THH Episode 28: Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Transcript of Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Jump to Show Notes

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Today on Giving Voice, I talk with Chris Newall, co-founder and Director of Education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. In our last full episode, we covered roughly the first half of the life of Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet. Throughout the episode, we talked about danger of relying on sources produced in large by white colonizers to tell Native history, and how IHB and other history organizations are learning to broaden our ideas of what a source can be to include more Native voices in Native history.

To give you some more information on this topic and some context about why it’s so important, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who is working to bring these issues to light every day, and Chris Newall and the Akomawt Educational Initiative are doing just that.

And now, Giving Voice.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Chris Newell from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and I’m gonna let you go ahead and introduce yourself, Chris.

Newell: Hi, Lindsey, hi everybody! My name’s Chris Newell and I’m a cofounder – one of three cofounders – of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. We’re located in the southeast corner of Connecticut, based out of Ledyard, Connecticut but we have roots all over Indian Country. I am originally Passamaquoddy from [place name], which is known as the Indian Township Preservation in Maine and live in Mashantucket and work at the Pequot Museum and do a lot of work – a lot of the focus of what we do is working with the Indigenous histories, helping with places that want to teach them in a culturally competent fashion to do so and hopefully create some resources, change some thinking in the future and make sure that when we talk about Indigenous histories that we include the voice of Indigenous people. So that’s the focus of what we do at Akomawt.

And just a little background – Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word. It comes from my language. It translates in English to the snowshoe path. It’s the symbol of our mission. Essentially, in the winter time, up in my territory, the snow shoe path was how you got out to where you needed to do work. When you needed to get back home, you found it again and traversed back on it. The more you used it, the easier it becomes to use and every season it renews. So that’s what we think about when we think about the educational initiative that we have brought forth here, is creating new learning paths for people to engage with Native content in a way that will be impactful as well as culturally competent, you know, trying to erase some of the old habits of Indigenous history in colonial spaces that have crept up and are still pervasive to this day.

Beckley: That’s great. And I know that we really admire your work. I know that one of the people here at the Historical Bureau saw you at the National Council on Public History and came back and we had a lot of really good conversations from that so, thank you for the work you’re doing and you continue to do and thank you for being here, of course.

Newell: Oh yea, absolutely love being here.

Beckley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those old habits you had mentioned. What are some of the habits that you were seeing and still see that you want to address with your initiative?

Newell:  So, when it comes to museums, you know, essentially museums are places that were created by the colonization of America so when it comes to Indigenous histories told in museums, museums are essentially really colonial artifacts. Places of public history are oftentimes colonial artifacts and oftentimes tell the history of Indigenous people through that lens. American anthropology has a long history from the time it was founded of doing things like collecting human body parts, collecting material culture, and portraying a myth of saving the idea of the vanishing Indian, back in the early days of anthropology. Thoughts have changed over time but, you know, that’s kind of the basis of how these spaces were created in the first place and how a lot of these earlier books were created. And, so, there are some things that – some habits that were created back then. A lot of times, the use of generalized terminology – so Native, Native American, American Indian – to kind of put all Native peoples under one umbrella oftentimes appears and it’s not clear enough to a lot of people that there are literally, in existence right now in America, 573 separate, sovereign Native communities recognized by the government and over 1000 Native communities just in general in America – we’re not talking Canada and other places.

So there’s a really complex – there’s a serious complexity when it comes to Indigenous histories and when it comes to Indigenous contemporary issues and things of the sort. And unfortunately, museums generally still give the kind of general impression that we can put everything under the box of American Indian or Native American. If you visit a fine arts museum that has collections of fine art from around the world, literally all the Americans – the art of Americas – are usually places in one small room. So all of these 1000 different communities being represented in one small room. You know, it’s just – it give the general idea that we can put everything in one box and everything fits there when in fact there is no box that can contain the complexity of Native existence as well as our history and our arts and our cultural ways. So those old habits still exit today. We see changes happening when we see places like the MET have gotten rid of their Native American collection and have incorporated their Native American find art into their American wing. That was a big move there from a major museum of kind of rethinking how we present Native art as simply art, rather than cultural artifacts.

