200 years ago today, in what is now called Moraviantown, Ontario, the great Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh was killed defending Canada against invading American troops during the War of 1812. After waging a fearsome battle with the encroaching American militia for over five years, Tecumseh had struck terror in the hearts of American settlers, soldiers and commanders alike. His alliance with the British General, Isaac Brock, and their victory at Detroit, decisively shifted the early momentum in the War to Canada’s favour. No longer could the Americans boast that victory would be (as Thomas Jefferson promised then President James Madison) “a mere matter of marching.” Indeed, it can be said that it was Tecumseh – as much as any other single individual – who saved Canada in the War of 1812.
Growing up in Canada’s public school system, I was never taught this. Attending a PhD program with a minor in Canadian history, I never learned this. More recently, my son took a 4th year university course in Canadian Native history where his syllabus consisted of three novels and no definitive textbook on his chosen subject. Needless to say, he knew nothing about Tecumseh’s defining role in a war that’s been described as the foundation of Canada’s national identity.
Oddly, it was my casual reading of American history that introduced me to Tecumseh. He was a compelling figure and the more I learned about him, the more fascinating he became. How could I have missed his remarkable story?
Yet it is not like we never heard of Tecumseh – or more correctly, the name Tecumseh. My wife attended Tecumseh Public School in Scarborough, Ontario (and basically, knew nothing of his role in Canadian history). There is a town of Tecumseh in Ontario (in fact two – New Tecumseh and plain old Tecumseh) and one in Saskatchewan. There are Tecumseh Streets in Ottawa, Niagara, Winnipeg and Toronto. Naval Academies, nuclear submarines, University departments of Aboriginal Studies are named after him. In fact, if you care to look, Tecumseh seems to be everywhere. But for most of us though, Tecumseh is a Mall, or a Tae-kwon-do studio or a boat motor or even an uber modern Loft in the trendy King West neighbourhood of Toronto.
Since I first encountered Tecumseh, and perhaps in the spirit of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, there has been modest redemption made to his historical importance to Canada. Added to his desultory and remote memorial, erected in 1963 near where he was slain, and to the sad plaque on a rock in Upper Canada Village, near Morrisburg,Ontario, (where he never set foot), Tecumseh has now been commemorated on a Canadian quarter and on his own stamp, as well as one shared with Sir Isaac Brock. The noted academic and activist, James Laxer, has published a very credible account of the War of 1812 that prominently features Tecumseh’s central role in the defense of Canada.
But in this orgy of celebration of the War of 1812, it strikes me that his true legacy has been badly (and perhaps, conveniently) miscast. Far from being ignored, he is now being appropriated by white society and cast as a “good Indian” – brave, heroic, co-operative, and at the ready to do the bidding of his British brethren. He is being placed aside Issac Brock, and the Canadian militia as the great defenders of Canada. His historical role has been reduced to Laura Secord with a feather.
A more thorough reading of Tecumseh’s life and influence – not just in the War of 1812 but much more broadly in setting a pattern of aboriginal and non-aboriginal discord over the last two centuries – tells a very different story. While he was undoubtedly brave and heroic, he was anything but compromising or in the thrall of British objectives. He had been present at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1795 when the British closed the doors of Fort Miami on defeated Natives seeking refuge and was under no illusions about the British indifference to the Indians’ conflict with the Americans. He was fierce and determined to take back the land in the Ohio Valley that Americans had taken from his people and cared little for the white man, let alone Canada. To the contrary, his contact with the British and Americans alike led him to conclude that Indians and Whites “were bestowed with different characteristics, beliefs and modes of existence” and thus were meant to be separate and live apart. (Sugden p.118)
Tecumseh’s true historical significance is derived from much more than his feats on the battlefield in the War of 1812. It was his statesmanship, diplomacy and charisma that convinced and motivated Indian braves throughout the length and breadth of the North American frontier to put aside their tribal differences and loyalties, and join a pan-Indian Confederacy to take back the land that had been stolen from them through dozens of unscrupulous treaties. He also brandished a powerful vision and philosophy that combined spiritualism with militarism which still reverberates in the protests of modern day Aboriginal leaders and the Idle No More movement.
