange for whiskey. Shawnee families were driven deeper and deeper into debt. One historian writes:

Shawnee society, once interlaced with well-defined bonds of respect and obligation, came apart as the villages deteriorated into a sense of violence. Inflamed by alcohol, once-peaceful families quarreled among themselves or fought with neighbors. Communal patterns of sharing and assistance declined.12

Native Americans across the region were desperate for some kind of explanation for the situation of their people and lacked any cohesive strategy for dealing with the continuing onslaught of white American settlers.

"The Open Door"

At this political moment, Tecumseh’s brother became the Prophet. Known as Lalawethika, or Loudmouth, he was a poor hunter, an alcoholic, and barely able to provide for his family. In 1805, however, he had a vision: He was taken to see the Maker of Life on a mountaintop overlooking heaven and allowed to see a paradise where there was plentiful game and fertile fields. But he also saw a wigwam where the souls of sinful Indians would be sent and tortured–where drunkards were forced to drink molten lead and the sinners’ screams could be heard "roaring like the falls of a river."13

He renamed himself Tenskwatawa, "the Open Door," symbolizing how his people could reach salvation through him. Tenskwatawa argued for a return to tribal tradition instead of the changes introduced by trade with whites. Most important was abstinence from alcohol, but the Prophet also argued for the elimination of white-influenced mode of dress, replacing metal kettles and utensils with traditional ceramics or wood, and the abandonment of the fur trade. Some exceptions were made: guns, for example, were accepted as a military necessity.14

Tenskwatawa’s religion was both a return to tradition and also a profoundly new one. He freely adopted elements of Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. For example, new converts to the religion "shook hands with the prophet" by passing a string of beans through their hands after confessing their sins, similar in its outward manifestation to the Catholic rosary ritual.15

Most fundamental to his new religion, however, was an anti-white and anti-American attitude. The Americans were the offspring of Motshee Monetoo, the Evil Spirit. The other side of the coin of anti-Americanism was a pan-Indian philosophy: "Indians were once different people," he declared at one point to Harrison, by then governor of Indiana. "They are now but one," united by the Prophet’s religion.16

This was not an isolated development. In the period between 1745 and 1815 a series of prophets emerged among different Indian nations, with names like Neolin (or the Delaware Prophet), Handsome Lake (a Seneca warrior), and Winnebago Prophet, who taught the lesson that Indians were one people. "Given voice by prophets calling for reformation," writes a historian, "the lesson called for action. Intertribal, indeed semicontinental, the lesson…produced a movement, a religiously charged struggle for unity."17 These earlier tribal religions had been the glue that had held the confederacy together that rose up in Pontiac’s rebellion.

It was on this fertile ground that Tenskwatawa’s vision and religious framework quickly found important converts among the Shawnee, as well as the nearby Delaware and Miami nations. The new religion pulled around it those from many tribes who were discontented with the pressure to settle and turn to full-scale agriculture (i.e., away from their traditional livelihood based on horticulture and hunting). Soon Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh, and a few other chiefs left Black Hoof’s area to found a new town in Greenville, Ohio.

From religious to political resistance

Between 1805 and 1807, new recruits poured into the movement, some trekking over hundreds of miles. One historian describes the flood:

During April 1807 alone, four hundred men, women and children–Potawatomis from the St. Joseph, Ottawas from the Grand River, and Ojibwas and Ottawas from Michilimackinac–passed through Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory on their way to the Prophet.18

Most were impelled by religious conversion, although the continuing white appetite for Native land was the fuel that turned many toward the new religion. Soon Tenskwatawa moved his followers to a new site, called Prophetstown, at the intersection of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers in Indiana territory.

The settlers were terrified by the new Native movement, though Tenskwatawa tried hard to project a friendly image toward the Americans. At one point he managed to convince Harrison to give the new village supplies and farming implements.19 But the Prophet’s attempts to maintain neutrality could not stop white encroachment. One Pottawatomie chief described the United States as a hungry beast, "the white devil with his mouth wide open," continually consuming more land.20 Between the 1805 and 1808, three treaties were signed ceding large portions of Indiana and Ohio to the whites.

International politics also played a major role in pushing the conflict in the Northwest Territories to the boiling point. The Indian lands lay at the intersection of two empires–the British relied on the Indian nations as a buffer to protect their fur trading monopoly in Canada, while the newly independent United States was bent on expansion. The loyalties of the nations of the frontier would be crucial in any conflict between the two countries, so the British immediately waged a campaign to win Indian allies while the governors of Indiana and Ohio tried to ensure Native neutrality in any war.

