Native American Power and the United States

Native American Power and the United States

The rhetoric of equality was far removed from the reality of inequality along gender, class, racial and ethnic lines that permeated Jeffersonian America, as the diplomatic relations between Native Americans and local, state, and national governments illustrates. Prior to the Revolution, many Indian nations had balanced a delicate diplomacy between European empires, which scholars have called the ‘Play-off System.’ Moreover, in many parts of North America, indigenous peoples dominated social relations.

While Americans pushed for land cessions in all their interactions with Native diplomats and leaders, cessions (and boundaries) were only one source of tension. Trade, criminal jurisdiction, roads, the sale of liquor, and alliances were also key negotiating points. Yet the diplomatic negotiations in Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, in which Native peoples fought on each side or struggled desperately to maintain neutrality, were strikingly absent of Native American negotiators. Unsurprisingly, the final document omitted concessions for Native allies. Even as Native peoples proved vital trading partners, scouts, and allies against hostile nations, they were often condemned by white settlers and government officials as “savages.” White ridicule of indigenous practices and disregard for indigenous nations’ property rights and sovereignty prompted some indigenous peoples to turn away from white practices.

In the wake of the American Revolution, Native American diplomats developed relationships with the United States, maintained or ceased relations with the British Empire (or with Spain in the South), and negotiated their relationship with other Native nations. Encounters between different peoples or neighbors could require informal diplomacy. Formal diplomatic negotiations included Native rituals to reestablish relationships and open communication at treaty conferences that took place in Native towns, neutral sites in Indian-American borderlands, and in state and federal capitals. While chiefs were politically important, skilled orators, such as Red Jacket, intermediaries, and interpreters also played key roles in negotiations. Native American orators were known for metaphorical language, command of an audience, and compelling voice and gestures.

Throughout the early republic, diplomacy was the common recourse between Native nations and between Native peoples and the federal government. Violence and warfare carried enormous costs for all parties — in lives, money, trade disruptions, and reputation. Diplomacy allowed parties to air their grievances, negotiate their relationships, and minimize violence. Violent conflicts arose when diplomacy failed.

Native diplomacy testified to the complexity of indigenous cultures and their role in shaping the politics and policy of American communities, states, and the federal government. Yet white attitudes, words, and policies frequently relegated Native peoples to the literal and figurative margins as “ignorant savages.” At the same time, Euro-Americans heralded the natural wonders of North America as evidence of colonial superiority over Europe, even referring to themselves as “Native” to differentiate themselves from recent emigrants from Europe. History books depicted the North American continent as a vast, untamed wilderness, either portraying the Native peoples as hostile or simply omitting them completely. Poor treatment like this inspired hostility and calls for pan-Indian alliances from leaders of distinct Native nations, including the Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

Tecumseh (Figure 18) and his brother, Tenskwatawa (Figure 19), the Prophet, helped envision an alliance of North America’s indigenous populations to halt the encroachments of the United States and the resulting conditions. They created pan-Indian towns in present-day Indiana, first at Greenville, then at Prophetstown, in defiance of the Treaty of Greenville (1795). Tecumseh traveled to many diverse Indian nations in places ranging from Canada to Georgia, calling for unification, resistance, and the restoration of sacred power.

Portrait version of Lossing's engraving (in wood) of Shawnee chief Tecumseh with water colors on platinum print
Figure 18 — A derivative of an original work , Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing, Wikipedia is in thePublic Domain
Portrait of the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa
Figure 19 — Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa by Charles Bird King, Wikimedia Commons is in thePublic Domain

Tecumseh’s and Tenskwatawa’s pan-Indian confederacy was the culmination of the many nativist and revitalization movements that swept indigenous North America during the eighteenth-century. An earlier coalition fought in Pontiac’s War. Neolin, the Delaware prophet, influenced Pontiac, an Ottawa (Odawa) war chief, with his vision of Native independence, cultural renewal, and religious revitalization. Through Neolin, the Master of Life — the Great Spirit — urged Native peoples to shrug off their dependency on European goods and technologies, reassert their faith in Native spirituality and rituals, and to cooperate with one another against the “White people’s ways and nature.” Additionally, Neolin advocated violence against British encroachments on Indian lands, which escalated after the Seven Years’ War. His message was particularly effective in the Ohio and Upper Susquehanna Valleys, where polyglot communities of indigenous refugees and migrants from across eastern North America lived together. When combined with the militant leadership of Pontiac, who took up Neolin’s message, the many Native peoples of the region united in attacks against British forts and people. From 1763 until 1765, the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley, and Upper Susquehanna Valley areas were embroiled in a war between Pontiac’s confederacy and the British Empire, a war that ultimately forced the English to restructure how they managed Native-British relations and trade.

In the interim between 1765 and 1811, other Native prophets kept Neolin’s message alive while encouraging indigenous peoples to resist Euro-American encroachments. These individuals included the Ottawa leader the Trout, Joseph Brant of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), the Creek headman Mad Dog, Painted Pole of the Shawnee, a Mohawk woman named Coocoochee, Main Poc of the Potawatomi, and the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. Once again, the epicenter of this pan-Indian resistance and revitalization originated in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions, where from 1791 to 1795 a joint force of Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, Iroquois, Ojibwe, Ottawa, Huron, Potawatomi, Mingo, Chickamauga, and other indigenous peoples waged war against the American republic (the “Northwest Indian War”). Although this “Western Confederacy” ultimately suffered defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, this Native coalition achieved a number of military victories against the republic, including the destruction of two American armies, forcing President Washington to reformulate federal Indian policy. Tecumseh’s experiences as a warrior against the American military in this conflict probably influenced his later efforts to generate solidarity among North American indigenous communities.

