Tecumseh’s Vision (If You Don’t Know, Now You Know): PBS’ We Shall Remain

On Monday, PBS aired Episode Two: Tecumseh’s Vision (available in its entirety for viewing online here) of We Shall Remain, American Experience’s five part series retracing the history of the native peoples to what is now the United States (largely neglected by mainstream narratives of U.S. History) by examining five pivotal moments in time.

Episode One explored the aftermath of the Mayflower’s 1620 arrival from England, bearing the people known as Pilgrims. The episode told of their encounter with the Wampanoag people, shattered by an epidemic of European-origin disease years before. The film made potently clear and accessible the fact that the disintegration within two generations that resulted in all-out war by the English on the existing nations of what became New England was anything but inevitable.

Episode Two fast-forwards to the late 18th Century, when the growing United States, newly chartered via the American Revolution (1775 – 1783) was pushing ever more into what had become known as Indian Territory, the area West and North of the Ohio River, South of the Great Lakes and East of the Mississippi.

Among the nations in that area were groups of Shawnee, based in modern Kentucky. Two young Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh (whose name represents a shooting star that resembles a leaping panther) and Tenskwatawa (meaning “open door”) emerged as powerful spiritual and military leaders who mounted an unprecedented and effective defense of their homeland.

Tenskwatawa had been alcoholic and abusive before undergoing a trance in 1805, from which he emerged claiming that he had spoken to the Master of Life. Tenskwatawa began to spread a powerful message urging the Shawnee and all indigenous people to reject the habits and lifestyle of the white man that had spread to them over the past century and a half. Tecumseh, his whole life a steadfast provider and expert warrior, emerged to lead a pan-Indian confederacy mobilized by the words of Tenskwatawa against the encroachment of the United States, whose offensive was led by Northwest Territory governor and future U.S. president William Henry Harrison.

In the war of 1812, Tecumseh and his warriors allied with the British and dealt several major blows to American forces, including putting a halt to the American invasion of Canada. But ultimately, the British pulled out of the fight for the independent Indian state in which is now the heart of the Midwestern U.S. – literally deserting Tecumseh and his warriors in the middle of a battle with the Americans.

As with Episode One, Tecumseh’s Vision incorporates stunning and powerful cinema-quality reenactments, featuring Michael Greyeyes as Tecumseh.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the middle of the area defended by Tecumseh (the Ojibwa and Potowatomi joined his army), I feel grateful for having finally learned the history of the land I had wandered – it seems to me now – almost blindly.

Don’t miss Monday, April 27th 2009:

Episode 3: Trail of Tears

on your local PBS station

Conquest in Context: PBS’ We Shall Remain

PBS’ American Experience history program presented the first of a five part series last night called We Shall Remain: American History through Native eyes.

This series is a riveting wake-up call for everybody who thought they knew American history. Histories of America that neglect or shunt to the side what was happening with the Native people of the continent would be like a history of the Japanese invasion of Korea that doesn’t mention the Koreans. This accessible, detailed film goes a long way toward filling in the gaps that many Americans aren’t even aware we’re missing.

Episode One: After the Mayflower (available for viewing in its entirety online here) retells the story of the English coastal occupation/settlement of what is now Massachusetts from the perspective of the Wampanoag (People of the First Light) confederacy. In 1621, the Wampanoag were staggering from the loss of the majority of their people to an epidemic of disease brought by largely unseen Europeans who had been dabbling around the shores, trading and scouting for over a century.

Grief-stricken, in danger, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag chose to spare the lives of the rapidly dying English Pilgrims camped in his midst by allying with them against other powerful groups who had been spared the epidemic. Massasoit made sure the survivors didn’t starve by having his people show them how to cultivate maize.

For decades, they lived among one another, in an awkward peace. But a rising tide of English immigration would become a massive tsunami staring down the next generation of Wampanoag, who would be led by Massasoit’s son Metacom, also known as King Phillip. The English employed various tactics in dealing with the Wampanoag and other area groups: religious conversion (basically a rejection of their own culture) and brutal willingness to murder women and children (the massacre of an entire Pequot village was an unheard-of act of savagery). This was fueled by an overwhelming hunger for land rippling about the packed, industry crusted English peninsula. Land – any land – even the land that another people, an ocean away, considered part of their very being.

Next week – Monday, April 20th:
Tecumsah’s Vision