Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet (1775?-1836)

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Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet (1775?-1836)


Religious mystic

The Old Northwest. By the end of the eighteenth century the Old Northwest, defined as the Great Lakes region west of Pittsburgh and north of the Ohio River, was home to a number of Eastern Woodland tribes, many of whom had already been decimated by disease and warfare and displaced by colonial land cessions. For a time the Miamis, Shawnees, Delawares, and Otta-was, among others, successfully held off the federal governments campaign to pacify the region, but they met defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The treaty signed the following year ceded present-day Ohio and a large part of Indiana to the United States. Consequently, as the new century opened, Native Americans of the Old Northwest felt keenly that their power was diminishing in comparison to that of the white Americans. Not only defeat in battle but also the continual loss of land, the accelerating disappearance of game, the continued social trauma caused by alcohol abuse, and the tidal wave of white settlers signaled that something had gone terribly amiss since the days of their ancestors. This disturbing realization triggered a variety of religious responses, one of which was the emergence of prophets throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though the vision and message of these religious leaders differed in particulars, their ability to gather a following illustrated the widespread perception that the Indians loss of power was fundamentally linked to disrupted relations with the spirit world.

Lalawethika. Against the background of uncertainty and disruption in the Old Northwest, a shaman arose from the Shawnees, and his teachings struck a responsive chord within many tribes. The early years of Lalawethika were certainly not auspicious. He was an awkward and unattractive youth, disfigured from a childhood accident that left him with only one eye. As an adult he failed to achieve acclaim in battle or display hunting skills, and in fact there were rumors of cowardice. He turned to drinking, but alcohol made him a braggart and led him into further disgrace. Married and with children, Lalawethika sought a role for himself within the tribe by learning from its medicine man, Penagashea. When the elderly Shawnee died in the winter of 1804, Lalawethika tried to replace him, but the tribe rejected him when his remedies had little impact on a raging influenza epidemic. One evening in April 1805 Lalawethika fell into a coma and, by morning, was taken for dead. As funeral arrangements were being made, he suddenly awoke and declared that he had received a vision. At a village meeting the former reprobate related at length what had transpired and the instructions given to him by the Master of Life about what must be done to restore his favor. The Shawnees acknowledged Lalawethika as a prophet, and his name became Tenskwatawa, meaning the one that opens the door. Among whites he became known as the Shawnee Prophet.

The Vision and the Message. In his vision Tenskwatawa had been shown a paradise that awaited the virtuous Indian but was closed to the sinful, who were instead subjected to various degrees of fiery torture. The path to virtue required renunciation of all that the whites had introduced into the Indian world: whiskey, European-style clothing and weapons, flour bread, and domestic animals. Instead the red men should return to the bow and arrow in hunting, to the breechcloth, to the cultivation of corn, and to the sustenance provided by the animals of the forest and stream. There could be trade and contact with the whites, but never should Indians relinquish their independence. Thus he condemned government annuities and the acceptance of white missions as corrupting influences. Trade was permissible, but the goal should not be the accumulation of goods, which again lulled Indians into false desires and put them under the control of others. There should be no intermarriage with whites; wives should be obedient to husbands; and polygamy should be curtailed. Some of the Prophets admonitions reaffirmed traditional moral standards: cease quarreling; show respect to elders; and care for the injured within the village. His movement, however, was not regressive. The Prophets followers were to discard the old medicine bundles, which now represented a tainted past. A new set of rituals would henceforth mark the restored covenant between the Master of Life and his favored ones. Symbolic of this fresh start, the Prophet enjoined his followers to kindle a fire, without using the flint and steel of the whites, and keep it burning continuously in their lodges. As his teachings clarified over the coming months, Tenskwatawa instructed the people on new dances and chants to express their piety and distributed prayer sticks to remind them of the need to observe faithfully the rituals and pray frequently to the Master of Life. The whites had only succeeded because the Indians had neglected the source of their power. That error would now be corrected. Within Tenskwatawas precepts there was evidence of Christian influence. The process of becoming a follower involved a public confession before the Prophet or his representative, then a pledge of obedience to the Prophets instruction. Followers confirmed their loyalty by the rite of shaking hands with the Prophet, symbolized by running ones hand down a string of beans (reminiscent of a rosary). In Native American belief systems, punishment in the afterlife had typically taken the form of isolation. Tenskwatawas vision of fiery torment for misdeeds was probably an image taken from Christianity. The incorporation of white magic demonstrated the visions strength, reinforced by the apocalyptic message, which was for Indians only. If the Indians heeded the instruction of the Master of Life, the whites would eventually be swept from the land. The Prophets theory of genesis supported this development. As told to him in his vision, whites were not created by the Master of Life. In fact their origin was completely differentthey were the offspring of an evil spirit. As such, the Prophet urged Indians to avoid all unnecessary contact.

