How Can We View Tecumseh From an Indigenous Perspective?

Most of what we know about Indigenous leader Tecumseh was written by those who fought against him. Indigenous writer Leanne Simpson offers a new take on his last moments.

May 19, 2024By Sara Relli, MA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA Screenwriting

tecumseh leanne simpson indigenous perspective


Tecumseh is a beloved figure among Indigenous peoples across North America, a folk hero who countered American encroachment not only on the battlefield but also on an ideological level. He was born among the Shawnee people in the region now known as Ohio but advocated for a pan-Indigenous alliance that would unite Indigenous people from across the continent in an effort to safeguard Indigenous customs, practices, and lands. Despite his popularity among Indigenous tribes, most of the information we have about Tecumseh comes from military accounts, from the letters and journals written by those who were directly or indirectly responsible for his demise. Indigenous writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson redresses this historical wrong and offers us her own account of his last moments.


Leaning In: A Trip to Lake Ontario

leanne betasamosake simpson tecumseh
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, 2021, Source: Now Toronto


Leaning In, one of the most powerful stories from This Accident of Being Lost (2017), opens with a trip to Lake Ontario, here called by its old Mississauga name, Chi’Niibish. Written by award-winning Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, scholar, and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, This Accident of Being Lost is a collection of stories, songs, and poems that tackle, from an Indigenous perspective, the most pressing issues of our times, from climate change to reconciliation.


“Auntie told me to paddle down the river to Chi’Niibish,” Simpson writes, “to turn west and paddle along the shore until I see the mist of Niagara Falls. As soon as I can see the mist, that’s the spot to lean into the lake and cross.” 


trade canoe don quixote tecumseh
Trade Canoe for Don Quixote, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, 2004, Source: The Whitney Museum of Art


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This timeless scene — a solitary figure paddling down the river to Chi’ Niibish, and then along the shore until the mist of Niagara Falls appears on the horizon — could have taken place two centuries ago or more, before or shortly after the coming of the Europeans. The only element that reminds us of the changes that have occurred in the Mississauga community in the past two centuries is the English name employed to designate Niagara Falls.


The narrator’s Auntie, who reminds us “how those old Mississauga Nishnaabeg Ashkiwiwininiwag did it,” is the depositary of the ancient Mississauga traditions and stories. She is the thread connecting various ages, and a powerful reminder of identity in the face of colonization and the passing of time. It is thanks to her that the narrator gains access to a distinct and timeless space, where the boundaries between past and present are blurred, and where she is finally able to create a dialogue with the past and with her ancestors. It is in this space that Tecumseh, the great Shawnee warrior and leader killed at the Battle of Thames in 1813, makes his first appearance.


Who Was Tecumseh?

two women in canoe ontario
Two women with a birch bark canoe in Ontario, photo by F.W. Waugh, ca. 1910, Source: Library and Archives Canada


The reference to the Ashkiwiwininiwag, the Mississauga guerrilla fighters, appropriately introduces the reader to the protagonist of this short story: Tecumseh (1768-1813). Often disregarded by Western historiography, which has always favored Indigenous chiefs and leaders such as Sitting Bull, Chief Seattle, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and even Pontiac, Tecumseh is a highly celebrated warrior and icon in the history of Canadian and American Indigenous peoples. A visionary and a warrior, his story is one of resistance and resilience, despite the ultimate defeat of his people and followers, and it has for far too long been told solely from a Western perspective through dates and hard facts. We’ll delve into them briefly before embracing Simpson’s new, Indigenous-based take on the Shawnee warrior.


tecumseh portrait
Tecumseh, the Shawnee “shooting star,” by Owen Staples, 1915, based on an engraving by Benson John Lossing, 1868, Source: Wikimedia Commons


When it became obvious that the French and the British were here to stay, Indigenous peoples in the Northeastern American continent came together to form strategic alliances to try to resist European and American encroachment. Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawah (also known by the name “The Prophet”) called for a pan-Indigenous alliance among Indigenous peoples in North America. They believed that this represented the first step in creating a First Nations confederacy.


In 1808, Tecumseh and his brother founded the village of Prophetstown on the Keth-tip-pe-can-nunk (widely known as Tippecanoe River), in what is now Indiana. They hoped that it would become the center of their pan-Indigenous confederacy and the starting point for Indigenous self-determination.


battle of tippecanoe tecumseh
The Battle of Tippecanoe that led to the destruction of Prophetstown, published by Kurz & Allison, 1889, Source: Art Institute Chicago


Over the years, several Indigenous groups came to fight together under the leadership of Tecumseh. Among them were the Potawatomi, the Ojibwa and the Odawa (both part of the larger Anishinaabeg cultural group, together with the Mississauga, Naakowe, Odishwaagaamii’ininiwag, Amikwaa, and Boodiwaadmi), and, obviously, the Shawnee.