In 1810, the pace of events accelerated rapidly. The main impetus was the signing of the treaty of Fort Wayne, which ceded three million acres at a cost of less than two cents an acre.21 Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were furious, and Tecumseh threatened to kill the chiefs who signed the document, which ceded land to which their tribes did not even have rights.

The growing discontent among the tribes of the region was frightening to Harrison, who asked Tecumseh to visit the Indiana capitol with a small delegation to discuss the treaty of Fort Wayne. Tecumseh arrived with hundreds of warriors in over fifty canoes.22 During the negotiations, Tecumseh went on to explain that he saw the U.S. as a mighty water ready to overflow, and that his confederacy was a dam he was erecting to defend his people.23

Harrison was used to dealing with older, more deferential chiefs, and was clearly unsure of how to respond to the show of force. He tried to say that if God had intended the Indians to unite, he would not have put different languages in their heads. This enraged Tecumseh, and the meeting nearly dissolved into bloodshed. The next day, negotiations resumed, and Tecumseh tried to make his point a different way:

The two men sat down together on a bench. Gradually the Indian kept pushing against Harrison, forcing the American to move closer to one end. Finally, as Harrison was about to be shoved off, he objected, and Tecumseh laughed, pointing out that that was what the American settlers were doing to the Indians.24

However, the idea seemed be lost on Harrison: He was unwilling to make any serious concessions to Tecumseh. Nonetheless, the meeting with Harrison was a turning point for the Native American movement. It had become clear that merely gathering the Shawnee and other tribes together to return to a "traditional" culture did not in itself solve the political problems that beset the Native Americans. A political, rather than religious, solution was necessary.

Tecumseh’s politics were based on three pillars. The first, and most important, was unity. "Brothers," he told the Osage tribe, "we must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other’s battles."25 Secondly, there was the principal that no one Indian nation could sell the land that was given to all the Natives at once. "Officials of the U.S.," Tecumseh argued, "had taken upon themselves to say this tract belongs to the Miamis, this to the Delawares and so on, but the great Spirit intended it as the common property of all Tribes."26 The metaphor Tecumseh used to explain this was that the nations should "all join together and have but one fire and one kettle to eat out of, with the same spoon for them all." 27

It is hard to overstate the brilliance of this "bowl with one spoon" political strategy. If there is anything that earns Tecumseh the title of "the greatest Indian chief," it is his use of this political tenet. Native American territory had been ceded bit by bit by chiefs ingratiated with the federal government and in some cases inebriated by whiskey or bought by outright bribes. By arguing that land ownership was a collective right, alienable only by a group of tribes, Tecumseh argued that many of the previous treaties were invalid and formulated a powerful strategy to prevent the signing of more.

Tecumseh’s strategy also relied on using the British Empire in his fight against the Americans. Much like the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Overture, who excelled at playing the Spanish and then the British against the French, Tecumseh used the space created by the brewing War of 1812 to secure aid to defend Native lands. Tecumseh never fully trusted the British: he often recalled how, after the defeat at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the doors of the British Fort Miami were closed to him and other Native warriors fleeing the battle scene. However, he was happy to accept British aid and fight as an ally of the Redcoats if they offered the best chance of defending Indian lands.

Supported by his brother’s messianic religious movement, Tecumseh took these political arguments–for unity, for the "bowl with one spoon," and for a British alliance–across hundreds of miles of frontier to the Native North America of his time. He visited the five major tribes of the southern United States, the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Osage, and even made contact with the rebellious Seminole peoples of Florida.27 He also went north to discuss with the other affected nations in Wisconsin and Michigan, and talked to the Lakota Sioux on the western plains who were threatened by the recent Louisiana Purchase. He traveled as far east as New York to recruit members of the Iroquois.29

Other intertribal confederacies had been attempted before, but Tecumseh’s was the most far-reaching. Usually, such alliances were with nations grouped together by language (like the Iroquois). But Tecumseh managed, for a time, to assemble a multination confederation across linguistic and geographical obstacles.

A single example can illustrate what kind of impression Tecumseh made on his confederates: When a series of powerful earthquakes rocked the South in 1811 soon after Tecumseh left the region, a legend quickly sprang up that Tecumseh had said he would stamp his foot when he reached Detroit and make the earth tremble as a sign of his power. People were so moved by the man’s eloquence and political message that they believed he could literally move mountains. Even the inadequate, overly flowery translations we have from some English speakers who understood him give a sense of the power of his oratory:

Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun…. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn, without making an effort worthy of our race? Shall we, without a struggle, give up our homes, our lands bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit?… I know you will say with me, Never! Never!30

Harrison strikes back

However, the recruitment effort was not as successful as Tecumseh had hoped, and he found few allies willing to travel northward with him. One section of the Creek tribe inspired to revolt, battled Andrew Jackson in what became known as the Red Stick Rebellion of 181331–but they did not travel north with Tecumseh. He was working over vast distances, with culturally and linguistically diverse populations. Native nations had long viewed themselves as separate entities, with independent histories and origins. Most of Tecumseh’s audiences experienced his oratory via an interpreter.