The Message Spreads. As other tribes heard rumors of a holy man who had risen from the dead, they sent delegations to learn about the vision. In late November representatives from the Delawares, Ottawas, Wyandots, and Senecas visited Tenskwatawas camp at Greenville in Western Ohio, affirmed his prophethood, and returned home as evangelists for his message of renewal. The religious upsurge became regional, with a widening circle of conversions adding substance to Tenskwatawas stature as visionary. Although Tenskwatawa preached a message of intertribal peace, he also warned of witches who would try to undermine the new religion. In the spring 1806 the Delawares who had taken his words to heart began to accuse about a dozen people, singling out Christian converts or Indians with ties to the white world. They burned four at the stake before the witch-hunt fever subsided. The grisly dedication of the Prophets followers caught the attention of William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory at Fort Vincennes, and he challenged the Delawares to test Tenskwatawa by demanding a miracle: Ask of him to cause the sun to stand stillthe moon to alter its course. If he does these things, you may then believe that he has been sent from God. Harrison was to regret his boldness. Tenskwatawa responded by announcing that on 16 June he would in fact cause the sun to darken and then would restore its light. Thousands of Indians gathered on the appointed day at Greenville and found their faith confirmed at the onset of an eclipse. The Prophets fame spread to the Kickapoos, Potawatomis, Ottawas, and Winnebagos, from Illinois to Wisconsin. As before, a few emissaries would journey to hear the Prophet, become convinced that his open door was the way to Indian deliverance, and then carry their new faith back to their own people. An Ottawa Indian known as the Trout became the Prophets special emissary to the Great Lakes region, though his own message opposed even trade with whites and contained a stronger apocalyptic warning. Main Poc, a powerful medicine man from the Potawatomis, stayed with Tenskwatawa for two months. He was willing to be an ally but not a convert, for he believed that giving up alcohol would make him ordinary. The prophethood of Main Poc contrasted with Tenskwatawas in other ways, in that his social injunctions were more conventional and less far-reaching than the Shawnees. Main Poc was a traditional shaman, earning respect for his medicine because it gave him power against the Osages. Nor would he abandon the Potawatomis long-running animosity against the Osages on behalf of a pan-Indian ephemera.

