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Tecumseh’s Brother, the Shawnee Prophet

The famous Indian chief Tecumseh (Te-cum-seh) was born around 1768 in a territory included in the present state of Ohio. His brother and collaborator, the “Shawnee prophet”, was Law-le-was-i-kaw, otherwise known as Tenskwautawa. These two men were Shawnee Indians, a tribe of Algonquin stock that had been split into groups residing in South Carolina and in northern Tennessee before being reunited in Ohio in the mid 18th century. This tribe was involved in numerous battles with white Americans moving west. The Treaty of Greenville in 1795 forced them to vacate lands in Ohio and move to Indiana. It was part of a lengthy process by which the Indian tribes ceded land to the United States.

Around 1800, the Shawnee prophet began preaching a new religion intended to stop the encroachment by whites upon Indian lands and revitalize the Indians’ own culture. An 1858 book, History of Indiana, by John B. Dillon states that the prophet “began to declaim against witchcraft, the use of intoxicating liquors, the custom of Indian women intermarrying with white men, the dress and habits of white people, and the practice of selling Indian lands to the United States. He told the Indians that the commands of the Great Spirit required them to punish, with death, those who practiced the arts of witchcraft and magic. He told them, also, that the Great Spirit had given him power to find out and expose such persons, to cure all kinds of diseases, to confound his enemies, and to ‘stay the arm of death in sickness and on the battlefield.’ ” In other words, the Shawnee prophet was trying to preserve his people’s identity in the face of an advancing alien culture.

The Shawnee prophet’s preaching resistance to white culture and a return to Indian ways appealed to Indians in many different tribes. His reputation was enhanced when in 1806 he successfully foretold a solar eclipse. The prophet’s brother, Tecumseh, meanwhile engaged in the political work of visiting tribes in the eastern part of the United States in an attempt to form a confederacy that would resist the United States militarily. Thus Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwautawa were a team, each handling separate aspects of the struggle. Tecumseh as the military and political leader; Tenskwautawa, the religious or spiritual leader. The latter created the culture in the form of a religion that would arrest the Indians’ moral decay and create a will to resist white encroachment. The former, Tecumseh, was the leader who would negotiate with the whites and defeat them on the battlefield.

The Shawnee and other Indians were then losing ground on all fronts. First, they were losing their tribal lands as disadvantageous treaties were signed with the U.S. government and white settlers occupied those territories. Second, they were demoralized by the loss of their homeland and by the use of alcohol, which they could not tolerate. Their Indian ways were being forgotten as many adopted the white culture. Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, were especially upset by the treaties which some chiefs signed ceding land to the whites. These individuals were not authorized to sign treaties on behalf of all Indians. Some may have been persuaded by trinkets and alcohol. Moreover, Tecumseh argued that it was inherently wrong to sell or cede lands. Land, he said, was a common tribal possession. One could no more sell this commodity than one could sell the water one drinks or the air one breathes. Land was a god-given possession which the Indians needed to survive.

A Dialogue between the Indian Leaders and Governor Harrison

The military governor of the Indiana territory at the time was General William Henry Harrison, who later became President of the United States. Governor Harrison urged the Indians to reject the Prophet’s teachings. He wrote to them: “The dark, crooked, and thorny road which you are now pursuing will certainly lead to endless woe and misery. But who is this pretended prophet who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator? Examine him. Is he more wise or virtuous than you are yourselves, that he should be selected to convey to you the orders of your God? Demand of him some proofs, at least, of being the messenger of the Deity. If God has really employed him, he has doubtless authorized him to perform some miracles, that he may be known and received as a prophet.” Harrison’s main concern, however, was that the Prophet and Tecumseh were influenced by British agents working against the United States.

The Prophet replied to Harrison: “Father, I am very sorry that you listen to the advice of bad birds. You have impeached more with having correspondence with the British, and with calling and sending for the Indians from the most distant part of the country, to listen to a fool, that speaks not the words of the Great Spirit, but the words of the Devil. Father, those impeachments I deny, and say they are not true. I never had a word with the British, and I never sent for any Indians. They came here themselves, to listen and hear the words of the Great Spirit.”

