Transcripts of Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet
Written by Lindsey Beckley
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
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.
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
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”
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.
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).
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