More than this, what he represented also ignited the intense fear and subsequent dehumanizing of the Indian by the white man that lurks at the root of Canadian attitudes today. It was his ideas, as much as his tomahawk and scalping knife that made him an inspiration to Indians and dangerous in the extreme to non-Indians.
While few Canadians know anything about Tecumseh, in his time, he was one of the most famous and feared, men alive – and that legacy would endure for decades after his death. Immediately after the War of 1812, the British built and named a schooner after him. The 1820s were marked by songs, poems and paeans to Tecumseh, honouring his bravery and heroic demise. William Tecumseh Sherman, the hero of the Civil War half a century later, was named after him. Robert Johnson, Martin Van Buren’s Vice-President, ran his campaign in 1836 on the admittedly amateurish slogan, “Rumsey, dumpsey, rumsey, dumpsey … Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.” (He claimed to have shot the Shawnee leader in Southern Ontario 23 years before). Three future Presidents – Andrew Jackson, William Harrison and Zachary Taylor– and a Presidential candidate – Winfield Scott -would launch their political careers based on the reputations they had gained by fighting Tecumseh and his allies.
No authenticated portrait of the great warrior exists. Because he spoke no English and did not write, there are only secondhand accounts of his words and deeds. But from what we know, Tecumseh was a remarkable specimen. He was routinely described in diaries as “one of the finest looking men I ever saw” or “one of the most finished forms I ever met” (Sugden p. 5). The great defender of Canada, Sir Isaac Brock, referred to him as, “The Wellington of the Indians,” and declared that “a more sagacious and gallant warrior does not, I believe exist.” (Berton p166). John Richardson, a teenaged militia volunteer who claimed to have encountered Tecumseh during the War of 1812, and went on to become one of Canada’s first novelists, offered a more fulsome description:
“Habited in a close leather dress, his athletic portions were admirably delineated, while a large plume of ostrich feathers, by which he was generally distinguished, overshadowing his brow, and contrasting with the darkness of his complexion and the brilliance of his black and piercing eyes, gave a singularly wild and terrific expression to his features. It was evident that he could be terrible.” (Sugden p. 358)
By all accounts, he was eloquent, fearless and thoughtful … and his entire life had been marked by war with the Americans. Between 1774, (when he was 6 years old), and 1784, his village was attacked five times. His father was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1776 and his older brother died on the Tennessee frontier around 1788. Naturally, he had little love for the “Long Knives”.
But his hatred was not just reserved for the Americans’ battlefield slaughter; it extended to their relentless acquisition of Native land in the period between 1794 and 1809 and even to the Indian Chiefs, whom he viewed as complicit in its surrender.
Tecumseh’s brother, the so-called Prophet, awoke the Indian indignation at what was happening to their homes and way of life. The Prophet gave his fellow Indians reason to believe that they could resist American encroachment on their lands and offered a vision that revived Native spiritualism. Calling for the rejection of alcohol and a return to tradition, he preached about the unity of the land with mankind and contended that no single tribe had the right to cede territory without the consent of all.
In 1808 the brothers decide to give physical shape to this philosophy and established Prophetstown, where the Tippecanoe River meets the Wabash in what is now Indiana. Almost immediately Indians throughout North America began to gather there to return to their spiritual roots, embrace this way of life once more and ready for battle when the time was right.
Tecumseh came to embody the Prophet’s philosophy and insisted that, “…instead of each Indian group or tribe possessing an exclusive right to a territory…the land must be regarded as common property for all Indian people, and it could only be sold with the consent of all Indian people.” (Sugden p. 44) The basis for his position was Tecumseh’s fundamental belief in the unity of the land with the Indian people. He claimed, “No tribe has the right to sell (land) even to each other, much less strangers … Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the great sea as well as the earth?” (Owens p. 18). Quite simply, the land was, “a dish with one spoon.” (Sugden p.45) To enforce this principle, Tecumseh made it clear that he was prepared, “…to destroy village Chiefs by whom mischief is done. It is they who sell our lands to Americans. Our object is to let all our affairs be transacted by warriors.” (Sugden p. 189). His message was unambiguous and threatening … if the Chiefs who were ceding Indian land were not prepared to get in line, he would overthrow them, as well as the Americans, by forming a new pan-North American warrior nation.