Also, the idea at a lot of public historical places, of presenting Native peoples as only existing in the past. That’s another old habit that is kind of pervasive today. I work at a major Native museum, and it’s not uncommon for a 4th grader to come into our museum, have a Native educator in front of them, and the first question they ask is, innocently, “When the Natives were alive …” and that’s how they begin their question. So there is literally a section – a significant portion of the population – that sees us as all dead and gone and vanished. And it’s largely due to the way public history is taught and the way it approaches Native Histories as if we are still having to be saved from being vanished, rather than incorporating the very vibrant ways that we have found ways to exist in the modern times and kept our culture alive and been very dynamic through history. And also, involved with all of American history.

That’s another thing with the story of America is that Native people are often so left out. And yet, the American Revolution was largely aided by Native peoples. All the way from that time – the industrial revolution was largely aided by work efforts in Native communities and things of that sort. And military times – you know, Native people have participated in the military in higher numbers per-capita than any other ethnicity in the United states and as a result, Native cultures were actually used in military structure and strategy to overcome things such as the code talkers from about 33 different tribes during World War II, which was a big part of the success of America in that war. So, in the story of America, Native people are, unfortunately, often let out as if we are a separate part of something else. And those are things that we at Akomawt are looking to address and looking to bring all together, so when we’re talking about the history of this land, we don’t just start at the time of colonization and think of it as only 400 or so years old. But rather, we think about people living on this land back 13,000 years at least, which includes Indigenous history as well and not erase that part of the history of this land here. Because Native people did exist here and thrive and subsist in a sustained fashion well – for millennia prior to any colonization. So, the idea that colonization saved Native people in some form is also something that we look to address as well. You know, so we really want to give Native perspective to a lot of these things. And that includes bringing Native voices and changing the framework by which Native history is taught inside of these colonial artifacts of public history such as museums to present them in a different framework that would expand the thinking outside of that box that we are constantly put inside of.

Beckley: That’s great. I know that we at the Historical Bureau have been  thinking a lot about that and trying to come to terms with what we’ve done in the past and how we can improve ourselves going forward. And I think one of the major, I wouldn’t say blocks, but one of our – something that intimidates us about going forward is that, as public historians, we’ve gone through school. We’ve gone through, you know, some of us up to PhD level and all of it is learning how to use primary sources and how to read primary sources. And when we think of primary sources, we primarily think of written materials, weather that be documents or newspapers – things like that. Obviously, a lot of Native history isn’t written down in the same way European history was. And if it is, it was probably written by a European person. What are some of the sources that you turn to, to look at Native history?

Newell: Ok, so, the sources that I look forward to are really those conversations that I have in Native communities talking to people that have history there through multiple multiple multiple generations. And oftentimes, there are a lot of stories – a lot of oral histories that you can delve into that can really teach you a lot, especially when it comes to Native perspectives. So things like the name of the land, prior to colonization. Prior to the renaming of it. How did Native people name different aspect of land or the land that they live on? What was the lens that they viewed land through? So language is an important tool – so important for the view into the Native perspective. Native languages are so different from the English language. And that’s one of the things that I’ve delved into the most. So that requires from people that are language speakers and people that have that frame of mind of thinking through and Indigenous lens though language. And those are oftentimes elders, but not always, so sometimes you’ve got to spend some time and you’ve got to search out who is the respected person and who has these stories. Have conversations and just kind of let things come out as naturally as they would.