In August 1808, the Prophet visited Governor Harrison at Vincennes. He said to Harrison: “Father, it is three years since I first began with that system of religion which I now practice. The white people and some of the Indians were against me; but I had no other intention but to introduce, among the Indians, those good principles of religion which the white people profess. The Great Spirit told me to tell the Indians that he had made them, and made the world; that he had placed them on it to do good, and not evil.”

“I told all the red skins that the way they were in was not good, and that they ought to abandon it; that we ought to consider ourselves as one man; but we ought to live agreeable to our several customs - the red people after their mode and the white people after theirs - particularly that they should not drink whiskey; that it was not made for them, but (for) the white people, who alone know how to use it; and that it is the cause of all the mischiefs which the Indians suffer; that we must always follow the directions of the Great Spirit, and we must listen to Him, as it was He that made us. Determine to listen to nothing that is bad. Do not take up the tomahawk, should it be offered by the British, or by the Long Knives. Do not meddle with anything that does not belong to you; but mind your own business, and cultivate the ground, that your women and children may have enough to live on.”

“My father,” he continued, “I have informed you what we mean to do; and I call the Great Spirit to witness the truth of my declaration. The religion which I have established, for the last years, has been attended to by the different tribes of Indians in this part of the world. The Indians were once different people; they are now but one. They are all determined to practice what I have recommended to them, that has come immediately from the Great Spirit, through me.”

While Governor Harrison was placated by this explanation to some extent, he kept hearing that certain officers in the British Indian department were encouraging Tecumseh and the Prophet to form a confederation of Indian tribes that would become allied with the British. He suspected the Prophet of duplicity and continued to sign treaties for ceding Indian lands. Such acts infuriated Tecumseh and his brother. The Prophet, in Prophet’s Town, showed signs of increasing hostility toward the whites. He refused his share of “annuity salt” and called white boatmen “American dogs”. Harrison proposed that the Prophet and three chiefs go to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President of the United States.

In 1810, however, Tecumseh met with Governor Harrison to complain about a treaty signed in Fort Wayne that ceded Indian lands. He said that the Indian signatories to the treaty had no right to sign such a treaty, and Tecumseh would see to it that they were punished. Tecumseh said to Harrison: “How can we have confidence in the white people! When Jesus Christ came upon the Earth, you killed him, and nailed him on a cross. You thought he was dead, but you were mistaken. You have Shakers among you, and you laugh and make light of their worship.” Harrison replied simply that he thought that the U.S. government had treated the Indians fairly. At this, Tecumseh became angry. A number of his followers stood up with war clubs, tomahawks, and spears waving them at Harrison in a threatening way. Governor Harrison called off the conference.

At a subsequent conference, Tecumseh was more polite. Harrison met privately with him in the Indian camp. He told Tecumseh that the President had decided not to acknowledge the Indian claims. “Well,” said Tecumseh calmly, “as the great chief is to determine the matter, I hope the Great Spirit will put sense enough into his head to induce him to direct you to give up this land. It is true, he is so far off he will not be injured by this war. He may sit still in his town and drink his wine, while you and I will have to fight it out.”

The Battle of Tippecanoe and its Aftermath

Fight it out they did. While Tecumseh was away on a diplomatic visit to an Indian tribe in the south, his brother, the Prophet, led an attack on General Harrison’s encampment on a hill across a creek from Prophet Town near the Tippecanoe river. The Indians were encouraged by the Prophet’s assurances that his incantations protected them from injury from the white man’s bullets. The Indian attack took place in the early morning of November 7, 1811, at a site known as “Battle Ground” not far from Lafayette, Indiana. Roused from their tents, Harrison’s disciplined soldiers repelled the attack with their rifles. There were casualties on both sides. However, this so-called “Battle of Tippecanoe” discredited the Prophet. His followers began to desert the tribal coalition. Tecumseh returned from the southern trip to find his plans of establishing a strong confederacy of Indians in total ruin.