He then began the first of what would be many journeys across the length and breadth of Central and South Eastern United States organizing fellow Natives to join his cause. When Chiefs resisted his entreaties, he appealed directly to the young braves to take up arms and push the Americans out of Indian lands.
On one of these recruiting missions, while Tecumseh was in Georgia and Florida, William Harrison, the governor of Indiana and the man tasked with expanding the American frontier, took advantage of his absence and marched on Prophetstown. Ignoring his brother’s instructions to avoid engagement with the Americans, the Prophet ordered an attack and was routed by Harrison’s forces. (The battle is later immortalized in one of the most famous campaign slogans in US electoral history – “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” – which propels Harrison to the White House in 1840). Tecumseh returned to his razed and smoldering village, resolved to take his battle to an entirely new level.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Napoleon was marching his troops across Europe towards Russia. U.S. President James Madison, who began his term by seeking neutrality in the British-French war, was now being ridiculed as a weakling and “whiffling Jemmy” by a new generation of “War Hawks” in Congress who were trying to rekindle the revolutionary zeal of the Founding Fathers.
This would not be the last time that the US would construct a somewhat flimsy rationale for going to war, but faced with internal revolt and the prospect of losing the upcoming Presidential election, Madison opportunistically declared war on Britain in June 1812.
With equal opportunism – and working on the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is, if not my friend, at least a potential ally – Tecumseh recognized that Madison’s declaration might give him the leverage he needed to beat back the Americans. He headed to Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario to meet with the Canadian Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Matthew Elliot. But while he negotiated an alliance with the British against the Americans, he had little interest in helping to defend Canada, but instead was keenly intent on using the British to drive the Americans out of his home in the Ohio Valley.
If the purpose of the War of 182 was to “invade and take over Canada” then capturing the populous Eastern and Central fronts, which housed the Capitals of Upper and Lower Canada, were surely the most strategically important targets. But this is not what happened. Instead, the American focused on Tecumseh’s turf and the Western Front.
It quickly became apparent that beyond the internal politics behind the decision to go to war, the real goal of the conflict was to subdue Tecumseh’s forces and drive the Indian and British presence out of the Ohio Valley. Madison and his cabinet understood that a war against the Indians was far more popular – and winnable – than a conflict over some vague concept of maritime rights. So the War of 1812 began not so much as a war between Canada and the United States, but a war between Tecumseh and the Americans.
The commander of the Western front, William Hull approached Detroit and prepared his assault into Canada, but his men refused to cross the border and fight on foreign soil, leaving Hull in a bit of a quandary. Isaac Brock, the Major General overseeing the forces of Upper Canada, and the first to understand that the key to Canada’s defense would rest with the Indians, polled his own officers who expressed similar reluctance.
Tecumseh took it upon himself to brow beat, cajole, inspire and ultimately, convince the British to attack. But before they did, Brock wisely engaged in a bit of psychological warfare. In a letter to Hull he described the real threat facing the Americans:
“It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.” (Berton p. 171)
Brock’s message to Hull was far from subtle – it is hard not to know what ‘war of extermination’ means, especially in light of Tecumseh’s well-known reputation for his take-no-prisoners ferocity.
Canadian novelist, John Richard recorded the terrifying scene that Hull faced on the eve of the Battle of Detroit.