So oral histories for me are a bit part of what drives me because a lot of what they tell is not written down and what writing it down would do is kind of photograph it and freeze it in time because the stories do change over time, but that’s also part of the history. Viewing how to stories do change over time as well. So there is a way to view oral history that you can gain knowledge from that can be factual. But there is a method for viewing oral history that really takes some experience. You really need to be able to talk to a lot of people that have these histories and kind of get a sense of what a broad swath of how they’re viewing things, rather than just talking to one single person, which is the same as looking at one single primary – a piece of paper – a primary source document. It’s really the perspective of one person. So it’s kind of a failure of a primary document is that it does give an accurate photograph of that person’s view at that time. But it’s only that person and we’re not getting the swath of information across a broad perspective of people. So that’s why for me oral histories are one of the ways that I go and also I pay attention to the particular language. And just to give you a window into how different that is – the English language, when it was introduced to this land when the English arrived – has the blueprint of England. The ideas of land improvement – and I’m gonna put quotes around that word improvement – in 17th century English knowledge meant cutting down trees, planning crops, raising cows, chickens, and pigs – which are very different from the 13,000 years of sustainable farming and hunting practices and fishing practices that Native people had done for millennia. And would actually destroy the environment, upset the natural balance of things. And we’re currently still living under that and so that’s not sustainable here. You know, we’re seeing America return to Indigenous ways of knowing. So the Indigenous language has words that – of viewing land as property, and even viewing people as property. In the Algonquin language, at least in my language, land is not considered something that we can possess as an object. In fact, when we pick up a handful of dirt, the way we translate what would be the English equivalent of dirt really translates to “the molecules of our ancestors,” which shows Indigenous knowledge of the cycle of life and the science of all of that. And under that framework, with that translation, we see land as literally life. So if you pick up a handful of what would be in English dirt and you let that to fall out of your hand, that’s literally in our viewpoint, the molecules of your ancestors falling to the earth or literally life falling out of your hand and back to the earth. Therefore, how can you own life – if your framework, you cannot. And the land sustains everybody, not just people, but all animals, all life, is sustained by the land. Therefore, in our viewpoint, it cannot be owned. A lot of Native languages have similar kinds of concepts in them in that land is oftentimes considered in some shape or form alive. Or a version of substance. So elders, oral history, and language especially. Very very important to pay attention to the language of the people that lived on that land for thousands of years and have an intimate knowledge of it and developed a language around the way the land required them to live – to really have a knowledge of that history there. So please be sure you include knowledge of language and language keepers when talking about Native history there because of the importance of the framework.

Beckley: That is incredibly interesting. I have, of course, heard through my traditional education all about “Native people didn’t believe in land ownership,” but I never heard anybody, I don’t think, explain why they didn’t believe that. It’s always kind of a given of “of course they didn’t believe that. We believed that and they were different so that’s why.” Thank you for explaining that. That’s incredibly interesting to me.

Newell: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Absolutely.

 Beckley: I wanted to ask if you think that our current methods of historiography are adequate for doing Native history. They’re just so based in a Eurocentric worldview and they’re roots are in Europe. So I want to know if you think that we just need to rethink the very foundations of how we’re doing history or is there a way to make our methods fit in with doing Native history?

Newell: Yea, so we really do need some radical thinking amongst historiographers and the way that we retell histories. And sometimes, in historical tellings we really try to achieve objectivity, which has its own merit and is valuable in its own right. However, there is something to be said for the subjective history. So to tell a story from a Native perspective completely is going to have a completely different ring to it than the primary source document history that was likely written by early Americans or people of European ancestry. And so, that’s one of the ways that we can rethink the way that we do these things. And technology is really affording us ways to bring back or to rethink how we do things. Some of these old things – one of the things that would often happen is that a lot of these things that were kept in collections were actually kept in the collection and you had to have special access to get to a collection to get that knowledge. And guess what? Some of that knowledge that was recorded by Europeans and early Americans is actually really factually and very valuable to Native communities who, through colonization, have in some way shape or form maybe have been forced to lose that knowledge. And by keeping it from native communities, you’re actually putting a block in front of them from getting a sense of sovereignty for themselves. Which includes not just self-governance, but also sovereignty in the way they tell their history.

For them to be able to look at those documents and then for them to be able to frame that information through their lens now allows historiographers who are largely translating it from one point of view, to see an opposing point of view, and when it comes to objectivity – that’s how we’re going to get to a more objective route there is by hearing both sides, which sometimes are opposed to one another. Which is totally find because not all things in history are very clear cut and we should discuss and debate. But we should also make sure that we are including all perspectives while we’re doing so and be aware when we’re not. So those are all things to consider for going forward there. And also creating long term relationships with tribal communities. For these colonial spaces of public history telling, that is such an important thing as well because when you bring a Native perspective into your museum, you can – there are ways to re frame the work essentially, decolonizing your museum. I know we use that term a lot these days, “decolonizing,” that’s really a way of re framing things back to an Indigenous perspective. My preferred word, when it’s applicable in actually re-indiginizing. So, what we’re doing is we’re taking a colonial space telling a story from a colonial perspective, and we’re going to take that history and then re-indiginize it because prior to colonization, this is the way the history was told was through an Indigenous lens, just not in a museum. So we’re taking that history and we’re re-indiginizing it through that fashion.