Beyond linguistic and cultural differences, Tecumseh also had to overcome a section of the Native nations that benefited from settling down into agriculture. The "government" chiefs, like the Shawnee Black Hoof, who controlled distribution of the annuities from the United States that were given in exchange for ceded land, were a conservative force that resisted his message. The Native nations were also technologically dependent on European goods, especially weapons. The irony was that the Indians had seen their white oppressors fight and achieve independence. "The states," Tecumseh said in a speech directed at Harrison, "have set the example in forming a union among all the fires–why should they censure the Indians for following it?"32 Yet at the same time the Indian peoples did not possess the independent economic means to mount a strong, self-sustaining challenge of their own.

While Tecumseh was traveling around looking for allies, however, the intrigue back in Indiana deepened. Governor Harrison was increasingly alarmed by the gathering power of the brothers’ network. Tecumseh, Harrison wrote, "is now upon the last round to put a finishing stroke to his work. I hope, however, before his return that that part of the fabric which he considered complete will be demolished, and even its foundations ripped up."33

Harrison seized on the opportunity of Tecumseh’s journey south to attack Prophetstown. It was not a clear military victory for the Americans (though Harrison exaggerated it into the most glorious victory over Indians ever fought), but the resulting battle of Tippecanoe was a blow for the Prophet, who attempted to lead his warriors into battle with promises that the spirits would make the Native warriors impervious to their bullets. His pre-dawn sneak attack on Harrison’s army dealt serious damage (more of Harrison’s men died than Indians), but Harrison was able to counterattack and burn Prophetstown to the ground. On Tecumseh’s return from the South, he was furious at his brother for being unable to forestall the battle, which he feared would prematurely signal his supporters to begin the uprising. The battle appeared to Tecumseh’s allies as a signal to begin fighting. It appeared that the spirits had abandoned the Prophet, and signaled the final eclipse of the religious leader in favor of his brother the orator. Angered by his brother’s actions, Tecumseh eventually drove Tenskatawa from Tippecanoe, which Tecumseh’s forces reoccupied.

Military brilliance

After a hard winter without the supplies that had been burnt at Prophetstown, Tecumseh rallied many of his alliances with Indians in the region. It was just in time: Hostilities between the British and Americans were just beginning to erupt into the War of 1812. This period marked the height of Tecumseh’s political power and military brilliance.

Once hostilities commenced, the Michigan governor, William Hull, launched an invasion of Canada from Fort Detroit. Tecumseh, however, had gathered together a party of at least a thousand warriors of different tribes that played a key role in aiding the British to defeat the invasion and capture Detroit. But he didn’t always need massive forces. At one point, in the Battle of Brownstown, Tecumseh led a force of twenty-four warriors to ambush and turn around an American column of 150 soldiers, who had set out from Detroit to meet a supply train. Tecumseh’s political brilliance helped to expand his military victories. After Brownstown, he sent a runner to the nearby Pottawatomie warriors in Illinois who, emboldened by the Native victory, captured Fort Dearborn at present-day Chicago.

Soon the combined Native and British forces had pushed Hull back into Michigan and then captured Detroit, and moved on to attack Harrison, who was fortifying himself in northern Ohio. The various sieges on Harrison’s outposts, however, revealed an interesting difference in the Native and British strategies. The British, quite used to the bloody wars of Europe, were willing to face calculated attrition in a frontal assault on a fortified position. This was something that Tecumseh considered suicidal, and in the more tightly knit Native nations where chiefs were dependent on the personal and familial loyalties, such losses were unacceptable. Tecumseh used more creative strategies: At one point, for example, he staged an elaborate fake battle outside of Fort Meigs to draw the Americans out.