“(B)odies stained and painted in the most frightening manner for the occasion …some painted white, some black, others half black and half red … all with their hair plastered in such a way as to resemble the bristling quills of a porcupine, with no other covering than a cloth around their loins, yet armed to the teeth with rifles, tomahawks, war-clubs, spears, bows, arrows and scalping knives. Uttering no sound, intent only on reaching the enemy unperceived, they might have passed for the spectres of those wilds, the ruthless demons which War had unchained for the punishment and oppression of man.” (Berton p. 159-60)
When the battle finally began, it was over without a shot being fired. Just the sight of Tecumseh and his braves, outfitted for slaughter, left the American forces in a state of awestruck panic. A terrified General Hull, described as being rendered “catatonic” at the sight, surrendered without a fight. (Berton p.175)
This encounter set the tone for the following year. By then, it was apparent to the British that the real value of the Indians was not just to fight, but to terrify. (Berton p.216)
While much of our understanding of the War of 1812 focuses on our own border, in the south, a very different kind of war was taking place. As charismatic, persuasive and commanding as he was, not all Indians fell under Tecumseh’s sway. His message posed a direct threat to many Chiefs who had benefited, at least for the present, from the sale of their lands and through an alliance with the Americans. The Creeks in particular were divided as young Tecumseh supporters splinter off to form the Red Sticks and civil war broke out between the two factions. Another tribe that Tecumseh had wooed, the Seminoles, joined the Spanish and escaped Black slaves and confronted American filibusters who were threatening to seize Florida. Further North, Indian tribes became emboldened by news of Tecumseh’s victories and began confrontations with settlers that spread news of bloody massacres. Pierre Berton described the carnage that was taking place in this way – “hearts cut out and eaten raw, throats slit, torture and clubbing to death of white men who are forced to run the gauntlet”. (Berton 191-7)
For the Americans, it suddenly seemed that their simple border skirmish was spreading throughout the length and breadth of their much-coveted frontier. Again their enemy was not so much the British, but the Indians, and Tecumseh’s fingerprints were on every conflict.
With his humiliating surrender, Hull was replaced by the despised William Harrison. His arrival in the Niagara area coincided with the first major setback for the British – the death of Isaac Brock in October, 1812. While the British suffered few casualties other than Brock in the Battle of Queenston (and the Americans were ultimately forced to surrender because their terrified militiamen, once again, refused to cross the river to engage the Indians), Tecumseh lost the one ally who fully understood his importance to the defense of Canada.
Notwithstanding this development and the muscular forces the US were amassing on the Western front, Tecumseh and his allies continued to wreak havoc on the Americans throughout the first part of 1813. Massacres occurred repeatedly throughout what are now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois — in Raisin River in January, at Fort Meigs in May and Fort Mims in August. As reports of slaughter and atrocities grew, they became the source of outrage among previously disinterested American citizens. In response, the US Government unleashed the ferocious Indian hater, Andrew Jackson, to subdue the Creeks and Seminoles in the South.
If Tecumseh’s memories of the Battle of Falling Timbers caused him to doubt the dependability of the British to serve Indian interests, his apprehension was significantly heightened by Brock’s replacement, Henry Proctor.
Proctor and Tecumseh locked horns many times since Brock’s death. Continuing a pattern that had been apparent since the start of the War, the British had proved reluctant to push back the growing American forces and lay claim to the territory that was Tecumseh’s home. Their differences were fundamental – Proctor wanted to defend Canada; Tecumseh wanted to retake the Ohio Valley. As Proctor retreated further into the Thames Valley of the Niagara peninsula it was clear to Tecumseh that he is going in the wrong direction and the Shawnee warrior was forced to confront Proctor. Fearing that he will lose the support of the Indians, Proctor promised Tecumseh that they will stand and fight the American invaders at the Lower Thames (now Chatham, Ontario). But when Tecumseh and his 1,200 warriors arrived, they find that the area had not been fortified and Proctor has retreated even further inland to Moraviantown. Convinced that their British allies were once again abandoning them, half of Tecumseh’s warriors simply turn back, leaving him to forge ahead with a badly diminished force. Meanwhile Harrison crossed into Canada and was advancing rapidly with 5,000 American troops.
When Tecumseh reached Moraviantown, Harrison’s army was in sight and Proctor finally agreed to take a stand and fight. Almost immediately however, the British line broke and they began to surrender. Sensing a rout, Proctor turned on his heels and rode away, leaving Tecumseh and his warriors to carry the battle alone.
The specifics of what happened next in the Battle of Moraviantown are murky. History is unclear about what happened to Tecumseh’s body but it is beyond dispute that he was killed that day and that his surviving braves dispersed and retreated into the swampy grass of the Thames Valley. For his role, Henry Proctor was later returned to England to face court martial where he was stripped of his rank and died nine years later.
