Many idealize Tecumseh and The Prophet as “nativists” who fought to reject Anglo influences and rallied for traditional Native values, however, many aspects of their movement did just the opposite. The “traditionalists” actually applied many Western-Christian ideas to a religious and political rebellion supposedly defined as “purely Native.” The following is just one of the Euro-American influences that is adopted to “save” Native culture, but truly only helps to destroy the traditional Native values they claim to be protecting. The Prophet – Tenskwatawa, his name meaning “The Open Door” was actually ‘closing the door’ on Native women in his new faith.
In Tecumseh and The Prophet’s anti-American religious movement, Native women’s status comes under fire. As Native People adapt white perspectives of gender inequality, and understanding such perspectives, they then liken their relationship to Americans through descriptions of male-female power dynamics of European origin. The Prophet and his followers had bought into “domination over women” as the place of men. The Prophet uses language of emasculation to describe what the Americans intend to make of the Indian People; he claims “it was evident that the President intended making women of the Indians.” The Prophet argued that if they were to unite, they would be “respected by the President as men.” Some have pointed out that this refers mainly to taking the option of war away from Indian men, likening them more to women with no say in war, and nothing more, especially nothing negative. A great example of this was the Iroquois symbolically “dressing the Delaware (Lenape) in a petticoat” which was essentially taking away their ability to, as a separate nation, declare war at their own will; what is interesting though is that Iroquois women, probably more than any women of any other Northeastern tribe, had influence to both start and stop wars traditionally. It was also considered disgraceful for warriors to not heed the wishes of their female relations concerning participation in a particular campaign (a show of women’s traditional role of authority in matters of war). Native women DID have a voice in war in their respective traditional cultures including the Shawnee (which the brothers identify as). Still the rhetoric is born, and women are being shut out of nation-to-nation relationships with more and more Western influences. The traditional status of the female gender is becoming lost in a sea of Anglo-inspired gender oppression, showing the negative influence Euro-Americans had on Native women’s status.
We can see this “switch” in the following event: “She (theProphet’s wife) possessed an influence over the female portion of the tribe not less potent than her husband’s… The Queen and females of the tribe assembled, and resolved that the messagnegers of General (Walter) Wilson and (Joseph) Barron should be retained, and their lives sacrificed; but Tecumseh over-ruled this determination… (Willing, 1997: 139)”
Women traditionally held usually the highest authority is prisoner disposal. Her wishes to save or murder were usually heeded – wars have even started because of a woman’s power to dispose a prisoner despite the wishes of male leaders to spare a life (in those tribes where women had authority over captives). Women were noted to also save the lives of prisoners marked for death by warriors, and it was usual practice for warriors to accept the woman’s wishes.
From early contact, Europeans had been astonished to see how much power women had even in matters of war. It is no surprise that Euro-Americans have both actively worked to convince (such as those Euro-American delegates who question Native men as to the women’s presence during councils that involve war or land transactions) and have passively influenced Native men that war and government negotiations was not the place of women, and it was working. In regards to the language of the movement, an “important innovation of his (The Prophet) was the stressing of a gender system that emphasized the subordination of Indian women to Indian men (White, 2006: 508).” They hoped to prove that Indian men were indeed “men” that should be treated as such by the way they were visibly “masters” of their households, especially of their female relations.
“The Prophet “did choose to alter the civil and political roles of women, depriving them from any form of ruling power. By dominating women and eliminating their power, the Prophet was attempting to bolster the threatened masculinity of his warriors. Formally, Shawnee culture included a council of women leaders whose resolutions in areas of diplomacy, peace, and war held equal significance with those of their male counterparts. At Prophetstown this quickly changed: the Prophet created a gender system in which women were subordinate to men (Willing, 1997: 138-9).”
Richard White, author of “The Middle Ground” writes ” it is notable that the women who dominated the initial visionary outbreak largely vanished after 1806. They yielded influence to Tenskwatawa, Main Poc, and Trout” – all male prophets (White, 2006: 508). It is also worth noting that similar patterns have played out before, such as the numerous female chiefs in the New England and Mid-Atlantic region upon contact that then dwindles and gives way to almost exclusively male chiefs with more and more exposure to European influences.
The Prophet did though admit there would be a time when the Creator would speak through a woman: “The Shawnee holy man believed that the Master of Life would continue to work solely through male prophets and shamans for several generations to come. According to Tenskwatawa, “there would come a time when a women would prophesy,” but the Prophet warned that this phenomenon foreshadowed “the end of the world (Willing, 1997: 140).” He assigned power through women as a negative event, and therefore, made followers not want to give credence to a woman who claimed such visions, successfully taking away some of his competition.
Another example of the emphasis on masculinity may shed light onto a mystery of Shawnee traditional belief in a female creator. Some insist that Grandmother as the Master of Life was a later development, however there may be another answer in The Prophet’s movement. Their traditional deity “Our Grandmother” recorded by some as the “Creator” seems to be present then take a backseat in their history (Morgan insists the female creator was “anciently worshiped” by the Shawnee). C. C. Trowbridge, whose “main informant was Tenskwatawa, the prophet who had recently preached a religious “revitalization” of inter-tribal scope, may have had reason to minimize the status of a uniquely Shawnee deity: “Although Trowbridge mentions Our Grandmother and describes her as sharing with her grandson the function of watching over Indians, her role is decidedly subordinate to the Great Spirit… (Trigger,1978:629)” in the same way Tenskwatawa insisted women of his movement should be decidedly subordinate to men. His religion had to match the laws he gave, which including oppressing women’s status under his direction – if the Creator was female, then how much harder would it be to insist his new gender perspectives (not to mention, relate to other tribal groups who may have had male Creators).
The Prophet’s behavior is nothing new; this is not an unusual phenomena, in fact, social issues that include subjugation of a particular race, nationality, or group of people have many times brought out unsavory behavior in the oppressed culture; many times, this included oppressing another group people they feel they are “over” (such as many Scots-Irish, who were mainly Presbyterians, did to the Native Americans in 18th century Pennsylvania, which is linked to Scots-Irish power struggle with the Anglicans and Quakers who held power in the colony – they turned on the local Christian Indian People converted by the people they felt slighted by, as they were easy targets to condemn since they shared an ethnic background with hostile Natives), or it included oppressing people of their own group, the women, to both psychologically make men of an oppressed group feel some sort of power they perceive is being robbed of them, and to show force, that they are able and do get respect as those who subjugate them. Tecumseh and The Prophet’s movement becomes yet another example of oppressing the women of their group as response to being treated themselves as second-class citizens.
“American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers From European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850.” Edited by Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merrell (from the article “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and the Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh.” By Gregory Evans Dowd)
“At the Crossroads: Indians & Empires on the Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763.” By Jane T. Merritt
Handbook of North American Indians, Northeast: Vol 15. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger
“Prophetstown on the Wabash: The Native Spiritual Defense of the Old Northwest” by Timothy D. Willig
“Tecumseh.” By R. David Edmunds
“The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.” By Richard White
“The Shawnee Prophet.” By R. David Edmunds