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa articulated ideas and beliefs similar to their eighteenth-century predecessors. In particular, Tenskwatawa pronounced that the Master of Life entrusted him and Tecumseh with the responsibility for returning Native peoples to the one true path and to rid Native communities of the dangerous and corrupting influences of Euro-American trade and culture. Tenskwatawa stressed the need for a cultural and religious renewal, which coincided with his blending the various tenets, traditions, and rituals of indigenous religions and Christianity. In particular, Tenskwatawa emphasized apocalyptical elements that contributed to a belief that he and his followers would usher in a new world that would restore Native power to the continent. For Native peoples who gravitated to the Shawnee brothers, this emphasis on cultural and religious revitalization was empowering and spiritually liberating, especially given the continuous American assaults on Native land and power in the early nineteenth century.

Tecumseh’s confederacy drew heavily from indigenous communities in the Old Northwest as he capitalized upon a festering hatred for the land-hungry American republic. Tecumseh attracted a wealth of allies in his adamant refusal to concede any more land to the republic, in a sense professing a pan-Indian sovereignty that eluded Native communities during the eighteenth-century. Tecumseh proclaimed that the Master of Life tasked him with the responsibility of returning Native lands to their rightful owners. In his efforts to promote unity among Native peoples, Tecumseh also offered these communities a distinctly “Indian identity” that brought disparate Native peoples together under the banner of a common spirituality, together resisting an oppressive force. In short, the spiritual underpinnings of Tecumseh’s confederacy provided the cohesive glue to the diverse communities that comprised Tecumseh’s resistance movement. Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were not above using this nativist and pan-Indian rhetoric to legitimate their own authority within indigenous communities at the expense of other Native leaders, which manifested most visibly during Tenskwatawa’s witch-hunts of the 1800s as he accused his opponents and other “accommodationists” of witchcraft.

While Tecumseh attracted Native peoples from around the northwest and some from the southeast, the Red Stick Creeks brought these ideas to the southeast. Led by the Creek prophet Hillis Hadjo, who accompanied Tecumseh when he toured throughout the southeast in 1811, the Red Sticks integrated certain religious tenets from the north as well as invented new religious practices specific to the Creeks, all the while communicating and coordinating with Tecumseh after he left Creek Country. In doing so, the Red Sticks joined Tecumseh in his resistance movement while seeking to purge Creek society of its Euro-American dependencies. Creek leaders who maintained relationships with the U.S., in contrast, believed accommodation and diplomacy might stave off American encroachments better than violence.

Additionally, the Red Sticks discovered that most southeastern indigenous leaders cared little for Tecumseh’s confederacy. This lack of allies hindered the spread of a pan-Indian movement in the southeast, and the nativist and militant Red Sticks soon found themselves in a civil war against other Creeks. Tecumseh thus found little support in the southeast beyond the Red Sticks, who by 1813 were cut off from the north by Andrew Jackson. Shortly thereafter, Jackson’s forces were joined by Lower Creek and Cherokee forces that helped defeat the Red Sticks, culminating in Jackson’s victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Following their defeat, the Red Sticks were forced to cede an unprecedented fourteen million acres of land at the Treaty of Fort Jackson. As historian Adam Rothman argues, the defeat of the Red Sticks provided the means for the United States to expand westward beyond the Mississippi, guaranteeing the continued existence and profitability of a slave economy.

Similar to the Red Sticks, Tecumseh found that many Native leaders refused to join him and maintained their loyalties to the American republic, which diminished the potential for a truly pan-Indian resistance movement. Coupled with the losses that his forces sustained at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 on account of Tenskwatawa’s recklessness (an event that created an antagonistic divide between the brothers), Tecumseh’s confederation floundered as their conflict with the United States was soon swept up in the larger war between the American republic and British Empire in 1812. While Tecumseh and his confederated army seized several American forts on their own initiative, Tecumseh eventually solicited British aid after sustaining heavy losses from American fighters at Fort Wayne and Fort Harrison.

Part of a Frieze of the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, 'Death of Tecumseh' — Tecumseh, a brilliant Indian chief, warrior, and orator, is shown being fatally shot by Colonel Johnson at the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada during the War of 1812.
Figure 20 — Death of Tecumseh, part of a frieze in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol by Architect of the Capitol, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Even then, Tecumseh’s confederacy faced an uphill battle, particularly after American naval forces secured control of the Great Lakes in September 1813, forcing British ships and reinforcements to retreat. Yet Tecumseh and his Native allies fought on despite their encirclement by American forces. As Tecumseh intimated to the British commander Henry Proctor, “Our lives are in the hands of the Great Spirit. We are determined to defend our lands, and if it is his will, we wish to leave our bones upon them.” Not soon thereafter, Tecumseh fell on the battlefields of Moraviantown (Ontario) in October 1813 and his death dealt a severe blow to the pan-Indian front against the United States (Figure 20). Men like Tecumseh and Pontiac, however, left behind a legacy of pan-Indian unity against white land encroachment. (3)