After Tecumseh’s death, the War of 1812 continued to rage on. The Americans never captured and held any territory of significance in Canada but they did succeed in breaking through the Central front and laying siege to Fort York (now Toronto). The British spectacularly invaded Washington, DC and burned down the White House, forcing Madison and his Cabinet to flee the new capital. Andrew Jackson cemented his hero’s status by slaughtering 557 of Tecumseh’s Red Stick warriors at Horseshoe Bend in what is now central Alabama and then went on to command one of the more lopsided victories in military history, the Battle of New Orleans — after the war was officially declared over.
Notwithstanding the many ongoing conflicts, by 1814, peace talks were the most critical component of the US government’s strategy. Even though Napoleon was now in full retreat and the British were able to re-dedicate their war machine to the North American continent, their assessment of the situation was that the “war was unlikely to be lost but impossible to win.” (Zuehle, p 315) So the two warring factions sent their respective representatives to neutral ground in Ghent, Belgium to negotiate a peace treaty.
To the great surprise of the American delegation, the rights and residency of the Indians once again resurfaced as the centre piece of not just the waging of war, but now to the making of peace. In fact, the British made it clear that the “sine qua non” of any cessation of hostilities was that the Americans agree to an Indian Territory and buffer zone, “as a useful and permanent barrier between both parties, rendering British, United Sates and Indians as peaceful neighbours.” (Zuehle, p.298) The American’s were flabbergasted. Basically, the British were demanding that they give up what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, 4/5ths of Indiana and 1/3rd of Ohio to become dedicated Indian Territory. Basically, this was the boundary that had existed before the Treaty of Fort Wayne that set off Tecumseh’s campaign 5 years earlier. It was as if Shawnee warrior himself was somehow engineering the terms of peace from the grave.
For the shocked Americans, this was a non-starter. Agreeing to the central British demand would mean abandoning 100,000 US citizens, curtailing any ambition for further western expansion and potentially strengthening the bond between the British and the troublesome Indians. Lead negotiator, (and another future American President), John Quincy Adams countered that agreeing to these terms would amount to “the surrender of national independence.”
In the end, the armistice and Treaty of Ghent resulted in no territory exchanging hands. What had begun for the British negotiators as their “sine qua non” of peace was abandoned. As the negotiations went back and forth, the British realized that a possible end to hostilities meant that they no longer needed their Indian allies to defend the borders of their colony. At the same time, with the death of Tecumseh, it was equally clear to the Americans that the Indians would never again pose the same kind of substantive military threat. In short, absent any need for, or fear of the Indians, both sides concluded that their interests were of little concern. As a result, the Indians were only granted “all the possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in 1811.” In other words, the efforts of Tecumseh’s confederacy, his death and his defense of Canada were for naught. While both the British and the Americans would declare victory, it was clear that the real losers of the War of 1812 were the Indians.
But the end of the War didn’t mean that the Americans were finished with the Indians. The next year, the Cherokees, who had sided with the Americans in subduing the Tecumseh-inspired Creek War, were forced to sell the last of their land in South Carolina. Two years later, the last of Tecumseh’s Red Sticks were hunted down and killed in the Florida swamps as Jackson waged the first Seminole War. In 1822, in direct defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, the Georgia legislature began efforts to remove all Indian tribes from its territory. The United States Congress subsequently made Georgia’s initiative a nation-wide initiative and passed the Indian Removal Act. In the last act of resistance to removal, now-President Andrew Jackson finished what he started and waged the second Creek and Seminole Wars. By 1838, The Indians were fully defeated, and that year were marched out of the South on the ‘Trail of Tears’ to Oklahoma.
In Canada, the Indians fared better … but only until Confederation, when the Government became sufficiently organized to follow America’s lead.
Before 1867, the colonial government had signed numerous, sometimes vague or even blank treaties with Canada’s Aboriginals. The first of these were largely “Peace and Friendship” treaties, designed to forge political alliances with the Indians and gain their assistance in trade or conflicts with the French. These documents rarely involved the transfer of land or promises of annuities. Throughout the last decades of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, most treaties arose to accommodate growing British settlement along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, and involved small one-time payments that did not forcibly relocate the Indians off the treaty land.