It was precisely from the banks of the Keth-tip-pe-can-nunk (Tippecanoe) River, however, that the downfall of Tecumseh was soon to begin. The organized resistance led by the Shawnee leader prompted William Harrison, the governor of the Indiana territory, to attack Prophetstown. Taking advantage of Tecumseh’s momentary absence, the American forces attacked the Shawnee town on November 7th, 1811. The battle lasted about three hours. At the end of the day, the American troops burned down Prophetstown.


memory map north america tecumseh
Memory Map, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, 2000, Source: Whitney Museum of American Art


Despite their defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe River, Indigenous peoples continued to play an  important part in the so-called War of 1812, thanks to Tecumseh’s call for a pan-Indigenous alliance. This call, however, was to be short-lived. Tecumseh was killed at Moraviantown, during the Battle of the Thames, on October 5th, 1813. Some sources say that once the battle was over American soldiers scalped him, with some cutting off bits of his body as souvenirs. To this day, it is not clear where Tecumseh’s remains have been buried.


Who is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson?

anishinnabe territory map tecumseh
The Great Lake region, land of the Anishinaabeg, Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia


A member of Alderville First Nation and advocate for Indigenous land-based education, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is one of the most important and articulate voices of her generation. The world described in her books exists beyond the colonial structure imposed on her and her people by the Canadian state. Her poems and short stories, as well as her music, represent a flight path out of colonialism, as Simpson beautifully calls it. Deeply rooted in Nishnaabeg intellectual practices, they offer practical Indigenous-based solutions to the most pressing issues the world is facing today, from climate change to reconciliation, shaped by Simpson’s connection with the land of her ancestors, the Anishinaabeg.


Before the arrival of the French in the early seventeenth century, the Great Lake region had been inhabited for millennia by the Anishinaabeg. They occupied the territory that is part of what is now Michigan in the United States and Ontario in Canada. Even today, most of the Anishinaabeg reserves are located on the Lake Huron shoreline — one of the five lakes comprising the upper Great Lakes region — the others being Lake Superior and Lake Michigan (both west of Lake Huron), and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (east of Lake Huron). With the exception of Lake Michigan, all four lakes are split between the U.S.-Canada border, with the traditional Native-occupied borderlands in the Lake Huron region representing a unique cultural region split in two. It is from this cultural region nestled between five lakes and crisscrossed with waterways that the works of Leanne Simpson originate.


anishinnabe women with canoe
Anishinaabe women gumming the underside of a birchbark canoe, photo by Waugh, 1916, Source: Library and Archives Canada


With their territory running along the north shore of Lake Ontario, water is an important symbol in the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg cosmos. “Michi Saagiig,” Simpson tells us in As We Have Always Done “means ‘at the mouth of the rivers,’ and that name comes from our history as people that spent time at the mouths of the rivers draining into Lake Ontario.”


Unsurprisingly, the Anishinaabeg call themselves the “salmon people.” The Earth — and this is a belief shared by Indigenous peoples from Canada as well as from the rest of the world — is not an object, but a gift to be looked after within a relationship of stewardship, responsibility, and reciprocity that binds humans and non-humans together. Since the landscape was created by a superior power, the ownership of the land by individuals is perceived as a violation of the unwritten rules governing the relations between human beings and nature.


voyageurs at dawn canoes
Voyageurs at Dawn, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1871, Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Heritage


As we have seen, Leaning In begins with a canoe trip along the shores of Lake Ontario. For centuries the Anishinaabeg have used birchbark canoes — many of which can now be found alongside totem poles, housed in museums all across North America, Australia, and New Zealand — as important means of transport for trade and fishing. It was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that canoes became a symbol of Canadian identity. They are, however, “stolen” symbols, as Leanne Simpson and painter Jaune-Quick-To-See Smith tell us in and through their works. In her stories Simpson often humanizes canoes, thus investing them with an Indigenous identity distinct from those bestowed upon them by the colonial imagery. This is the same process we find in Simpson’s account of Tecumseh’s death.


The Death of Tecumseh 

odjig roots
Roots, by Daphne Odjig, 1979, Source: Canadian Art


In Leaning In, Simpson provides Tecumseh with a consciousness and a voice instead of relying, as most official accounts do, on military accounts. It was “Binaakwe Giizis,” — October — when Tecumseh died on the shores of Deshkaan Ziibing, that is, the Thames River in Ontario, situated not far from Lake Ontario. The infamous Battle of the Thames had just ended, and with it Indigenous aspirations towards self-determination. Simpson describes Tecumseh’s death as a long, slow, painless, and soothing process. A process facilitated by the calming presence of two spirits who, ever since Tecumseh’s fatal wounding, had been waiting to help him and make sure he is not alone on his last journey. Waiting, we read in Simpson’s story, “to wrap your bones in warmth the second you no longer had to be the warrior.” 