During the War of 1812, he exhibited the same disdain for gratuitous bloodshed he had earlier exhibited on the Ohio River with his fellow Shawnee warriors. But British officers routinely allowed Native warriors to vent their frustration and rage by killing American prisoners, which did nothing but increase the hatred of settlers for Native peoples. When Tecumseh heard that such a massacre was taking place, he hurried to the site and made an impassioned speech that stopped the killing. According to one account, Tecumseh

knocked down one Indian with his sword, grabbed another by the throat, and lunged at the rest. As the Natives drew back he shouted at them, "Are there no men here?" The carnage stopped abruptly… "You are unfit to command," [Tecumseh] said to the British leader. "Go and put on petticoats." Then he added, "I conquer to save, and you to murder."34

British defeat

There was a further contradiction, however, that was present in all these campaigns. As one historian put it, "unlike the British, the Indians were fighting for their homelands. If the war remained a stalemate, they would lose. Tecumseh needed a series of decisive victories if he were to dictate terms to the Americans."35 This led to a number of conflicts with British commanders who were content to hold on to a few American forts in the north and forestall an invasion of Canada.

A major naval defeat on Lake Erie opened up the possibility of Americans cutting off the British supply lines to the upper Canadian peninsula. Seeing British preparations for retreat, Tecumseh was furious. He spoke before the gathered Native warriors and British garrison, saying:

We must compare our Father’s [the British] conduct to a fat animal, that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrightened he drops it between its legs and runs off. [Here Tecumseh’s speech was momentarily interrupted by laughter from both the warriors and the ranks of British soldiers.]36

Tecumseh went on to remind the British of how, twenty years earlier, he had been betrayed by them at Fallen Timbers, and once again he felt that his erstwhile allies were abandoning him.

Tecumseh was reluctantly convinced to accompany the unavoidable retreat. As the Americans pressed their advantages and crossed the border into Canada, they caught up with the retreating British forces at the River Thames. The night before the battle, Tecumseh was said to have a premonition of his own death, but chose to fight anyway. In a sense, he knew that with the eventual British retreat it would be impossible for a confederation of Native nations to survive in the Northwest Territories. The next day Tecumseh was killed as the Kentucky cavalry charged his Native warriors while the British retreated behind him.

Defeat of the Native war of independence

The War of 1812 was not just a border skirmish between the new American republic and the British Empire. It was a revolt of the Native peoples of the frontier for independence and in defense of their homelands. Five out of the seven major land battles were fought primarily against Native forces, and perhaps its most important result was the defeat of the dream of an independent Native state in the Northwest.37 Tecumseh fought on the side of the British as a temporary ally, and they proved to be unreliable ones in the end.

The significance of Tecumseh’s efforts are well summarized by Anthony Hall:

Tecumseh, no less than Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, was faced with the need to instill a sense of shared purpose and identity among an array of diverse peoples facing a common oppressor. Tecumseh could see that the United States was essentially grooming a caste of Indian collaborators to give the appearance of legitimacy to a system of land transfer.… For Tecumseh, the only way to break this disastrous cycle was for Indian peoples to stand together…and to demand that their shared territories be treated as the inviolate realm of a sovereign Aboriginal dominion.38

Tecumseh’s defeat and death meant the end of the any hope for the Shawnee, who were eventually driven across the Mississippi to eastern Kansas, although some descendants of Tecumseh even went as far as Mexico to avoid settlement. But this was by no means the end of Native American resistance. There were countless other struggles of different nations–Osceola and the Seminoles in Florida; the plains war of Sioux resistance under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull; the flight of the Nez Perces; the Apache wars of Cochise and Geronimo against the white settlers, and countless others–but they were by and large separate struggles, not united confederacies.

Tecumseh’s dream of unifying Native nations would rise again later in the century with the great Ghost Dance movement of 1890—91, a religious revivalist movement reminiscent of the earlier ones under Delaware and Tenskwatawa–a fainter, more despairing echo, though, of it’s predecessors. It was cut short by the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre of Big Foot and his followers at Wounded Knee in December 1890.

A century later, the American Indian Movement united radicals of many tribes to fight back against the alienation and oppression of reservation life, as well as the unemployment and degradation of urban life, leading to occupations of land and armed confrontations with the authorities.

The conditions that gave rise to those struggles remain. More than one-quarter of Native American families live below the poverty level, and the Census Bureau reports unemployment on reservations ranging from 14 to 44 percent, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs reporting unemployment rates as high as 70 percent for some reservations.39 The new Indian struggles of the1960s and 1970s rose and fell in tandem with other struggles–against the war in Vietnam, for Black liberation, and so on. They will rise again and find new allies in battles to come, because today the fight for Native self-determination, against poverty, and so on, cannot be separated from other struggles if it is to have a chance of success.

That’s why Tecumseh’s example of resistance–in particular the idea that we should not let oppressors use divide and rule tactics to separate us–should continue to inspire us today. Tecumseh’s rebellion is a powerful argument for all of us to defend the right of Indian nations to their own lands and cultural practices. His vehement opposition to giving up any Native rights should be a beacon to us all when self-determination is threatened anywhere.