The discovery of minerals along the shores of Lakes Superior and Huron however, changed the game entirely. The Robinson Treaties in 1850, involving massive transfers of land in relatively unpopulated areas, in exchange for reserves, lump sum payments, annuities and defined hunting and fishing rights in unoccupied Crown lands, became the model for future Aboriginal agreements.
But it was Confederation and the British North America Act that introduced a new set of problems and took the nature of relations between the Indians and the new Government of Canada to a whole different level.
The problem, of course, was that Canada, consisting of the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, had a gaping hole in it that extended from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains. This was partly solved by the acquisition of Rupertsland from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869 and the introduction of the Manitoba Act the following year. But these efforts to close “the gap” created another issue – what to do with the Metis and Indians who believed that the vast expanse of land between Manitoba and British Columbia belonged to them? Canadian native history provides a sad and definitive answer to that question – confiscate that land, move the Indians to reserves and if they resist, follow the American model and crush the resistance, either by force or through (what we now know was a planned policy of) starvation (Daschuk).
The pace and scope with which the new government pursued this goal however was truly breathtaking. After putting down Manitoba’s Red River rebellion in 1870, the Government of Canada entered into seven numbered treaties in six years that saw one of the largest confiscations of lands in modern history. The entirety of what is now the central and southern Prairie provinces were transferred to the federal government. In fact, even before the railroad, this was Canada’s first act of national enterprise.
Having secured the northern part of the continent, the new Government of Canada saw no need for any further negotiations. But because Macdonald and others also saw nothing worth preserving in Indian culture, they still sought to expunge it. Indian agents and missionaries were dispatched to reservations to manage the affairs and Christianize the “wards of the state.” Ceremonies such as potlatches and the sun dances were outlawed; a pass system was introduced that controlled both entry to and exit from the reserves; and “nations” were broken down into bands, with tribes relocated at will.
After over 20 years of inactivity – and only because of the discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896 – treaty negotiations began anew. Three years later, Treaty #8 was finalized and ceded parts of Northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan and the southern portion of the Northwest Territories. After a short lull of 6 years Treaties #9 and #10 saw Northern Ontario and the rest of Northern Alberta transferred from the Indians to the federal government. The last of the numbered Treaties had to wait almost 15 years but with the discovery of oil in Norman Wells, the government saw the need to acquire the rest of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The coup de grace came two years later in 1923 with the Williams Treaties which cleaned up earlier, ambiguous and blank treaties going back to the 1700s and forced the Aboriginals to give up hunting and fishing rights in previously surrendered land – a practice that had been guaranteed in the all the treaties previous to it.
In 6 short years the Government of Canada had secured their nation at the Indian’s expense, and within 50 years, the mopping up was complete. By and large, all of these numbered treaties exist unchanged to this day. Virtually all are being contested in the courts and are subject to land claims disputes and only a handful of new treaties have been successfully negotiated in almost a century.
While they vary in detail, the general thrust of all the treaties is more or less the same. Millions of square miles of what was Indian territory were surrendered to the federal government in exchange for a one-time “present” (of usually around $10-12) for every man, woman and child belonging to the affected band; an additional payoff to the Chief (of around $25) and up to four “subordinates” (in the order of $15); a one-time provision of farm implements and seeds “for the encouragement of the practice of agriculture”; an annual stipend (usually around $1,000 – $1,500) for the purchase of ammunition and twine; the promise to maintain schools on the reserve; (until the Williams Treaties) the right to hunt and fish on the ceded land (provided the government did not have other plans for it, such as mining or the creation of non-aboriginal communities); and the setting aside of “reserves” usually equal to one square mile of land for each family of five.
As an illustration of how anachronistic these still-enforced treaties are, they also provided for an annual payment of $5 for every band member — a ritual that is practiced on reserves to this day.
Not only were these treaties patently one-sided and unfair, the understanding of their purpose and intent, and the obligations of the parties to each other, were as unclear when they were signed as they are contentious today.
At the center of this misunderstanding was the very concept of what constituted “land”. For the non-aboriginals, land was simply property that could be bought, sold and “owned” like any other commodity in a mercantile or capitalistic system. For the aboriginals, land was an extension of the self and the Indian people. As Tecumseh noted, it could no more be sold than the air or sea. The notion that land could be “surrendered” therefore, was completely inimical to their very understanding of what was at issue. To the aboriginals, they were not selling the land but merely sharing and letting the crown use it.