The two spirits:


“built a lodge around you and protected you, like you protected me. They used our sweet, sweet grass to smudge away hurt. They took turns holding you, like you were their child. They sung quiet songs near your earlobes. They massaged your muscles until you could let go and breathe full breaths. They used careful stiches to sew up old wounds. They recorded every word your lips spoke, and they sat with every tear. They waited while you made your final visits.” (This Accident of Being Lost)


norval morrisseau androgyny
Androgyny, by Norval Morrisseau, 1983, Source: Art Canada Institute


Death is painless, sweet, and intertwined with nature. During his last journey, Tecumseh experiences an ultimate, child-like regression. The pain and harshness of his life are gone, and old wounds are being taken care of. He has the time to pay his final visits, to breathe full breathes, as Zhaawan and Niibin hold him like he was their child, singing quiet songs, and massaging his body and muscles — that very body that, according to Western historiography, was butchered and torn to pieces by American soldiers as soon as the battle was over.


Simpson refuses to portray death in terms of despair, denial, or violent opposition. Death is, on the contrary, a gradual process of accepting and understanding what cannot be changed, of paying one’s last visits, of learning how to breathe in a different way, and, ultimately, of reconciling oneself with the world of the living.


When Tecumseh understands that his death is near, he gives his weapons away, his “bravery to Ipperwash, honour to Oka, persistence to the Zhaawanoog, clarity to anyone who was willing to see.” In so doing, he ensures the survival of a part of himself for the future of his people. The names Ipperwash and Oka may ring a bell with Canadian citizens. The Ipperwash crisis and the Oka crisis (the latter most appropriately known as the Kanesatake Resistance) were two major deadlocks (and turning points) in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians concerning land appropriation.


children with tree of life tecumseh
Children with Tree of Life, by Norval Morrisseau, 1985, Source: Art Canada Institute


When Tecumseh is finally ready to die, Niibin leads him to his canoe, while Zhaawan leans into the waters of the river and sings “the song that says thank you for giving me this life, while recording the warrior’s last words. Finally, Tecumseh is ready to paddle his canoe “down the river to the west, crossing back over the sky, into a better world.”


Tecumseh’s death marked a tragic turning point in North American Indigenous history. “You stopped breathing the next day,” Simpson writes “and our homelands were erased. You stopped breathing and a million Tkamses were born.” And yet, although his killing caused the pan-Indigenous alliance to collapse, his legacy is still living in those who remember him, in the “million Tkamses” born in the two centuries afterward. Past, present, and future are all equally important and interconnected. “I’m imagining you’re here,” the narrator ponders as she first sits on the shores of the lake, “and we’re talking about you and me and us, and things that matter. How we got here. Where we’re going. What’s to be done.”  


Tecumseh, a Parallel History 

Bushfires in Australia, fires have prompted Australians to turn to Aboriginal cultural burning techniques, 2020, Source: WWF Australia


Simpson situates the death of the Shawnee warrior within the context of Indigenous myths and traditions. The history of the Shawnee, as well as the Anishinaabeg people, she affirms, is more than just a list of battles, massacres, betrayals, relocations, and deaths. It is a parallel history deeply connected to a unique set of Indigenous practices and beliefs too often misunderstood by mainstream Canadian culture.


While scholars and researchers are increasingly seeking the permission of Elders to use and learn more about Indigenous traditional knowledge, most of them often do so from a purely white perspective. In her essay “Aboriginal Peoples and Knowledge: Decolonizing our Processes,” she notes that the approach of Canadian researchers tends to reflect “what the dominant society sees as important.” They often integrate only those Indigenous customs and practices that they believe can work within the frameworks of Western culture and science, while deliberately overlooking other equally important aspects.


In This Accident of Being Lost, Simpson reaffirms the wholeness of Indigenous knowledge, while emphasizing its ecological and spiritual components. She also offers a new idea of “ecology,” based not on a nostalgic longing for a lost Eden but on the practical act of retrieving from the past what can be useful in the present. This present-oriented approach is rooted in Indigenous resurgence and cultural re-appropriation, and stems from a cultural context wherein all Canadians are asked to work together in order to survive what can be described as a possible ecological catastrophe.


racoon getting painted nanabush
Nanabush Giving the Racoon its Colours, by Daphne Odjig, 1969, Source: National Gallery of Canada


In conclusion, in giving her unique account of Tecumseh’s last moments, Leanne Simpson transports the reader into an Anishinaabeg cosmos — which is only partly a white Canadian one. Simpson’s writing turns traditionally fixed boundaries into a permeable reality, where the living and the dead exist in liminal worlds, not sealed by impenetrable barriers. It is a cosmos wherein death is part of life, and life is filled with stories that demand to be recorded, honored, and remembered so that they will live on in the minds of future generations.

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By Sara RelliMA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA ScreenwritingSara is a Berlin-based screenwriter and researcher from Italy. She holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of West London, as well as an MA (Hons) in Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures from the University of Bologna. Deeply passionate about the relationship between history and literature, her interests range from Irish literature to race representation (in literature and cinema), from post-memory to the response of Indigenous peoples to climate change.