Newcomb: Something missing from PBS’s ‘Tecumseh’s Vision’
May 12, 2009
By Steven Newcomb
“Tecumseh’s Vision” is the second chapter of a five-part documentary film series being aired on PBS every Monday from April 13 – May 11. The series is being shown on the program “The American Experience,” and the series title, “We Shall Remain,” is taken from a speech attributed to the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh who lived from 1768 – 1813. (My Shawnee grandmother pronounced his name Tecum-thé).
Directed by Ric Burns and Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), “Tecumseh’s Vision” is an effort to give the audience a sense of the magnitude of what Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet”) accomplished. It also provides an emotional portrayal of the devastation experienced by Indian nations and peoples in what is now called the Old Northwest (that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin).
From 1805 – 1813 Tecumseh made a Herculean effort to build a multi-national American Indian confederacy and to create an internationally recognized Indian buffer state between Canada and the United States. Covering thousands of miles on foot, horseback and canoe, he overcame many hurdles, including cultural and linguistic diversity, tremendous physical hardships, as well as opposition to his efforts. Through it all, he maintained an extraordinary degree of optimism and self-confidence.
Tecumseh had a charismatic personality and great athletic prowess. He was also a deep thinker and brilliant orator. One non-Indian translator who grew up with the Shawnees, and was fluent in their language since childhood, said he had tremendous difficulty translating Tecumseh’s speeches because many of the concepts Tecumseh used in the Shawnee language were so profound.
The history of Tecumseh’s life has been dealt with extensively over the past 196 years since his death Oct. 5, 1813, but, in my view, the makers of “Tecumseh’s Vision” missed an opportunity to provide a more accurate version of U.S. history by explaining the lives of Tecumseh and his brother in the context of the colonial system of the American empire.
A couple years ago, when a woman from the production staff at WGBH in Boston called me at an early point in the project, I told her, “If you really want to tell the story of Tecumseh and his brother, then you need to accurately explain what they were up against.”
There is a fascinating back story leading up to Tecumseh’s remarkable campaign to unify the Indian nations. It traces to the Freemason founding of the United States. Some sense of this story is revealed in the book “The Secret Founding of America: The Real Story of Freemasons, Puritans, & the Battle for the New World,” by Nicholas Hagger (1998). This is not some crackpot “conspiracy theory,” it is the lesser known history of Freemasonry which is at the heart of the founding of the United States. It involves a well-conceived, long-range plan to take over and profit from the sale of all Indian lands in the Northwest Territory. The efforts of Tecumseh and his brother, and their allies, represent a concerted effort to stop this from happening.
George Washington (a freemason) plays a prominent role in the history. He had his eye on the Ohio Valley lands from the time he was young. He was a surveyor and land speculator, and other members of his family were also land speculators (his brothers were members of the Ohio Company). He referred to the United States as “our infant empire.”
Washington was the first to propose the colonization of the Ohio Valley, and he once said, “If the scheme of establishing a new government on the Ohio, in the manner talked of, should ever be effected, these must be the most valuable lands in it.”
As historian Colin G. Calloway has explained, “The American revolutionaries who fought for freedom from the British Empire in the East also fought to create an empire of their own in the West.”
John Marshall (a freemason) became chief justice of the United States. His father, Thomas, a friend of Washington’s, was also a surveyor and land speculator who moved west into the region that became Kentucky. Marshall referred to the United States as “this, our wide-spreading empire.”
Historian George Bancroft called the 1787 Northwest Ordinance “the colonial system of the United States,” or, in other words, the colonial system of the American empire. According to its founding document, the Masonic Society of the Cincinnati was formed to promote “the future dignity of the AMERICAN EMPIRE.” Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were working to oppose what amounted to a massive juggernaut of well-planned imperialistic expansion.
Rufus Putnam (a freemason) was one of Washington’s brigadier generals, and a chief engineer for the Continental Army. In a letter to the president of the Continental Congress dated June 1783, Putnam said of the Ohio Valley: “I am, sir, among those who consider the [British] cession of so great a tract of territory to the United States in the western world as a very happy circumstance and of great consequence to the American Empire.”
Putnam had a plan to overcome Indian opposition: “…let a chain of forts be established,” he said. The forts “should be built on the bank of the river, if the ground will admit, and about twenty miles distant from each other.” Once such a chain of forts was established, Putnam wrote, “who ever will inspect the maps must be convinced that all the Indians living on the waters of the Mohawk, Oswego, Susquehanna, and Alleghany Rivers, and all the country south of Lakes Ontario and Erie, will be encircled in such a manner as will effectually secure their allegiance and keep them quiet, or oblige them to quit their country.” This is the first hint at what became the U.S. policy of Indian Removal.
Tecumseh’s life can be understood as a major aspect of the Indian opposition to the imperial expansion of the United States. It can also be understood in the context of the most influential whites of that era using Indian lands for massive land speculation and profit making in the Ohio country, while using the sale of Indian lands to pay off the public debt incurred by the United States during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the PBS production failed to tell this part of the story.
Steve Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (Fulcrum, 2008).