To Prophetstown. Like a perpetual camp meeting, Greenville became the center for religious seekers in the Old Northwest during 1806 and 1807, and there were reports that the roads were sometimes crowded with Indians heading to or from the site. Officials became alarmed at the activity, especially fearing that the British might take advantage of the situation to manipulate the Indians. Meanwhile tensions were increasing within the Eastern Woodland tribes over the continued cession of lands. Millions of acres passed out of Indian control from 1804 to 1807, sometimes through barely disguised fraud, as so-called Indian representatives signed treaties and became the recipients of government annuities. The Indians of the Old Northwest were divided over how to respond to white encroachment, and factions on this question often affected the response to Tenskwatawas spiritual movement. Even among the Shawnees, Black Hoof resented the upstart prophet and his condemnation of those who parleyed with white officials. In 1809 Harrison managed to find signatories to the Treaty of Fort Wayne, and at one stroke two-and-one-half million acres were sold to the United States for about two cents an acre. Fifteen years of relative peace now broke out in violence on outlying settlements. In the spring of 1808 Tenskwatawa left Greenville and moved to Prophetstown, or Tippecanoe, a site offered to him by the Kickapoos and Potawatomis. Later that summer the Prophet visited Vincennes with a large contingent of followers, supposedly to assure Harrison of his pacific intentions. Harrison observed his preaching and concluded, The celebrated Shawneese Prophet is rather possessed of considerable talent he frequently harangued his followers in my presence and the evils attendant upon war and the use of ardent spirits was his constant theme.

Tecumseh. In most histories the Prophets more famous brother, Tecumseh, takes center stage as a canny strategist who used the religious revival to achieve his political goal: uniting all the Indians along the Western border against the Anglo-American advance. In fact there was no separation between the sacred and the profane in the movement. Tecumseh was also a shaman and, according to oral tradition, had a gift of prophecy. He established the authority of his political message by demonstrating certain powers, especially his empathy with nature. Moreover, the basis for pan-Indianism was firmly religious: if whites and Indians were children of different Spirits, then it was right for them to live separatelyand right that tribal allegiances should be subsumed under a pan-Indian identity in order to defeat a common enemy. In 1811 Tecumseh took his first journey to the South to seek the support of the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Cherokees. Tenskwatawa remained behind to continue his preaching to Northern delegations while another prophet, Seekaboo, accompanied Tecumseh. Among the Creeks, Tecumseh gathered a group of dedicated supporters known as the Red Sticks, a name derived from the colored wands they received. Prepared with proper ceremony and used correctly, the red sticks would reveal the location of enemies. Tecumseh also distributed a bundle of thirty red sticks to bands of his Creek followers, with one stick to be thrown each night into the fire. After the bundle was gone, they were to watch the sky for a meteor (a celestial sign of his name, panther passing across). Tecumseh promised that thirty days after the meteor, he would stamp his foot and cause the earth to shake. In a stunning demonstration of his shamanistic authority, this coincided with the New Madrid earthquake of 16 December 1811.

Tippecanoe. While Tecumseh was negotiating with Southern nations, Tenskwatawa was supposed to keep the unofficial truce between Harrison and the Northern coalition of Indians. Harrison, however, began to claim that individuals at Tippecanoe were involved in frontier raids and had to be turned over to white authorities. In September and October, he built a new fort one hundred miles south of Tippecanoe, called Fort Harrison, and assembled about one thousand men from the militia and army. For several weeks messages and threats passed between the Indian camp and Harrison, and military forces advanced to within two miles of Prophetstown. Tenskwatawa became convinced that the Great Spirit would guarantee an Indian victory by covering the battlefield with a magical fog, which would blind the white soldiers but not his warriors. His followers accepted the pronouncement as a true vision. Before dawn on 7 November 1811 the warriors engaged in an aggressive charge, abandoning their usual stealth in their conviction of inevitable triumph. Tenskwatawa was perched on a promontory, beating a drum and chanting to motivate the warriors. As the morning waned, it was clear that the Battle of Tippecanoe was a disaster for the Indians. Only fifty whites were killed, but Indian losses were much heavier. The Indians were forced to evacuate Prophetstown, which Harrison then burned. More than lives were lost, however, for with defeat the mystical foundation of pan-Indianism evaporated. Many in the coalition returned to their homes declaring Tenskwatawa a false prophet. Some remained allies, persuaded by Tecumsehs powerful leadership. After Tippecanoe not even Tenskwatawa put any stock in his claim that he had been chosen by the Master of Life. Within a year the Shawnee Prophets fires were extinguished. Although his brother attempted to hold the confederacy together, sometimes by sheer willpower, he was defeated in 1813. On 5 October Tecumseh earned a mythic death during a battle with the U.S. Army on the Thames River in Ontario. Tenskwatawa later moved to Kansas with the rest of his people, where he remained until his death in 1836.