Tecumseh went on to join the British in Canada during the war of 1812. Made a brigadier general, he led the Indians in the siege of Fort Meigs and protected the British after their defeat on Lake Erie but then lost his life in the Battle of the Thames, near Chatham, Ontario, on October 5, 1813. Canadians consider him to be a hero - one of the founders of their nation. Americans, too, respect Tecumseh for his political and military skills.

Tecumseh’s brother is not remembered so kindly. Besides the disastrous decisions taken at the Battle of Tippecanoe, it may be that his role as founder of a competing religion taints him as a false prophet in the eyes of many Christians. Given a pension by the British, Tenskwautawa returned to Ohio in 1826; and then, with others of the Shawnee tribe, he moved to Missouri and finally to Kansas where he died in 1837, almost forgotten.

His adversary, General Harrison, was elected President of the United States in 1840. “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” was the slogan successfully used in that election campaign.

The Curse of Tecumseh

The story of Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee prophet, has a superstitious aftermath. William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840. He gave one of the longest inaugural addresses on record in the spring of the following year while standing in the cold. A month later, he died of pneumonia. Proponents of “Tecumseh’s curse” point out that Harrison, Tecumseh’s old adversary, was the first in a series of seven U.S. Presidents elected in a year divisible by twenty who died in office.

Besides William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, we have:

Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Reelected four years later, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington. He died in the morning of April 15, 1865.

James A. Garfield was elected President in 1880. A disgruntled job seeker, Charles Guiteau, shot him on July 2, 1881. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.

William McKinley was elected President in 1896. He was reelected in 1900. On September 5, 1901, McKinley addressed the the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. An anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at a reception the following day. President McKinley died on September 14, 1901.

Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920. He suddenly died in San Francisco in August 1923 following a trip to Alaska.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. He was reelected in 1936, 1940, and 1944. His health deteriorated during the waning months of World War II. President Roosevelt died suddenly while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12, 1945.

John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. He was assassinated while visiting Dallas Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Ronald Reagan, elected President in 1980, broke the curse. He lived to see his Vice President, George H.W. Bush, succeed him as President in 1989. However, it should be noted that an assassination attempt on him by John Hinckley in the spring of 1981 nearly killed Reagan.

George W. Bush, elected President in 2000, remains President in the middle of a second term.


Parallels between the Present Situation and what Tecumseh faced

It may be that the pattern of events manifesting “Tecumseh’s curse” represents an unlucky coincidence. If Tecumseh did curse Harrison and certain of his successors in the office of President of the United States, he may well also have cursed the United States as a nation. Superstition aside, I would suggest that there are parallels between the situation which the Indian tribes were facing in the early part of the 19th century and that faced by white and other Americans two centuries later. It is often said that the United States is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth. However that may be, the United States is also experiencing problems not unlike those which Tecumseh and his brother faced.

Unlike the Indians’ loss of land, the United States maintains its territorial integrity with respect to other nations. Since 2000, however, there have been at least two types of encroachment upon that territory. First, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, threatened the safety of persons residing in the United States. Second, illegal immigration into its territory continues to proceed at a rapid pace. At least eleven million persons who entered this country illegally continue to reside in the United States. As a result of both transgressions, the U.S. government has become security-obsessed. The cost and inconvenience of security measures imposed by the Homeland Security department have affected life here. We are not masters of our own country. Justifiably or not, the U.S. government makes us live in fear of what foreigners might do.

The Shawnee prophet taught that alcohol was not good for the Indian. Because they could not handle this substance, he urged that his people leave it alone. Whites, too, have a problem with alcohol continuing into our own time. Since the 1960s, this nation has also had a problem with illegal drugs. Heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine addiction today afflict all segments of the population. Not just inner-city blacks but whites and others living in the suburbs and in the rural areas of America are touched by the drug problem. There is also a gambling epidemic, feeding on personal weakness. Ironically, some Indian tribes which operate casinos profit from that addiction. They fleece the compulsive gambler as once the whites fleeced them. Gambling is our weakness as alcohol was theirs.

