A Portrait of Chief Tecumseh in All His Complexity


PANTHER IN THE SKY by James Alexander Thom, New York: Ballatine Books, 655 pp., $19.95


by Bil Gilbert, New York: Atheneum, 341 pp., $22.50

THE great Indian chiefs of the American past have often become one-dimensional figures in the popular mind: Sitting Bull crushing Custer, Geronimo eluding the cavalry.

Through these two books - a novel and a history - perhaps the most compelling native American figure of all, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, takes on many dimensions: visionary leader, shrewd politician and orator, military genius. Not least, he is understood as a sometimes agonized human being pulled between profound mystical insights and doubts about their full realization on this side of ``the cycle of time.''

But those insights, those intimations of destiny, shaped Tecumseh's life nonetheless. According to Shawnee tradition, extraordinary signs attended Tecumseh's birth. A brilliant green meteor flashed across the heavens on that night - providing his name, which roughly translates ``eye of the panther.''

James Alexander Thom intricately develops the theme of Tecumseh's preordained greatness, tracing his growth from infant son of a noted Shawnee war chief to adult bent on uniting all red men against the American ``long knifes'' ceaselessly encroaching from the East.

Blending imagination and a familiarity with Shawnee traditions and contemporary accounts, Thom re-creates crucial waymarks in Tecumseh's life - the mid-winter plunges into an ice-clogged river as a right of passage, the ``vision quest'' of his adolescence, his first battle when he turned and ran, his abhorrence of the torture of captives (an all-too-common practice of both reds and whites).

The novelist delves into the thoughts, feelings, and ambitions of Tecumseh, of Tecumseh's enigmatic brother, known as the Shawnee Prophet, and of William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh's chief antagonist. This is omniscient narration with a vengeance, and it works for the most part, perhaps because the author so deeply cares about his subject.

Tecumseh was seen, by people of both races, as a man of heroic character, true to the principles of his people and quick to defend them. In battle, he dispatched white men who pushed into his Ohio River Valley homeland. But he was fierce, too, with red men who buckled under pressure and signed away their heritage.

``I signed no treaty, and by the laws of our People I am not bound by what you promised the white faces,'' Thom has Tecumseh tell a group of older chiefs. ``The land the way still live in my heart.... I will never grow so old and tired that I will lean back and say, `White man, it is yours.' Never!''

And he never did. Tecumseh died in battle in 1813, after assembling the largest red army ever fielded in North America, 2,000 warriors. They joined the British, once again, in an effort to hold back the American tide.

That inexorable flow of Americans westward could not, however, be stopped. This was Tecumseh's tragedy: his dream of a united red nation in the continent's heart was an effort to intercept history. Yet the Shawnee's dream was powerful enough to prolong, for many years, what historian Bil Gilbert calls the ``first American civil war.'' For nearly 50 years, from the 1760s into the 19th century, Indians and whites fought for control of the old ``Northwest,'' now the Midwest.

Gilbert explains the hopelessness of the Indian cause. When Tecumseh was at peak strength, the Indians of the Northwest numbered about 100,000, comprising diverse tribal groups. The Americans in the former British colonies were 7 million strong. Already, nearly 1 million had crossed the Appalachians into Indian lands.

The whites flooded into regions essential to the red man's way of life, such as the sacred Shawnee hunting grounds of Kentucky. Conflict was nearly incessant. Hatred, fed by racial animosity, led to terrible atrocities. In 1782, for instance, white vigilantes brutally murdered 100 Delaware Indians who had converted to Christianity. This slaughter of the ``Jesus Indians'' was an incident that Tecumseh recalled frequently as he exhorted wavering tribes to recognize that the whites ``do not think the red man sufficiently good to live.''

Often the Indians' superior skill as woodsmen and warriors triumphed. The defeat of the American army Arthur St. Clair led into the Ohio Valley in 1791 was the worst ever suffered by a US force - over 600 ``blue coats'' killed to 21 Indians.

But even Tecumseh's partial success in molding a grand alliance of tribes in the Northwest, South, and West was only a delaying tactic. That, of course, says nothing about the justice of the Shawnee's cause. Deception permeated the Americans' method of stripping the Indians of their lands. As Tecumseh perceived, treaties were only tools for placating the tribes until the next wave of settlers needed more space. Trade arrangements made the Indians chattel to the white man's goods, particularly his liquor.

Maybe Tecumseh would be gratified that a later generation of Americans largely acknowledges the immorality of those earlier ways and has, in a few instances, even tried to make amends. More likely, he'd be appalled that the process he saw beginning in his day - the overwhelming of the native culture and the closeness to nature inherent in it - has triumphed to a degree that not even his lively insight could have anticipated.

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