October 5, 2003 marked 190 years since the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh was killed in battle fighting American troops during the War of 1812. Tecumseh died on the river Thames not far from present day Moraviantown in Ontario, Canada.
Tecumseh was born under the sign of a great comet. He worked for many years with his brother Tenskwatawa in an effort to unify the Indian nations in common cause against a common foe: the United States.
The 200th anniversary of Tecumseh's passing to the spirit world will take place in October 2013, and for a number of years now, I've thought that Tecumseh's life ought to be commemorated by Indian country in some significant way. In my view, the greatest tribute to Tecumseh's memory would be to revive his vision of unifying all our Indian nations and peoples into a spiritual and political force.
Every spark that spirals into the air from a ceremonial fire represents the spiritual essence of the universe that burns in each and every one of us. We have the ability to combine together the fire of our spiritual essence as human beings to become a tremendous force of healing and cultural resurgence and revitalization. I believe this is what Tecumseh's vision was really about.
Tecumseh's vision was also about the inherent right of every Indian nation that the Creator has placed on this sacred Earth to maintain and protect a spiritual way of life in our respective homelands. He was willing to fight and die for the right to be free.
But as we know, the United States did not believe our Indian nations had any inherent right to live in our homelands on our own terms. Instead, the leadership of the United States believed that their "God" had "promised" the lands of our Indian nations to the United States, and further believed that the U.S. therefore had a divine right to take over Indian lands, and forever end the free and independent life of our Indian nations. The leadership of the U.S. believed that the Indians were an inferior race, destined to submit to the might of the American empire. Its leaders considered their empire destined to profit from the theft and colonization of Indian lands and resources, and to grow into a powerful force in the world.
My friend and colleague Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota) once said of the Christian-European power system: "They cut you off from your heart, stick you in your head, and manipulate you out of a book." This is an incredibly profound insight into the methodology of colonization. The Christian European system has systematically colonized our minds and our lives, and it is our solemn responsibility to work hard at a spiritually grounded process of decolonization and healing. Such was the focus of Tecumseh's life: Never submit, never give in, never surrender your spirit to those who would capture it and hold you against your will under a system of domination.
The following words are attributed to Tecumseh (though he would have said them in Shawnee). I have no way of knowing if they are actually his words, but I like to think so because the principles are direct, simple, and profound:
"Live your life that the fear of death may never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long, and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song, for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones into fools and robs the spirit of its vision."
In honor of Tecumseh I propose that we join together as Native nations and peoples by directly challenging and calling for an end to the twin doctrines of Christian discovery and plenary power in federal Indian law. If, for the next 10 years, we work tirelessly as Tecumseh did, who knows what we might accomplish as we combine the fire of our spirituality and the political force of our ideas, and then direct that energy toward our liberation as nations and peoples.
Clearly, we cannot allow the Supreme Court to continue to slowly but surely make it appear, through ruling after ruling, that our rights and our political identity as nations are being gradually amputated bit-by-bit on the basis of the doctrines of discovery and plenary power. The U.S. courts have been very clear: The justice (right or wrong) of those doctrines is a political matter that will not to be dealt with by the courts. This means that the U.S. courts will refuse to address the question of whether those doctrines are right or wrong, but will not hesitate to continue using those doctrines as weapons against our nations and peoples.
One thing needed for success in the political realm is the acumen to develop and put forth powerful arguments. Tecumseh's thinking and speaking skills made him a formidable force that the United States had to deal with. Not only did he have a powerful and sweeping vision, he had the gift of articulating it in a way that electrified and inspired people. Over the next decade we ought to develop and put forth, systematically and strategically, the most powerful arguments against the doctrine of discovery and the plenary power doctrine. We ought to do this while imagining and expressing what we can achieve at the end of a decade of cultural, spiritual, economic, and political resurgence.
Tecumseh said that although he would certainly die, his vision of unifying the Indian nations would not. He believed that his vision would live on and rise again in a future generation. Perhaps we are that generation. If we are willing to accept the idea that we are, then let us have the courage and the strength to accept responsibility for moving forward together, in a courageous and proactive manner, for the unified and peaceful liberation of our respective nations and peoples.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Law research coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan, on the Reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.