1 Tippecanoe was the battleground where William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana Territory, dealt a blow to Tecumseh’s movement; Tyler was his vice presidential candidate.

2 James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 124.

3 Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999). For an excellent account of the circumstances of Peltier’s activism and frame-up, see Peter Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Viking, 1991). For an account of the Great Pueblo Revolt, see Alvin M. Josephy, The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership (New York: Viking Press, 1961), ch. 3. Josephy’s book also has a good chapter on Tecumseh.

4 The spiritual patron of Tecumseh’s clan was a celestial panther. Variously translated, Tecumseh means "ICross the Way,"or "A Panther Crouching for His Prey." For a full explanation of the names, see Bil Gilbert, God Gave Us This Country: Tekamthi and the First American Civil War (New York: Atheneum, 1989), ch. 1, and John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998), 23.

5 Josephy, 132.

6 James Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), 74—75.

7 Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 193

8 Ibid., 165.

9 Jerry Clark, The Shawnee (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky), 7. Originally pushed southward from the Ohio River by Iroquois domination (Shawnee means "southerner" in Algonquin), many Shawnees had returned to the Pennsylvania area by the mid-eighteenth century, only to be pushed westward by predations of traders and settlers. See R. David Edmunds, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), ch. 3.

10 Sugden, 24.

11 Ibid., 51.

12 Edmunds, 71.

13 Sugden, 116.

14 Edmunds, 78.

15 Ibid., 80.

16 Sugden, 170.

17 Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745—1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xiii.

18 Sugden, 143.

19 Ibid., 170.

20 Ibid., 134.

21 Anthony J. Hall, The Bowl with One Spoon (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 393. The American government could sell the land for $2 an acre to settlers.

22 Sugden, 220.

23 Ibid., 188.

24 Josephy, 156.

25 Sugden, 255.

26 Hall, 291.

27 Sugden, 187.

28 Edmunds, 220.

29 Sugden, 148, 182.

30 Frederick W. Turner III, ed., The Portable North American Indian Reader (New York: Penguin, 1987), 247.

31 Sugden, 249—50. For Jackson’s battles against the Red Sticks, see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 126—28.

32 Josephy, 156.

33 Sugden, 225.

34 Josephy, 168.

35 Edmunds, 194.

36 Ibid., 204—05.

37 Loewen, 124. This does not include the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought before the declaration of war.

38 Hall, 393.

39 Elizabeth Zahrt Geib, "Do Reservation Native Americans Vote with Their Feet? A Re-examination of Native American Migration," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, October 2001.

"Sell a Country? Why Not Sell the Air?"

IN 1810, Tecumseh faced Governor William Henry Harrison to bitterly protest the land sales of 1805—1806. He said they were effected by the use of strong liquor, a breach of the Treaty of Greenville. He refused to enter the governor’s mansion. There is a kind of radical egalitarianism in his vision of Indians holding all land in common and his desire to "level all distinctions." Below is taken from the statement Tecumseh made to the governor.

HOUSES ARE built for you to hold councils in; Indians hold theirs in the open air. I am a Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only my existence. From my tribe I take nothing. I have made myself what I am. And I would that I could make the red people as great as the conception in my own mind, when I think of the Great Spirit that rules over us all…. I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear up the treaty. But I would say to him, "Brother, you have the liberty to return to your own country."

You wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as the common property of the whole. You take the tribes aside and advise them not to come into this measure…. You want by your distinctions of Indian tribes, in allotting to each a particular, to make them war with each other. You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this. You are continually driving the red people, when at last you will drive them onto the great lake, where they can neither stand nor work.

Since my residence at Tippecanoe, we have endeavored to level all distinction, to destroy village chiefs, by whom all mischiefs are done. It is they who sell the land to the Americans. Brother, this land that was sold, and the goods that were given for it, was only done by a few…. In the future we are prepared to punish those who propose to sell land to the Americans. If you continue to purchase them, it will make war among the different tribes, and, at last I do not know what will be the consequences among the white people. Brother, I wish you would take pity on the red people and do as I have requested. If you will not give up the land and do cross the boundary of our present settlement, it will be very hard, and produce a great trouble between us.

The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now–for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers…. Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?

How can we have confidence in the white people?

When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you killed Him and nailed Him to the cross. You thought He was dead, and you were mistaken. You have Shakers among you and you laugh and make light of their worship.

Everything I have told is the truth. The Great Spirit has inspired me.

Source: Frederick Turner III, ed., The Portable North American Indian Reader (New York: Penguin, 1987), 245—46.

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