Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Rescuing Man from Myth

By Steven Robert Allen

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Tecumseh: A Life by John Sugden, Henry Holt, paper, $15.95

There are no fully authenticated portraits of the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh. All we know is that he was a fine looking man. Almost every eyewitness description paints him as a confident, imposing, breathtakingly handsome figure. Of course, much has been written about him. The sheer quantity of verbiage far exceeds that dedicated to any other American Indian. Yet an accurate historical account of his life has remained elusive. Much of the existing literature is unreliable or overtly fictional. Even in his own lifetime, stories of Tecumseh's exploits already began blurring into myth.

John Sugden, the foremost authority on Tecumseh and his Shawnee, worked on this biography for 30 years. The result is an exhaustive work which excels far beyond any other attempt to describe this remarkable life. To call this work impressive would be a horrible understatement. Tecumseh's life has been shrouded in fantasy for almost two centuries. Sorting out the truth from the legend was a Herculean task. Sugden's effort shows in his work. Tecumseh: A Life is a detailed, broadly contextual biography of one of the greatest men in American history.

Tecumseh is most famous for creating a pan-Indian confederation during the early 1800s which he hoped would be capable of resisting the young United States in its ruthless expansion westward. Time after time white administrators bamboozled individual chiefs into signing treaties to give up land against the will and best interests of their tribes. The U.S. Army, helped by irregular militias, rushed to enforce these unjust agreements. Increasingly, tribes found themselves occupying ever shrinking slivers of land. Game became scarce. They soon found that they had to rely on government handouts to survive.

During Tecumseh's lifetime, the need for Indians to do something drastic about the situation became apparent. Tecumseh was not the first to forge a multi-tribal confederation to resist white expansion. Several formed and dissolved before he rose to prominence. Tecumseh, though, was a passionate warrior and diplomat who possessed talents which no previous Indian leader possessed. Remarkably, he succeeded in smoothing out many tribal feuds while at the same time rallying British forces, however indirectly, to his cause.

Tecumseh's brother, usually referred to simply as the Prophet, was the spiritual leader of the movement in the early days. The Prophet preached a new pan-Indian religion which encouraged the rejection of all white handouts, especially liquor, and a return to Native ways. He sought a complete rejection of white culture. If Indians could return to their old lives, the Prophet foresaw a day in which Waashaa Monetoo, the Great Spirit, would wipe white folks off the face of the earth and return the land to the way it had been before they arrived.

As the movement progressed, the Prophet faded to the background as Tecumseh glided to the fore. Tecumseh's leadership skills soon became obvious to everyone, including his enemies. In the War of 1812, Tecumseh's multi-tribal forces joined with British troops to repel an attempt by the United States to invade Canada. He then led Indian-British forces in battles across the frontier. Knowing that the British were using the Indians, as Indians used the British, Tecumseh gambled for his people's freedom. British and Indian interests were never fully aligned. In the end, neither the British army's half-hearted assistance nor the tenuous unity of the tribes could regain the Indians' homelands.

Even those opposed to the Shawnee chief acknowledged that he was a gifted, compassionate man who discouraged the torture or killing of captives and, along with his brother, attempted to root alcohol and domestic violence out of Indian communities. Like all people, he had his flaws--including a tendency toward arrogance and a capacity for ruthlessness. Despite this, he remains to this day a powerful symbol for Native America, and indeed for all Americans, of courage and fraternity. Tecumseh: A Life illuminates the Shawnee chief in ways never before thought possible. Almost 200 years after the great chief's death, this book has lifted Tecumseh up several inches from the dark quagmire of myth. This may be the best anyone can hope for.

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