Beckley:  So, for our last question, I think it might be a little bit redundant, but I keep on – I hear you talk about the importance of community engagement and including Native perspectives. Can you just elaborate on why it is so important to do these things and why it’s important for everybody who’s listening to be thinking about some of these questions?

Newell: Absolutely, So, in native communities, there is a lot of knowledge that gets passed down through the generations, and these types of things – that type of knowledge being passed down – doesn’t get a degree passed with it. There’s not a piece of paper that goes with that knowledge and these people become respected knowledge keepers in their communities. And when we approach these communities and we find these knowledge keepers and we’re going to bring them into these academic or public history spaces – the common thing is, if we were to bring in another academic, we would pay them for their service of research or knowledge in helping that institution to accumulate – we should also think of Native knowledge keepers who don’t have a master’s degree of a PhD to be on the same level of knowledge as somebody with a masters or PhD. It’s just that they have that level of knowledge on their own community and therefore, we should compensate them appropriately when we do involve their knowledge. Too often, one of the old habits of old anthropologists was to go into a Native community, extract knowledge, not give any compensation to the people they extracted the knowledge from, and then leave the community, write books, and develop careers based on what they have extracted from that community. And that really needs to change. There really needs to be some collaboration. Some equity. If we go back to the presentation that we did for NCPH, there really needs to be some equity in the collaboration and these colonial spaces really need to recognize Native knowledge keepers on the same level as the PhD’s that they have in their institutions and make sure that we treat their knowledge equally as well as compensate them properly because in this modern day world, unfortunately we cannot live necessarily off the lands we used to, and therefore, the use of money to get food and things – that’s what we all live under these days. Therefore, we should consider these traditional people with that compensation or, possibly maybe doing something for the community if they would choose not to have money because some of these people don’t want money. So when that happens, there should be some sort of give and take going with the community as well to acknowledge what is that, to make sure we’re lifting it up and putting it on the same level as those that would write about it that come from outside the communities.

Beckley: Thank you. I think, Chris, I think we’re running up against our time limit here but I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you wanted to say that I’ve left out – address any concerns that you have, or just promote yourself or your institute.

Newell: So, yes, once again we are the Akomawt Educational Initiative. You can find our website at www.akomawt.org. That’s the Passamaquoddy spelling. I know that the “k” sounds like a “g,” so that Akomawt, but it is a “k” in there. So, you can find out more information about what we’re doing and what we’re up to. We’re also on social media at Akomawt, on twitter at Akomawt as well as on Facebook, and those are the places that you can really see an up-to-date of what we’re up to in real time. And we have some other things that are coming up in the near future so follow our social media and keep an eye on our efforts – one of the things that we’re looking to do in the very near future is provide a database for Native American mascots for people who want to have conversations about that and to see the data about those schools and which ones have changed and all of the information. And in the future, possibly, a Native sourced website on treaties. So, once again, a very subjective history – we’re going to let tribes tell their own view of how treaties were historically signed with the U.S. government or with British government history. So, get a different side of the story as well. So that’s things you can look forward to from Akomawt. We look forward to this work – this is really something we’re all impassioned about, endawnis, Jason and I feel very strongly about this work and thank you so much for having us here to bring our voice to your podcast.

Once again, I want to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us for this segment. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, we will include a link to a great reading list compiled by Akomawt in our show notes, which you can find by going to blog.history.in.gov and clicking on Talking Hoosier History at the top.

We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow IHB on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Chris Newell:

Learn more about the Akomawt Educational Initiative at their website: akomawt.org.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, Akomawt has put together a phenomenal resource list, including websites, books and more. Find it here.

In the episode, Chris mentioned a database for Native American mascots that Akomawt was working on. In the intervening time since we spoke, that database has gone live and is a greats resource to learn about the history surrounding Native American Mascots, the conversations going on about the topic and ways to approach conversations on the topic. You can see that here.

THH Episode 27: Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet

Transcripts of Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet

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Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Flute Music]

Beckley: The bright day darkened as the summer sun disappeared from the sky on June 16, 1806 in present day western Ohio. The people looked up – some in fear or astonishment, but others as though they were expecting it – and they were. For what they were witnessing had been prophesied by their leader.

This is the story of the meteoric rise from obscurity of a vibrant political and religious leader, a story often overshadowed by that of his brother, Tecumseh. This is the story of Tenskwatawa, otherwise known as The Prophet.

