The Tecumseh connection
During the week of mourning and tributes to U.S. Senator John McCain it was difficult not to make comparisons with the life of another American hero. Correction: North American hero.
That other was Tecumseh, the leader, warrior, diplomat and rebel who became a hero in both the United States and Canada. He was a man who did not recognize borders and believed that a peoples’ strength lies not in diversity, but in unity.
Connections to Tecumseh were present, but unnoticed, when McCain’s body lie in state in Washington’s Capitol building rotunda, and later at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland where the senator was buried.
Just below the Capitol building’s dome windows is a belt of recessed space with 19 painted scenes from U.S. history. One of the scenes is “The Death of Tecumseh,” depicting the Shawnee chief being shot during the War of 1812 Battle of the Thames in southern Ontario.
At the U.S. Naval Academy there is a bronze statue named Tecumseh. Midshipmen at the Academy often offer prayers and pennies to the statue in hope that it will bring them good luck in exams and sporting events.
Tecumseh lived at time (late 1700s) when Europeans were feverishly colonizing North America, grabbing lands Indigenous peoples had occupied for hundreds of years. These people lived in tribes, separated by distance and language, and had no central organization or leader to oppose colonization.
The horse, brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, and Tecumseh, born in a village along the Scioto River just south of modern-day Columbus, Ohio, changed that.
Tecumseh, a name generally believed to mean Shooting Star, travelled thousands of miles on horseback speaking passionately against colonization and attempting to build the pan-Indian movement begun by Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader who supervised building of the Grand River Iroquois settlement now called Brantford, Ontario.
Tecumseh became a powerful orator who travelled relentlessly, urging tribes to join together to save their land and their culture.
He was a diplomat who turned full-time warrior when he was betrayed by William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory later elected president of the U.S. Harrison gave 12,000 square kilometres of Indigenous lands to settlers of Indiana and Illinois, an act which Tecumseh said was illegitimate and caused him to begin what now is known as Tecumseh’s War.
Immediately after Harrison’s land grab, Tecumseh allied himself with British Canada, which was about to enter the 1812 war against the U.S. Harrison’s troops chased Tecumseh and his warriors into Upper Canada, killing him and ending his confederacy near present day Chatham on Oct. 5, 1813.
Many years later, in 1840, Harrison was elected U.S. president. He caught pneumonia and died 31 days after his inauguration. Some attributed his death to “Tecumseh’s Curse” placed on him by Tenskwatawa the Prophet, Tecumseh’s brother, for destroying the Indigenous way of life.
Tenskwatawa had said Harrison would die in office and when he did everyone would remember Tecumseh.
“. . . I tell you Harrison will die,” Tenskwatawa is reported to have said. “And after him, every chief (president) chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of our people.”
Since Harrison’s death six presidents elected in 20-year intervals have died in office: Lincoln (elected 1860), Garfield (1880), McKinley (1900), Harding (1920), Roosevelt (1940), Kennedy (1960).
Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was shot but survived. George Bush, elected 2000, was the first bypassed by the supposed curse.
None of this has any connection to the McCain funeral. There was, however, a strong connection between Tecumseh and McCain: both believed that tribal rivalries must be set aside to get things done for the common good. Strength is found in working together.
“A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong,” is a quote widely attributed to Tecumseh.
McCain was a strong, if sometimes conflicted, advocate of American Indigenous affairs. He was the longest-serving member of the Senate committee on Indian affairs and twice its chair.
Something Tecumseh also said, although it is sometimes attributed to other Indigenous sources, would have been appreciated by Senator McCain:
“Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”