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The legacy of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, brothers who united Native tribes against American expansion

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

As the 19th century began, two Shawnee brothers rose to prominence in the Great Lakes region. The younger sibling, Tenskwatawa, was a spiritual leader known as “The Prophet.” His older brother was Tecumseh, a renowned statesman and military commander who organized a pan-Indian confederation of several thousand, including many from Michigan. A new biography released in October 2020 details the experiences of the brothers and their intertwined visions for an alliance of Native tribes, unified in spirituality and resistance to the white settlers who were encroaching on their lands and lives.

Peter Cozzens is a historian and the author of the new book Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation. He said that after the Revolutionary War, the United States expanded its settlements west, which caused significant and often violent disruption to tribal life, including for Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. As children, they didn’t have a chance to experience a stable, normal childhood, he noted. Multiple members of their family, including their father, were killed when they were very young.

“They were constantly being uprooted by raids launched by the Kentucky militia or by other American forces in the area. So they were constantly being pushed deeper into Ohio and saw their lands shrinking and saw their tribe splintered,” Cozzens said.

Cozzens said it’s likely that having to continuously face the threat of invaders from an early age shaped both Tenskwatawa’s spiritual doctrine and Tecumseh’s approach to leadership.

“Tenskwatawa [called for] spiritual and cultural rebirth on the part of the tribes of the Great Lakes region as sort of a precursor to a revitalization of their cultures and way of life, which was being shattered by the American presence and the influence of alcohol and American encroachment,” he said. “Tecumseh [called] for political unity among the tribes, for the tribes to stop negotiating semi-legitimate treaties piecemeal with the American government, and rather unite and look at all the remaining land that they possessed in the Midwest as being theirs in common.”

Cozzens notes in his biography the importance of the brothers’ relationship, as well as how they shaped and supported each other’s ideas.

“Tecumseh readily accepted Tenskwatawa's doctrine and vision. And when Tecumseh expanded on this to include his call for unity against American encroachment, Tenskwatawa supported that, as well, and incorporated that into his spiritual and cultural doctrine,” he said. “They seemed to work together very well, hand in hand.”

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Stateside's conversation with Eric Hemenway

Though some Native individuals and communities in the region agreed with Tenskwatawa’s messages, some did not, said Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and a member of the Michigan Historical Commission.

“[Tenskwatawa] had quite a bit of sway. But then, the Prophet was also very, very strict, for lack of a term, in his messages and delivery,” Hemenway said. “He took a very hard line in some cases with other tribes. He would intervene, and some other tribes didn't like how that was happening. They thought he was overstepping his boundaries. So it was all based on the individual and the community and how they viewed this person.”

Relationships between tribes in the Great Lakes regions were always in flux, said Hemenway. So, Tecumseh’s ability to unite tribes and their warriors in one alliance was a testament to his skill as a leader.

“Each individual warrior is independent,” he said. “They weren't under this allegiance to Tecumseh or even their own war chiefs. They went on their own accord, and they could leave the battlefield at any time. So when you had thousands of these warriors in the field together, that was really remarkable leadership.”

Hemenway said that Native peoples faced unfathomable difficulties at the time of Tecumseh’s life, including disease, displacement, and open hostilities and attacks from militia and settlers. He said that’s part of what led tribes to consider joining an alliance like the one Tecumseh proposed.

“You have to have some territory and lands where you could feed your families and carry out your culture and your ceremonies. So if that means you are living in the shared territories, then so be it, because what is the alternative? Destruction,” he said. “Violence wasn't the first answer, but it was sometimes necessary to go to war. And that's what I think was going on at this time period, that they just had to, quote unquote, take up the hatchet to protect what they've had for thousands of years.”

As the War of 1812 began, Tecumseh and his alliance joined forces with the British on the battlefield to fight the Americans. Cozzens said Tecumseh envisioned and fought for a permanent homeland for Native peoples that was not negotiable. This sovereign nation would have included the land that makes up Michigan.

“The United States government would exercise no influence, no control whatsoever over this land,” Cozzens said. “This would be land that would be inviolate and would be forever the domain of Native Americans.”

Hemenway said he sees the War of 1812 as part of a continuation of Native resistance to white settlers’ encroachment, such as in Pontiac’s War and Little Turtle’s War, which took place in earlier decades.

“So Tecumseh has this history, this lineage within the Great Lakes, of resistance,” Hemenway said. “He's looking at what Little Turtle did, he's looking at what Pontiac did, and he's carrying the torch.”

But the sovereign nation Tecumseh envisioned never came to be. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, and the alliance of tribes dissolved following his death. Tenskwatawa died a few decades later, in 1836.

Hemenway noted that Tecumseh was both a persuasive orator and a distinguished leader on the battlefield. He said that while many people might be familiar with Tecumseh’s name, they might not know much about his legacy, which permanently shaped the region, nation, and continent.

“He is a hero. I mean, I can't think of any other word. I could say leader, I could say chief, but that doesn't, in my mind, as an Anishinaabe person, do him justice,” Hemenway said. “We talk about founding fathers all the time — Jefferson, Washington, Franklin. Tribes have their own heroes and people who went above and beyond to look out for their best interests and to fight for their freedom and their rights, and Tecumseh's a perfect example of that. So maybe in recognizing Tecumseh, we'll start to recognize other Native heroes, as well — from the state of Michigan, to start with. We had individuals from up here in Emmet County — Assiginack, Makadepenasi, Apawkausegun — men who were prominent leaders who helped shape the world that we are in today.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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