In this, the first of a 2 part series, we tell how Tenskwatawa rose from anonymity in Western Ohio to become a prophet for many Indigenous peoples and the leading figure in a Native “revitalization” movement. In the next installment, we’ll explore how Tenskwatawa relocated his followers to the banks of the Tippecanoe River and worked to protect his movement by whatever means necessary, whether that meant forging alliances or employing violence.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Before we get to the main story, there are a few things we need to put out there. This might take a while but it’s all really important for us to say – hang in there, we’ll get to the good stuff soon.

First, let’s talk about nomenclature. The most common ways to refer to the Native People of the United States–American Indian and Native American– are both problematic. Both come from outside the community that they try to describe, and both are trying to describe hundreds of different groups with just one phrase, a generalization that Native People themselves would never make. Ideally, to be accurate and respectful, we would always use the term a group uses to describe themselves, such as Shawnee or Miami, but in this case, multiple groups of people came together and intentionally set aside tribal affiliations.

In this episode, I’ll be using Native People or Indigenous People. As Native education specialist Chris Newall of the Passamaquoddy Tribe explained, neither of these terms link Native people to the nation which perpetrated a genocide against them. And one more note on nomenclature, Tenskwatawa’s name at birth was Lalawethika, meaning the Rattle or Noise-maker. He didn’t take the name Tenskwatawa, meaning “Open Door” or “The Prophet” until later in life, as part of his transformation into a religious and political leader. Today, to avoid confusion, I’ll be sticking to Tenskwatawa and the Prophet throughout.

We have been wanting to tell this story for a long time – the Indiana Historical Bureau has wanted to include more Native history in our work for years but, time and again, we’ve struggled with finding accurate language and utilizing Native sources, as well as forging sustained and mutually beneficial relationships with local native communities. We’ve produced problematic native history in the past – especially the mid-20th century – and we want to try our best to avoid making those same mistakes going forward.

But we do want to tell native history – in fact, we must tell native history, because native history is absolutely essential to understanding Indiana history, and to avoid telling it, no matter why, is a disservice to all Hoosiers. We strive to be ethical, respectful, and just in our representations while also understanding that, as non-natives, ours is inherently the perspective of the colonizers. All of this is to say – we know we won’t get it perfectly right, but we feel it’s imperative to try, and we sincerely hope that you’ll learn from this amazingly complex story nonetheless. Because this is a story that teaches us much about the complications and tensions between religion, politics, democracy, and land ownership – and similar tensions can be found throughout history all around the world.  So let’s get to it.

[Flute Music]

Beckley: The story of Tenskwatawa’s rise to power starts before he was born. Just months before his 1775 birth, his father Puckshinwa, a member of the Shawnee tribe, died in the Battle of Point Pleasant. Puckshinwa died fighting for a cause that would eventually become central to his son’s life – the retention of Native land and culture. In 1768, seven years before Tenskwatawa’s birth, the colony of Virginia was looking to expand, and had their eyes on present day Kentucky. The people living on that land – members of the Delaware, Wyandot, Mingo and Shawnee tribes – had no desire to cede their land to the American colonists.

In a continuation of what by this time had become an established pattern, the government of Virginia approached a group willing to make a deal. Thinking of Native Peoples as one cohesive group with shared ambitions is a massive oversimplification. Various tribes had different goals, and even villages and clans within the same tribe could have competing objectives. British, American, and Native factions often used one another against each other.  In this case, it was the Iroquois that the colonial government turned to. While the Iroquois did not live on the land, they claimed ancient conquest rights over it, ostensibly providing a loophole that the colonists would exploit. The Virginia government used this loophole to circumvent the land rights of the Native People living there, allowing them to “buy” Kentucky from the Iroquois for a pittance.

The resulting conflict between American Settlers and the Shawnee and Mingo people living on the land lasted for years. Tenskwatawa’s father was one of many killed in the battles, and the Shawnee of Kentucky were displaced to modern-day Ohio, which is where Tenskwatawa would be born and raised.

The disastrous effects of white encroachment on Tenskwatawa’s family continued even after the death of his father. When Tenskwatawa was a child, his mother, Methoataske, migrated west, leaving both Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh, and their siblings behind. While it’s unclear exactly why she left or why she didn’t take her children with her, it’s highly likely that she was fleeing the continued pressure being put on the Native groups in modern day Ohio by white encroachment.