For the Government, the treaties also represented a straightforward legal transaction – a buy-sell arrangement – where land was purchased in exchange for cash and services. For the Aboriginals, the documents simply outlined relations between two peoples. So for example, Treaty #6 (for the first time) provided the Plain and Wood Creek Indians who signed it with a guarantee that the Indian Agent would keep a medicine chest in his residence. To the legalistic European mind the meaning of this provision was literal – the Indian agent was given a physical medicine chest and their obligations were finished. For the Indians, the “medicine chest” was metaphorical – a guarantee of health care for all time.
At an entirely other level of incomprehension, each party also had (and has) a completely different interpretation of the status of the other and who they were dealing with. The Aboriginals saw themselves as sovereign and the negotiations as between two separate “nations”. The federal government paid (and continues to pay) lip service to this notion, but their behaviour makes it apparent that they viewed this as little more than a quaint conceit and in reality, expected the First Nations to cede to the authority and dominance of “the crown”.
It is this gaping chasm between how the First Nations’ leadership and the federal government view each other’s respective obligations, rights and status that has led to the failure to modernize these treaties. It is also at the heart of our ongoing bitter and acrimonious relations, destined to stay in this sordid state of affairs until we come to acknowledge and accept these differences.
When we puzzle at how it is possible for Canadians – who view ourselves, above all else, as tolerant, reasonable and a “good people” – to look on the plight of Canada’s indigenous peoples with such indifference, we would be well advised to trace the deeply rooted fear and misunderstanding Tecumseh triggered towards Indians in his time. His uncompromising fierceness – both physically and intellectually – was a direct threat to the North American ambition and made him too dangerous to live. And to eliminate the Indian, it became necessary to demonize and dehumanize the Indian. In this regard, Tecumseh can be seen a metaphor for all Indians. The threat he posed and the danger he represented was inherited by all Aboriginals at the time and arguably, all who came after.
The significance of Tecumseh in our history cannot be underestimated, yet for most of the last 200 years, his power and the influence he wielded over Indian thought has not been recognized as a significant part of our national story. Perhaps more importantly, our failure to acknowledge the central role indigenous people played in shaping our history – and the distorted picture of that role, when it is offered – plays out in aboriginal and non-aboriginal affairs to this day.
As with the tale of Tecumseh, these modern relations have been marked by a repeated pattern – – of misunderstanding, betrayal and ignoring.
While our record is far from unblemished, Canadians did not massacre Indians on anywhere near the same scale as the Americans. But we did “remove” them in much the same way, relocating them to isolated and remote areas, relegating them to the status of “the other” and hiding them out of sight from our conscience. But it will be impossible to ignore them for much longer, as indigenous people are now the fastest growing demographic in Canadian society. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to come to grips with what has become a stain on Canada’s international reputation, but given the recognition of aboriginal rights in the Canadian Charter and in a series of recent court rulings, failure to do so will invariably mean that economic and resource development will come to a grinding halt.
Tecumseh believed that his people and whites were essentially different. He was and is right in this regard. The temperament, world vision, spiritualism and especially the history of aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians are worlds apart. Nothing in our history or experience would provide non-aboriginals with a frame of reference to understand why anyone would chose to live a 16th century and isolated lifestyle in our interconnected digital world; or why individual ownership of property would be contentious or divisive; or why preserving and protecting “the land” would take priority over exploiting and exhausting our resources; or why spiritualism, ceremony or respect could be more valued than materialism, competition and “winning”. And we lack this perspective not just because our history does not include the surrender of our property, or the removal from our homes or residential schools or the stigma of systematic second class citizenship … in sum, of being misunderstood, betrayed and ignored for 200 years. We lack this understanding because we have never cared enough to acknowledge these differences, learn their importance and accept their permanence.
On this, the 200 anniversary of Tecumseh’s death, if we really want to honour his contribution to saving Canada perhaps it is time to end this pattern and set out to mend the wounds of the past… or forever be haunted by his ghost.