Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh: Blood Brothers

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This booklet gives an introduction about the Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh, known as the Blood Brothers, It describes the objectives that relied heavily on the strength of united Indian forces to resist the American invasion. Between Tecumseh’s appeal for his people to hold their ground and Tenskwatawa’s commandments to reject the American lifestyle, together the two brothers played a major role in the shaping of American history.
1. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh:
Blood Brothers
Rick Daniel Hallbeck
Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh were brothers and members of the
Shawnee Indian tribe around the turn of the nineteenth century in early
America. Although they both recognized a serious threat by the white
Americans’ infiltration of their land, they each had very different views
on how to preserve their way of life. Tenskwatawa, on one hand, took a
spiritual approach to the situation, reminding his people that the “Crea-
tor” had always provided for them, and they needed nothing more from
the white man. Tecumseh, on the other hand, was a warrior and military
strategist. His objective relied heavily on the strength of united Indian
forces to resist the American invasion. Between Tecumseh’s appeal for
his people to hold their ground and Tenskwatawa’s commandments to
reject the American lifestyle, together the two brothers played a major
role in the shaping of American history.
The message of the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, reveals much
about the tribe’s traditions, spiritual beliefs, and rich culture. This mes-
sage also expresses the negative view Tenskwatawa had of the new
American ways. The Shawnee prophet sees white Americans as a kind of
plague threatening to annihilate the Native American culture. He points
to “the poison called whiskey” and the meat of the “filthy swine” to illus-
trate the toxic effects of American influence. He further expresses his
contempt for the Americans through symbolism: “Their foods will seem
to fill your empty belly, but this deceives you for food without spirit does
not nourish you” (pg.3). Tenskwatawa uses the comparison of the Na-
tives’ hunting of wild game to the white man’s tamed livestock as a way
to portray the American lifestyle as empty and spiritually starved. More-
over, the purity of the Native blood is being contaminated, the prophet
declares, by the diseases which were originally introduced to the Indians
during colonization.
2. Rick D. Hallbeck
Tenskwatawa continues by distinguishing the “two kinds of white
men.” He tells his people that the Europeans (French, British, and Span-
ish) are trustworthy and can be considered friends, whereas, “The Amer-
icans come from the slime of the sea . . . whose claws grab in our earth
and take it from us.” (pg.3). The metaphor is designed to paint an image
of white Americans as an evil creature with a powerful grip, capable of
tearing the Native’s land from under them. Tenskwatawa is not speaking
to his people merely to condemn the Americans but also to deliver a
strong message designed to remind the Shawnee of their rich heritage
and the importance of preserving their culture.
Tenskwatawa begins his talks by proclaiming that he was chosen by
God to deliver this message to the people. Like Moses after descending
Mount Sinai, the prophet utters the directives as he was instructed by the
Creator. These commandments not only forbid drinking liquor and infi-
delity, they demand racial segregation and a cleansing of white corrup-
tion. He tells his people that if they choose to ignore the Great Good
Spirit’s wishes, they will be punished; punishment for not obeying the
word of the Spirit is, of course, death.
Aside from laying down the moral laws set forth by the Creator,
Tenskwatawa proceeds to awaken his people to the great native traditions
and the rapid decay of their culture as a whole. He helps them to realize
how American materialism has turned them into beggars, weak and
growing ever more dependent on the white man: “now a People who
never had to beg for anything must beg for everything!” (pg.2). The
prophet stresses that it is the “Great Good Spirit” who has always pro-
vided for them and that they must return to their traditional ways, reject-
ing American innovation, convenience, and luxury. This mixture of reli-
gious fear and cultural pride serves to unite the Natives spiritually and
awaken them to the disintegration of their own rich culture.
While Tenskwatawa relied on his vision to unite the Native Ameri-
cans, his brother, Tecumseh, took a more political approach to the unifi-
cation of Natives everywhere. In Tecumseh’s Speech to William Henry
Harrison regarding the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, his differing views of
Indian land from that negotiated in the treaty are quickly established:
“Houses are built for you to hold councils in. The Indians hold theirs in
the open air.” (pg. 4). Here he opens his speech by alluding to the fact
that the land itself is where they do all of their business together. There-
fore, how can any one of them trade or sell any part of the land as speci-
fied in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville which gave the United States parts
of the Northwest Territory? No tribe, he says, has the right to sell the
land that belongs to us all. “Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as
3. JSHS: Journal of Student Historical Research
the earth?” (pg.5). While identifying the contradictions created by this
treaty, the Shawnee leader implores the general to retreat from the Indian
settlement and warns him that if he does not, there will be a serious con-
Although Tecumseh’s contempt for the Americans is apparent, he
does not place the blame entirely on the white man. He acknowledges
that it is the corrupted village chiefs that are selling or trading off the
land independently who are to blame as well. In his Speech, Tecumseh
assures William Henry Harrison that any village chief caught selling or
trading land to Americans will be eradicated. He then reaffirms that the
land belongs to them all and cannot be used as a bartering tool by any
one chief. Tecumseh also adds a word of warning to the general that if
the Americans continue to manipulate and corrupt these tribes, war will
break out between them which could create a hazardous situation for the
white man.
Tecumseh’s speech does not avoid the issue of trust. His lack of
confidence in the white man is clear as he accuses the Americans of
“great acts of injustice” with “no manner of regard.” The Shawnee leader
refers to the merciless way in which the Americans sweep the natives
from their land, driving them “into the great lake [Lake Michigan]” (pg.
5). To exemplify the ruthless nature of the white man, Tecumseh uses the
story of the crucifying of Jesus Christ. He reminds Americans, in a bod-
ing manner, that when they nailed Jesus to the cross, they mistakenly
thought it would be the end of Him. Tecumseh sees his people as being
crucified by the white man with no regard for the consequences of their
With the Americans moving across the continent like locusts, Te-
cumseh sees that the only chance the natives have at stopping this infes-
tation is through the complete unification of all Native Americans. The
“red people” must, he pleas, join together as one and claim the land as a
“common and equal right” (pg.5). This means that no tribe is granted the
privilege of trading or selling any section of land since it “belongs to all.”
This is the main point Tecumseh makes in his speech to General Harri-
son and seems to be the Native Americans’ last chance to secure their
place in the New World while preserving an endangered Indian culture.
Tecumseh’s Speech to William Henry Harrison and his brother’s
message to the Shawnee people reveal that, by the 1810s, the relationship
between American Indians and the U.S. government was extremely vola-
tile and rapidly evaporating. The strong forces of resistance engendered
by both of these Native American leaders created a barrier between the
American colonies and the target of expansion to The West. Although
4. Rick D. Hallbeck
Tecumseh is known as the more logical, more politically driven of the
two brothers, he does not exclude religious discourse from his speech to
General William Henry Harrison. Like his brother, Tecumseh credits the
“Great Spirit” for his inspiration to resist the American invasion. The two
Shawnee brothers may be distinguished from each other historically for
their different approaches in addressing the threat of the American incur-
sion. Yet both were fighting for the same cause with the same source of
power within them.
Work Cited
Message of the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, “He Who Opens the
Door,” and Tecumseh’s Speech to William Henry Harrison.