Tenskwatawa would have heard the stories of his father’s sacrifice in his youth, felt the residual effects of his mother’s migration all of which were the result of incursions of Europeans into Native lands. In 1794, he watched his people fight for their land once again, this time against the American Republic rather than the British Colonies.

The conclusion of the American Revolution led directly to further European conflict with native groups when Britain ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. That land had been occupied by a variety of Indigenous groups for millennia.

The Native Peoples had no representation at the proceedings, had not signed the treaty, and did not recognize the authority of Britain to sign over large swaths of their land to the Americans. When the US government began dividing and selling the land to white settlers, many of the Native factions in the area, including parts of the Wyandot, Shawnee, Lenape, Miami, and Wea tribes, formed a confederacy and fought for their homes in the Northwest Indian War. Ultimately, their confederacy was unsuccessful. Under great economic strain and military threat, they signed the Treaty of Greenville on August 3, 1795, ceding much of present day Ohio to the Americans in exchange for just $20,000 worth of goods, or $400,000 in today’s currency.

This “Western Confederacy” of Natives was an attempt to preserve the land of the Wyandot, Shawnee, Lenape, Miami, Wea, and other Native Tribes for the people who already lived there. Following the collapse of the confederacy, a period of accommodationist policy prevailed. Under intense economic pressure, some leaders like Shawnee Chief Black Hoof, agreed to accept US government oversight, adopt European Agricultural methods, and make other concessions. People like Black Hoof saw these policies as an alternative to total cultural genocide. Of course, all of this is a very simplified version of a rich and complicated story. There could be a whole podcast dedicated to the westward expansion of the United States, and the Native resistance of various forms to that expansion, but I just wanted to make sure I laid some general ground work for what comes next.

All of this – Puckshinwa’s death at the Battle of Point Pleasant, Methoataske’s westward migration, the Shawnee involvement in the Western Confederacy, and the accommodationist policies that prevailed afterwards – all of it set the stage for Tenskwatawa’s rise to become one of the most powerful leaders of his time.

In the decades following the end of the Northwest Indian War, there was little to indicate what was to come from Tenskwatawa. By his own account, he drifted, at one point married and had children but couldn’t support them so he drifted some more. He drank too much, was an alcoholic, and became overly cynical. Then, in the fall of 1804, it happened – the prophecy.

The main account of the prophesy comes from an 1808 boon by Richard McNamar called The Kentucky Revival. Academic history’s reliance on written sources means that Native voices are often left out of Native stories. This is problematic.

Yet, in many cases these narratives written by white men are the only print sources we have recounting Native history and so, we can either use what sources we have access to, while acknowledging their limitations, or further the injustice by not telling the story at all. Many times, the sources on Native history that can be found in archives were created by men who actively promoted the destruction of the Native peoples through warfare, or the death of their culture through religious conversion and assimilation. This makes it incredibly important to understand the sources and the biases with which they were written.

In this case, we’re using McNamar’s Kentucky Revival for a few reasons. Written from the first-hand experience of a man of the Shaker faith, this book seems to lack many of the paternalistic, derisive overtones evident in many contemporary documents. This is because the author, as an envoy of the Shakers, was not in the Prophet’s settlement as a missionary bent on conversion, but rather as a delegate who suspected that the Spirit of God was at work there. In other words, he was there to learn about the religious awakening surrounding Tenskwatawa, rather than to try to teach the Native inhabitants about his own religion. For these reasons, we’re drawing on McNamar’s description of Tenskwatawa’s vision. It says that Tenskwatawa…

Voice actor reading from McNamar: “fell into a vision, in which he appeared to be travelling along a road, and came to where it forked – the right hand way he was informed led to happiness and the left to misery. This fork in the road, he was told, represented that stage of life in which people were convinced of sin; and those who took the right hand way quit everything that was wicked and became good. But the left hand road was for such as would go on and be bad, after they were shown the right way…On the left hand way he saw three houses – from the first and second were pathways that led across into the right hand road, but no way leading from the third: this, said he, is eternity. He saw vast crowds going swift along the left hand road, and great multitudes in each of the houses, under different degrees of judgment and misery…He was afterwards…taken along the right hand way, which was all interspersed with flowers of delicious smell and showed a house at the end of it where was everything beautiful, sweet, and pleasant, and still went on learning more and more; but in his first vision he saw nothing but the state of the wicked; from which, the Great Spirit told him to go and warn his people of their danger, and call upon them to put away their sins, and be good. “

