At the start of the 19th century, two Shawnee brothers rose to prominence in the Great Lakes region. The younger brother, 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 confederacy of several thousand people, many from Michigan. A new biography published in October 2020 details the brothers’ experiences and their interwoven visions of an alliance of indigenous tribes, unified in spirituality and resistance to white settlers who were encroaching on their lands and lives.
Pierre Cozzens is a historian and author of the new book Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation. He said that after the War of Independence, the United States expanded its colonies westward, causing significant and often violent disruption to tribal life, especially for Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. As children, they did not have the chance to have a stable and normal childhood, he noted. Several members of their family, including their father, were killed when they were very young.
“They were constantly uprooted by raids launched by the Kentucky militia or other American forces in the area. So they were constantly pushed deeper into Ohio and saw their lands shrink and their tribe split, ”Cozzens said.
Cozzens said it is likely that constantly having to deal with 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 a kind of precursor of a revitalization of their cultures and way of life, which was shattered by the American presence and the influence of alcohol and of American encroachment, ”he mentioned. “Tecumseh [called] for political unity among the tribes, for the tribes to stop negotiating piecemeal semi-legitimate treaties with the U.S. government, and instead unite and consider any remaining land they owned 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 developed this to include his call for unity against American encroachment, Tenskwatawa also supported that and incorporated it into his spiritual and cultural doctrine, ”he said. “They seemed to work very well together, hand in hand.”
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While some indigenous individuals and communities in the region agreed with Tenskwatawa’s messages, others did not, said Eric Hemenway, Director of Archives and Records of the Odawa Indian Bands of Little Traverse Bay and Member of the Michigan Historical Commission.
“[Tenskwatawa] had quite a bit of hold. But then the Prophet was also very, very strict, for lack of term, in his messages and delivery, ”Hemenway said. “He has taken a very hard line in some cases with other tribes. He was interfering, and some other tribes didn’t like how it was. They thought he exceeded his limits. So it was all based on the individual and the community and how they viewed that person. “
Relations between tribes in the Great Lakes regions were always on the move, Hemenway said. Thus, Tecumseh’s ability to unite the tribes and their warriors into a single alliance was a testament to his skill as a leader.
“Every warrior is independent,” he said. “They weren’t under this allegiance to Tecumseh or even to their own warlords. They left of their own accord and could leave the battlefield at any time. So when you had thousands of these warriors together in the field, it was truly remarkable leadership. “
Hemenway said indigenous peoples faced unfathomable hardships during Tecumseh’s time of life, including disease, displacement, open hostilities and attacks from militias and settlers. He said it was part of what led the tribes to consider joining an alliance like the one proposed by Tecumseh.
“You have to have land and land where you can feed your families and carry out your culture and ceremonies. So if that means you live in shared territories, so be it, because what’s the alternative? Destruction, “he said.” Violence was not the first answer, but sometimes you had to go to war. And that’s what I think was going on in those days, that they just had to , in quotes, take the hatchet to protect what they had for thousands of years.
At the start of the War of 1812, 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 indigenous peoples that was non-negotiable. This sovereign nation would have included the lands that make up Michigan.
“The government of the United States would have no influence, no control over this land,” Cozzens said. “It would be a land that would be inviolable and would be the domain of the Native Americans forever.”
Hemenway said he viewed the War of 1812 as part of a continuation of Indigenous resistance to encroachment by white settlers, as in the Pontiac War and the War of the Little Turtle, which took place during of previous decades.
“So Tecumseh has this history, this lineage within the Great Lakes, of resistance,” Hemenway said. “He watches what Little Turtle has done, he watches what Pontiac has done, and he carries the torch.
But the sovereign nation envisioned by Tecumseh never saw the light of day. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 and the tribal alliance dissolved after his death. Tenskwatawa died a few decades later, in 1836.
Hemenway noted that Tecumseh was both a persuasive speaker and a distinguished leader on the battlefield. He said that while many people may be familiar with Tecumseh’s name, they may not know much about his heritage, which has permanently shaped the region, nation and continent.
“He’s a hero. I mean, I can’t think of another word. I could say chief, I could say chief, but in my mind, as an Anishinaabe, that doesn’t do him justice, ”Hemenway said. “We talk all the time about the Founding Fathers – Jefferson, Washington, Franklin. Tribes have their own heroes and people who have gone above and beyond to defend their interests and fight for their freedom and rights, and Tecumseh is a prime example. So maybe as we recognize Tecumseh, we’ll begin to recognize other Indigenous heroes – from the state of Michigan, to begin with as well. We had people from here in Emmet County – Assiginack, Makadepenasi, Apawkausegun – men who were eminent leaders who helped shape the world we live in today.
This article was written by Nell Ovitt, Production Assistant in the United States.