American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Tenskwatawa

Tenskwatawa probably was born in 1775 at Old Piqua, Ohio; he died November 1836 at present-day Kansas City, Kansas. Tenskwatawa, also known as the Shawnee Prophet or simply The Prophet, was an important religious political leader in the early nineteenth century Great Lakes—Ohio Valley region.

Tenskwatawa was born as part of a set of triplets into a family of at least six older brothers and sisters. Prior to his birth, their Shawnee war chief father, Puckeshinwa, died in the 1775 Battle of Point Pleasant, Ohio. Their Creek mother, Methoataske, left the Ohio in 1779 and entrusted her children— Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh (who would grow up to be one of the most famous orators and military leaders of all time), and another child—to an older sister, Tecumapease. His childhood name was Lalawethika ("rattle" or "noisemaker").

In 1804 Lalawethika assumed the role of community shaman when the renowned shaman Penagashea died. Lalawethika had been studying with him since 1795. After a series of visions in 1805, Lalawethika changed his name to Tenskwatawa, meaning "The Open Door." In the visions Tenskwatawa met the Master of Life who showed him heaven and hell, as well as giving him instructions on how to avoid one while gaining admission to the other. Tenskwatawa preached that Indians must give up alcohol, reject Christianity, destroy their medicine bags, and respect all life. If the Master of Life's teachings were followed, Tenskwatawa claimed that the dead and animals would be restored. Adherents were given "prayer sticks" inscribed with prayers for the Master of Life (Edmunds, 2004). He also claimed that Americans were products of the evil Great Serpent who, assisted by witches, spread death and destruction. Tenskwatawa nonetheless proposed that trade continue with the Anglo-Americans, but only on terms set by the Indians until it was no longer needed. Finally, the Nativist vision of Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh included a call for pan-Indian unity to resist encroachments on Indian lands by Europeans (Dowd, 1992, 382–383). Of the brothers, Tenkswatawa's approach was more spiritual, while Tecumseh's was more pragmatic, but both were very persuasive.

Immediately following his vision and explanations, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh established a village near Greenville, Ohio, and called for all Indian people to settle there. This settlement was a direct challenge to the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. Tenskwatawa participated in witchcraft trials among the Delawares and Wyandots in 1806. Those accused of witchcraft were individuals who appeared to be acculturated to the immigrants' ways. As his prestige and popularity grew, the settlement of Greenville proved to be inadequate. This resulted in the establishment of Prophetstown in 1808 at the mouth of the Tippecanoe River.

Here the brothers' influence was interpreted as a threat by governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison. In 1811, when Tecumseh was in the South building a pan-Indian coalition, Harrison and about 1,000 men attacked Prophetstown, defeating Tenskwatawa and his followers. This event was the nadir of Tenskwatawa's power among the Great Lakes nations. Prophetstown was rebuilt shortly after Harrison left the area, and Tenskwatawa continued to participate in the major events of the War of 1812, although he did not participate in any of the actual fighting. In 1813, at the Battle of the Thames, Tenskwatawa fled with the British, leaving Tecumseh and dozens of other warriors to die while protecting their retreat. The American victory in this battle effectively ended British and Indian power in the Old Northwest.

Denied admission to the United States in 1815, Tenskwatawa and a few Shawnee followers remained in Upper Canada until 1824. In 1826, two years after his return, Tenskwatawa and the Shawnees were removed from the Ohio Valley. They traveled to Kaskaskia and western Missouri, eventually reaching the Shawnee reservation in Kansas in 1828. Tenskwatawa sat for a portrait by American artist George Catlin in 1832 and died in 1836.

Karl S. Hele


Further Reading
Allan, Robert S. No date. "Tecumseh." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/ index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0007898. Accessed December 20, 2004.; Dowd, Gregory Evans. 1992a. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Dowd, Gregory Evans. 1992b. "Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh." American Indian Quarterly 16: 309–335.; Edmunds, R. David. 1984. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.; Edmunds, R. David. No date. "Tenskwatawa." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Available at: http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=37811&query=tenskwatawa. Accessed December 19, 2004.; Gilbert, Bil. 1990. God Gave Us This Country: Tekamthi and the First American Civil War. New York: Anchor Book.
 

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