Beckley: And with that mandate from the Great Spirit, Tenskwatawa awoke and began immediately preaching and spreading the message that he had received. He turned from all of the sins of his past and became a new man, more than a man – a prophet. And if this drunk, meandering man could reform his ways, he believed, surely all others could follow. And many did. Yet, there were those who balked at the prophecy, and Tenskwatawa at times dealt harshly with dissenters, even going so far as to execute them. The Great Spirit sent yet another vision, again recorded in McNamar’s Kentucky Revival:

Voice actor reading from McNamar: ”Whereupon the Great Spirit told him to separate from these wicked chiefs and their people, and showed him particularly where to come, towards the big fort where the peace was concluded with the Americans: and there make provision to receive and instruct all from the different tribes that were willing to be good.”

Beckley: “The big fort where the peace was concluded with the Americans” could only refer to one place. And so the Prophet and his followers removed themselves from the potentially corrupting influence of dissenting voices to the Fort Greenville area, constructed a town, and began calling other Native Peoples to Greenville to hear the Prophet’s message. But what was that message?

Our best source on what exactly Tenskwatawa was preaching while in Greenville is the transcript of a speech given in 1807 by Le Maigouis, a messenger of the prophet. In the speech, Le Maigouis speaks with the words of Tenskwatawa. After warning his people to limit their contact with Americans Tenskwatawa said:

Voice actor reading from Le Maigouis: “They are not your Fathers…but your Brethren… My Children, The Whites I placed on the other side of the Great Lake, that they might be a separate people – To them I…have given Cattle, Sheep, Swine and poultry for themselves only. You are not to keep any of these Animals, nor to eat their meat – To you I have given the Dear, the Bear, and all wild animals…and the Corn that grows in the fields, for your own use – and you are not to give your Meat or your Corn to the Whites to eat.

My Children, You must not get drunk. It is a great sin…you must not drink one drop of Whiskey. It is the drink of the evil spirit…

My Children, You must kill no more Animals than are necessary to feed and clothe you…”

Beckley: That’s a sampling of the various instructions meant to keep his followers free from the influence of white culture, and today when we learn about the Prophet’s teachings in school, this portion of his message is always present. Historian James Madison’s textbook Hoosiers and the American Story says, “[Tenskwatawa] convinced many Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware to turn from the bad habits of the white man and return to Indian tradition.” And that’s absolutely true. But The Prophet also advocated a departure from some Native traditions as well.

One example of this is his denouncement of the mishaami, or medicine bags:

Voice actor reading from Le Maigouis: “Your wise men have had medicine in their bags – they must throw away their medicine bags and when the medicine is in blossom collect it fresh and pure.”

Beckley: These medicine bags were bundles of herbs that played a part in the religion of the Shawnee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and other tribes. It was believed that they were able to heal the wounded, and they had been a traditional remedy for generations. Yet, Tenskwatawa deemed them of the evil spirit and required his followers to burn them. He also banned specific traditional dances, saying:

Voice actor reading from Le Maigouis: “You are no more to dance the Wabano, nor the Piogan or pipe dance – I did not put you on the earth to dance those dances, but you are to dance naked with your bodies painted and with the Poigamangum in your hands.”

Beckley: What became the main objectives of Tenskwatawa’s movement was also laid out in the message:

Voice actor reading from Le Maigouis: “You are however never to go to War against each other, But to cultivate peace between your different Tribes that they may become one great people.”

Beckley: “That they may become one great people…” What Tenskwatawa was advocating for here was more than a confederacy such as had been seen in the past. He was calling for the total abandonment of tribal affiliations – no longer would there be Shawnee, Potawatomi, Miami, Kickapoo, or Iroquois. Rather, all Native People would become one Pan-Indian nation with Tenskwatawa as their sole leader – both spiritually and politically. Le Maigouis, who carried Tenskwatawa’s message of unity, also carried a warning for those who refused to comply:

Voice actor reading from Le Maigouis: “Those Villages which do not listen to this talk . . . will be cut off from the face of the Earth.”