Tecumseh and the Prophet were concerned about the Indians’ economic survival if their tribal hunting lands were lost to the whites. They were angry at Indian chiefs who signed treaties that undermined their future well being. “Mind your own business, and cultivate the ground, that your women and children may have enough to live on” was what the Prophet advocated for his people. Today Americans are concerned about their future livelihood. The nation’s manufacturing base is devastated as factories close in the United States and new ones open in low-wage countries. Unlike the situation two centuries ago, the problem is not that aggressive outsiders have moved into our territory to take away its economic resources, but rather that America’s own leaders have arranged to send production abroad. The Wal-Mart model of merchandising requires the sellers of products to outsource their production to gain a cost advantage. The free-trade agenda is promoted by leaders of both political parties, including all U.S. Presidents since Hoover.

I also feel that the American people have lost control of the nation’s foreign policy. The derisive label, “isolationist”, is attached to anyone who advocates that the United States abandon its imperial role as the world’s only superpower and instead, following Washington’s advice, stick to its own business. The “special relationship” with Israel, formed at the insistence of a powerful domestic interest group, has put the United States in an adversial relationship with the Islamic world. We have thus made unneeded enemies who now resort to violence. Egged on by the “neo-cons”, the Bush administration invaded the nation of Iraq without adequate personnel to maintain the peace after victory. While private contractors enrich themselves in Iraq, our “volunteer” army is staffed by National Guard and Army Reserve personnel who are poorly paid and lack adequate armor and whose enlistments are unreasonably extended and renewed. And now U.S. leaders talk about bombing Iran!

It would serve no purpose to continue enumerating the nation’s problems at this time. The point is that, however strong we are or may have been in the past, the American people are facing a frightening and uncertain future. Our people have become increasingly frustrated with government and with money-driven politics. We are morally demoralized by unemployment, excessively long work hours, high crime rates, alcohol and drug addiction, breakdown of the family, and our own seeming inability to do anything about these things. The root of it all is that we lack political, economic, religious, and cultural leaders who have the community’s best interests at heart. We lack morally competent, intelligent community leaders. Like those Indian chiefs who sold tribal lands to the whites without true authorization, we have leaders who regularly sell us out. We have CEO’s who milk the firms they manage. We have political leaders who care more about the political donors, lobbyists, and personal friends than they do about the citizens they allegedly serve.

Where are Tecumseh and his Brother Today?

It is in this context that the story of Tecumseh and his brother become interesting. I, a descendant of white Americans who moved into the Indiana territory, must nevertheless feel a certain sympathy for these two Indian leaders. They, like us today, faced a deteriorating situation. Tecumseh was the politician who tried to rescue the Indians by uniting them in a military alliance against the United States. Had the untimely Battle of Tippecanoe not occurred, he might have been an effective military leader in recovering lost land from the Americans. His brother was a religious prophet who claiming to be directed by the Great Spirit, was concerned about changing the hearts and minds of the Indian people. He was concerned with reestablishing the Indian identity on a firm moral foundation. His religious teachings prescribed that the Indians avoid white society and return to their traditional ways. Then they would again become strong and able to withstand white encroachment upon their land.

In the present context, our “Tecumseh” might be a community leader who unites the people and looks after their interest. He would be the politician who resists special-interest influence and money for the sake of the larger community. This figure would be someone who wields power on behalf of the people. Our “prophet”, Tecumseh’s brother, would be a spiritual leader, not necessarily the founder of a religion but someone who addresses the moral side of community well being. Christianity and the other established religions are so well entrenched that a new “religion” would create hostility rather than social unity. But we need, nevertheless, someone to look after the spiritual needs of the community in a fresh way. We need someone to help shape its identity in positive terms.

My interest in questions of identity is based on the fear that the traditional definitions, especially political and religious ones, no longer guide us in the right direction. Our leaders are failing us as a people. We Americans - or some of us at least - are ashamed of what is being done in our name. Let us, therefore, dispense with definitions of identity given us by other people. Let us instead decide what is best in our community and in ourselves and try to cultivate more of that. We do the deciding and so achieve identity independence. Then we find other like-minded people and build a community that knows what it is and can resist encroachment upon its sovereignty.

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