The Historical Verdict. Historians debate Tenskwatawas role in the attempt to create a pan-Indian, nativist response to white encroachment, and many favor the idea that he was the tool of his more astute and charismatic brother, Tecumseh, whose carefully planned strategy was dashed by the precipitate action of the Prophet. Epitomizing the noble savage fighting for his country, Tecumseh appealed, then and now, to many Anglo-Americans, who could fit him in the mold of a brave, if tragic, freedom fighter. To the evangelical mind, Tecumseh demonstrated the heroic potential of all Indians if they were given the needed corrective of civilization and Christianity while Tenskwatawa illustrated the opposite. The Prophets superstitious heathenism was what kept Indians in ignorance and darkness, kept them from realizing their true selves. The brothers represented two sides of the Anglo-American debate over the Indian question, and both stirred the pious zeal of evangelical Protestants. However historians may assess the actual nature of Tecumsehs rebellion, the Indians themselves responded to its religious claims. The defeat of pan-Indianism was also a defeat for a pan-Indian religious revival, at least until the Ghost Dance of the late nineteenth century. Even in resistance the encounters between Anglo- and Native Americans in the expanding West occurred on a sacred plane.

Epilogue. To many Indians of the Old Northwest, the inability of the Shawnee Prophet to restore their power was counted as an individual failureas a severed connection between Tenskwatawa and the Master of Life, not as disproof of the underlying perception that their alienation from the spirit world was the source of their malaise. From Tenskwatawa the spark of that conviction was carried on by the Winnebago Prophet, who played a role in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Again the effort to grapple with the advance of the whites assumed a religious character. Since 1804 the Sauk and Fox had contended that the cession of their lands around Rock River in Illinois had not been legitimate. By 1830 resistance had coalesced around Black Hawks band. Meanwhile the Winnebago Prophet, Wabokieshiek, who was half Sauk and half Winnebago, accepted an invitation from the Sauk to settle on their lands with his band of about two hundred tribesmen. Like Tenskwatawa, his influence was broad-based, spreading to other tribes, including some members of the Kickapoo and Potawatomi tribes. His message was also familiar: by rejecting white ways and returning to moral purity, there would be a rebirth among the Indians. Added to this was the vision that if the Indians made a stand on their lands, the British and other tribes, including all the Potawatomis, Winnebagos, Osages, and even Southern tribes, would come to their aid and assure their success. Such religious assurances doubtless bolstered the hopes of the group gathered around Black Hawk. The actual war centered on the attempt of Black Hawks band to cross the Mississippi and settle in their ancestral village on the Rock River. Officials decided to regard the action as an invasion. The outnumbered and starving Indians initially defeated a group of American militia, but after nearly three months of pursuit federal troops caught up with them as they attempted to ford the river at another point. Several hundred of Black Hawks band, including women and children, were killed. The Prophets influence faded, though Black Hawk, through his autobiography, became one of the most famous spokesmen for the plight of Indians. This so-called war was the last Indian conflict in the Old Northwest. The region had furnished some of the most compelling personalities of the age as reference points for the Anglo-American view of Indianness, especially the warrior legends of Tecumseh and Black Hawk. That nineteenth-century whites failed to grasp the religious motivation behind resistance was not surprising. The prophets message of indigenous cultural integrity, with its presumption of white people as agents of evil, was less comprehensible to the Anglo-American worldview than the romantic notion of the noble savage.


Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992);

R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983);

Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian (New York: Facts on File, 1985);

Anthony F. C. Wallace, Prelude to Disaster: The Course of Indian-White Relations Which led to the Black Hawk War of 1832 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1970).

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