Beckley: To Tenskwatawa, his political goal of preventing further land loss was inextricably tied to his spiritual goal of uniting all Native People as one. One could not be done without the other. And for his spiritual goal to be achieved, his followers had to have faith in him as their prophet. As the movement spread and Tenskwatawa gained political strength, U.S. territorial leadership began questioning his spiritual powers in an attempt to weaken his influence. In a letter to the followers of Tenskwatawa, Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison wrote,

Voice actor reading from Harrison:  “Who is this pretended prophet who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator. Demand of him some proofs at least of his being the messenger of the Deity. If God has really employed him he has doubtless authorized him to perform some miracles, that he may be known and received as a prophet. Ask of him to cause the sun to stand still – the moon to alter its course – the rivers to cease to flow – or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may then believe that he has been sent from God.”

Beckley: Almost as if in direct response to this taunt, Tenskwatawa sent envoys  to many surrounding Native villages carrying his message, calling followers and skeptics alike to join him at Greenville for a demonstration of the power possessed by the Prophet – For on June 16, 1806, Tenskwatawa would put out the sun.

And this is where we’ll end part 1 of the story of Tenskwatawa. In part 2, we’ll see the teachings of The Prophet begin to spread and demand the attention of U.S. government officials in the area soon after he and his followers relocate to the banks of the Tippecanoe River in present day Indiana. We’ll also examine his relationship with Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison, including the battle of Tippecanoe, and the War of 1812 in order to better understand how Tenskwatawa’s uniquely successful movement began to come apart.

Join us in two weeks for a very special segment of Giving Voice. I’ll be talking with Chris Newall, the Director of Education at the Akomawt Education Initiative. Akomawt is an initiative dedicated to changing the ways in which we teach and learn about Native History, and we were so happy to have the chance to chat.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show, and to Dr. Michella Marino for all of her wonderful help with the script.

The music for today’s episode was written and performed by award-winning flute player Darren Thompson from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Indian Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. You can learn more about Darren’s work to promote American Indian cultural awareness as well as listen and buy his music on his website darrenthompson.net. We’ll put that link in the show notes.

The book The Gods of Prophetstown by Adam Jortner was my main secondary source for this episode. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. If you enjoy Talking Hoosier History and would like to help spread the word, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet

Music

All music in this episode was produced by award-winning flute player Darren Thompson from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Indian Reservation in Northern Wisconsin. You can learn more about Darren’s work to promote American Indian cultural awareness as well as listen and buy his music on his website darrenthompson.net.

The tracks heard in this episode are:

“The Creation Song”

“Eagle Whistle Song”

“Night Traveler”

Books

Calloway, Colin, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

Calloway, Collin, The Shawnees and the War for America, New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Cayton, Andrew, Frontier Indiana, Bloomington: IU Press, 1998.

Dubar-Ortiz, Roxanne, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.

Edmunds, David, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership, New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Edmunds, David, The Shawnee Prophet, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Gugin, Linda and St. Clair. James, Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, pgs 346-348.

Harrison, William Henry, Messages and Letter of William Henry Harrison, 1773-1841, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1922.

Jortner, Adam, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Kinietz, Vernon, and Voegelin, Ermine, Shawnese Traditions C.C. Trowbridge’s Account, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1939.

Madison, James, and Sandweiss, Lee Ann, Hoosiers and the American Sotry, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014

McNemar, Richard, The Kentucky revival, or, A short history of the late extraordinary outpouring of the spirit of God in the western states of America: agreeably to Scripture promises and prophecies concerning the latter day: with a brief account of the entrance and progress of what the world call Shakerism among the subjects of the late revival in Ohio and Kentucky : presented to the true Zion-traveler as a memorial of the wilderness journey, New York: Reprinted by Edward O. Jenkins, 1846.

Michigan Historical Commission, Michigan Historical Collections, Vol 40, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2006, pages 127-133.

Sugden, John, Tecumseh: A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Warren, Stephen, The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795-1870, Illinois: University of Illinois, 2005.

Web Sites

Candey, Robert, and Young, Alex. “Total Solar Eclipse of 1806 June 16,” NASA Eclipse Web Site. https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEsearch/SEsearchmap.php?Ecl=18060616 (accessed July 23, 2018).

Academic Journals

Cave, Alfred. “The Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe: A Case Study of Historical Myth-Making.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol 22. No. 4 (Winter, 2002). Accessed: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3124761?read-now=1&loggedin=true&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents