Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership

by R. David Edmunds
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership , by David Edmunds, is a biography of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who, in the face of white oppression, fought to preserve Native American culture and restore Native American ownership of the land. Arguably, it is also a biography of Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa,...

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Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership, by David Edmunds, is a biography of Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who, in the face of white oppression, fought to preserve Native American culture and restore Native American ownership of the land. Arguably, it is also a biography of Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, whom Edmonds credits, to a large extent, with Tecumseh’s success. The chapters of the book are devoted to events that are significant to the Shawnee people, and many of them describe events that center Tenskwatawa’s spiritual leadership.

Tecumseh’s goal was to unite his people. In the face of white colonization, the Native Americans as a group had lost their sense of community and kinship. Some tribes had even begun to accept the idea of white dominance. The ideologies of the Native American people were fractured, which hindered Tecumseh’s work. After spending much of his life as an alcoholic, however, Tenskwatawa had a spiritual awakening and declared himself a prophet. Edmunds argues that Tenskwatawa played a larger role than Tecumseh in uniting his people. Tenskwatawa encouraged his people to return to their native ways and embrace their spirituality, and native spirituality proved to be the force that drove the pan-Indian movement. Thus, Edmunds argues that Tenskwatawa was instrumental to Tecumseh’s success, as he ensured the unity behind the movement.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

R. David Edmunds’ Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership recounts a history of the United States’ westward expansion from the perspective of Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader of the Native American opposition to this movement. The book is divided into nine chapters, the bulk of which are factual narratives of publicly recorded events. Following a chapter of Shawnee tribal biography, seven chapters record Tecumseh’s failed attempt at a Native American coalition opposing the United States’ usurpation of western lands. They are followed by a final chapter assessing the impact of Tecumseh’s personality on both friends and foes.

The book’s title features the well-known political leader of Native American resistance, but much of the text develops a spiritual aspect embodied in the figure of Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa, called “The Prophet.” Details of Tecumseh’s fam-ily background and early life are few because records are sketchy. Edmunds focuses on the respective position in family of the two brothers, their father’s early death, their abandonment by their mother, and their nurture by an older brother and sister. Much of the early biographies of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa is subsumed under tribal history and a narrative account of prerevolutionary conflicts between Native American and white settlers in the Ohio River Valley.

Chapters 4 through 7 constitute the main body of the narrative. Tenskwatawa’s vision of returning tribal culture to its native “purity” is shown to be the motive force behind Tecumseh’s dream of unifying the traditionally independent, loosely connected tribes along the western frontier. Tenskwatawa’s weaknesses and lack of pragmatism contrast with his brother’s considerable rhetorical skill as applied to politics and military strategy. Whatever gains Tecumseh made toward Native American solidarity in resisting official encroachment, Tenskwatawa repeatedly undid by ignoring his absent brother’s orders and advice.

Although there are no footnotes interrupting the narrative, eight pages of “notes on sources” supply an annotated bibliography. An index to names, places, and events is included. A map of the Old Northwest includes most of the Ohio River Valley; the Tippecanoe, Maumee, and Auglaize rivers; and the lower sections of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. This map supplies a visual means of tracing the course of the first half of the narrative. A second map illustrates the western tip of Lake Erie in more detail as the Detroit frontier, significant in the War of 1812 and the site of Tecumseh’s military successes and defeats in the second half of the book.

Eight reproductions of paintings and engravings of major personages and battles are clustered in seven pages at the center of the text, printed with source information. Four images of Tecumseh show him respectively as a young warrior, a skilled negotiator with Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison, a compassionate military leader, and a courageous warrior overcome by impossible odds. The first is a portrait, two are engraved from contemporary “history paintings,” and the fourth is from a stylized nineteenth century re-creation of Tecumseh’s death. Portraits of Tecumseh’s allies and enemies, Native American and white, constitute the remaining illustrations.

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